“The facts are there, the arguments are solid, and with enough research, we think it’s absolutely clear that this could be a good choice for our university.” – Maya McDonnell ’16
Unless you live under a rock, which, given the advent of chilly New England weather, better be heated, you’ve likely seen groups of concerned students hang hand-drawn banners from almost every high up place in Usdan.
Although they vary in shape, size, and semi-hieroglyphic language, these banners have the same message: Wesleyan needs to step up to the plate and divest from fossil fuels.
Divestment movements are nothing new at Wesleyan. Among the most notable campaigns were the calls to divest from South African companies in the midst of apartheid during the 1970s and 80s. (Our courageous leader, Michael Roth ’78, occupied former President Campbell’s office in support of the South African divestment movement in 1979.) More recently, Students for Ending the War in Iraq (SEWI) demanded divestment from defense companies in light of then-current Iraq War in 2007.
Wes, Divest! started as a rag-tag group of concerned students late last February as divestment movements nationwide began to pick up steam. Co-founder Angus McLean ’16 was surprised that Wesleyan, “the school you would expect to be at the forefront of this movement,” didn’t already have a group devoted to fossil fuel divestment.
McLean mentions that their initial goals included a “direct freeze on new investments and divestment within five years from… funds that include fossil-fuel public equities and corporate bonds.” The group stands by these goals and plans to continue to “work with the administration to figure out the best way for Wesleyan to divest.”
With the arrival of a new school year, the group took on a more concerted effort, setting up a social media campaign and assembling those infamous banners. Bolstered by passionate freshmen, who make up over 60% of the group, and the creation of Fossil Free, a website that links nationwide divestment movements together, Wes, Divest! has gained great momentum on campus.
Also motivating them to redouble their efforts was the enthusiasm from other divestment movements at peer institutions such as Yale and Tulane. Most recently, the administrations at Naropa University and San Francisco State University committed to cease all investment in fossil fuels. Sonia Max ’17 affirms that “as the movement grows, we can build off of what our peer institutions are doing, they can build off of us, and we can see real change happen.”
In hopes of gaining support and electrifying the divestment movement both at Wesleyan and at peer institutions, Wes, Divest! prepared a resolution for the Wesleyan Student Assembly in late September. After several versions and three weeks’ worth of deliberation, the WSA passed the final version of the resolution on October 27th. The group hopes that the WSA’s support will help reinforce the validity of their argument and give the Board of Trustees serious food for thought.
Although SEWI ‘s 2007 divestment resolution failed to wrangle support after being presented to the Board of Trustees, Wes, Divest! is hopeful that their resolution will be received more favorably.
Partly in response to the resolution, the Board of Trustees has invited members of the WSA and the CIR (Committee for Investor Responsibility) to a meeting about divestment from fossil fuels. Maya McDonnell ’16 says this is a “major opportunity for us to generate dialogue about the issue and hopefully get some renewed commitment to the environment.”
There have already been several promises made by the university regarding the environment. In response to concerns presented by the Environmental Organizers’ Network, SAGES (Sustainability Advisory Group and Environmental Stewardship) was created in 2006 to, as Amanda Schwartz ’12 reported in the Argus, “work towards a Greater Campus Climate Plan to reduce carbon emissions.”
The creation of SAGES was later followed by President Roth‘s signing of the Presidents’ Climate Commitment in 2007. The commitment puts Wesleyan on track to be carbon-neutral by 2050. According to the most recent report from the Office of Sustainability, with which SAGES works in conjunction, Wesleyan has exceeded its carbon-reduction goals every year since 2007. These reductions are attributed to “natural gas cogeneration and energy efficiency projects.”
Wes, Divest! member Abby Cunniff ’17 raises two concerns about the commitment. While its goals are admirable, she states soundly that “2050 is too late,” citing this study by the Intergovernmental Policy on Climate Change. She adds that although Wes has been able to reduce its carbon emissions by switching to natural gas, the change comes at the cost of promoting further exploitation of land and the devotion of vital resources to its extraction, including the infamous hydraulic fracturing (which you probably know as ‘fracking‘).
Although somewhat idealistic in nature, the group acknowledges that it is probably unlikely that Wes will be able to fully divest from fossil fuels within the next four years. Nevertheless, the group generally voices optimism regarding the success of their movement heading forward. McLean states, “it’s reasonable to predict that when I return for my five year reunion, [divestment] will be finished and Wes will be truly fossil free.”
Zac Kramer ’17, the foremost pragmatist within the group, holds a different view, stating that no one knows when divestment will be achievable “because of the lack of transparency in the endowment,” which raises another large issue. McDonnell echoes Kramer’s statement by quoting the new Chief Diversity Officer Antonio Farias: “Transparency breeds self-correcting behavior.”
Obviously, divestment from fossil fuels and transparency in our endowment is a lot to ask. In the short term, Wes, Divest’s goals include receiving an official response from the Board of Trustees regarding the WSA’s resolution and the group’s actions on campus as well as gaining more support from the Wesleyan community.
Group co-founder Pierre Gerard ’15 states that “a lack of information about divestment and its real affect on the endowment” is holding back wider support of the movement by the Wesleyan community. The group hopes to build its base in the future by directly appealing to professors and administrators with “sound research, petition support, and possibly a risk assessment by a third party firm.”
Other tactics for raising support on campus include their online petition, which has accrued over 360 signatures at the time of publication, and a photo campaign based on Wes’ infamous This is Why fundraising scheme.
On a personal note, when I began writing this piece, I was ambivalent towards the divestment movement on campus, believing that while it was an important endeavor, the damage it could trigger to our already unstable endowment greatly outweighed its benefits.
As I began to research the divestment movement both at Wesleyan and at other schools nationwide, I began to see the impact that Wesleyan’s divestment from fossil fuels could have. As Sonia Max ’17 puts simply: “if we want to talk about changing our current environmental behaviors in a large-scale, high impact manner, we want to talk about divesting from fossil fuels.”
Sure, the divestment of one liberal arts college of 3,000 students isn’t going to shift the balance of power away from the oil and gas companies and stop climate change overnight, but the very significance of this change is something we need to recognize. We have the opportunity to galvanize a nationwide movement with the potential to take serious action against climate change.
Indeed, if divestment from fossil fuels is possible– and it certainly is possible– Wesleyan owes it not only to its student body and its alumni, but to future generations to again be the impetus of a momentous change in policy.