Like divestment from apartheid, fossil fuel divestment will effect change

Contributing Writer

Last spring, I spent hours pouring over news clippings of student protests in the College Archives. In the 1980s, students called upon President Keohane and the Board of Trustees to divest from apartheid in South Africa. This fascinated me. Here I was, 30 years later, starting a new divestment campaign. Fossil Free Wellesley calls on Wellesley to divest from fossil fuel corporations. Last semester, we gathered over 850 student petitions, or the support of 35 percent of the student body, and met with President Bottomly. This fall, we will have the opportunity to discuss divestment with the Board of Trustees.

As dismantling institutions of racism was the defining challenge of their generation, preventing climate collapse is the defining challenge of ours. The evidence is irrefutable: the overwhelming majority of the scientific community agrees that climate change is caused by human fossil fuel combustion, and that a two degrees Celsius increase in temperature will produce irreversible climate change. With current emissions, we will surpass the two-degrees increase in 15 years. A timeline has been imposed on us by nature and revealed to us by science. Now we must find our moral compasses and navigate our choices in a principled way to avert this crisis.

Divestment from apartheid was an effective way to create a stigma and financial pressure on corporations that could not be swayed by moral arguments. Divestment from fossil fuels follows the same principle. Fossil fuel industries have proven to be indifferent to human and environmental destruction. These corporations fund climate change deniers and lobby Washington to prevent substantial climate legislation from being passed—all while continuing to profit off of their destruction. Although the apartheid divestment campaign helped dismantle one of the most racist policies of government, racism still thrives. People of color are disproportionately impacted by fossil fuel extraction. Race continues to determine where incinerators, power plants and toxic waste sites are built and which communities choke on coal dust. Fossil fuel corporations have demonstrated that they, like those that funded apartheid, will not be swayed by moral arguments.
While the “right choice” may seem obvious in hindsight, 30 years ago many were unconvinced that divestment from apartheid was the right thing to do. Trustees questioned the effectiveness of divestment and the financial risks of using an endowment to make a political statement.

We are hearing similar concerns today. One of the Trustees’ major concerns in 1986 was whether the role of the endowment was to act as a political instrument for supporting social justice. This was echoed by current Chief Investment Officer Deborah Kuenstner, who told the Wellesley News in Feb. 2013, “You have to think very carefully about what the purpose of the endowment is. Is it to express a social view, or is it to support the mission of the College, which also expresses a social view?”

While these questions are important and provocative, we must consider their underlying assumptions. As President Keohane pointed out in her Open Letter to the College Community in 1986, “It is not possible to be neutral in this situation; we have money invested in companies that do business in South Africa, and retaining our stock in such companies in the present climate is just as much a political stance as choosing to divest.” Like apartheid, climate change is already a politicized issue. Whether or not our endowment should be political is not the same as whether or not it is. We are at a crossroads and there is no neutral ground. This crisis has a science-based timeline that we cannot negotiate with, and the choices we make in the next 15 years will determine the quality of life for the next 100 years and beyond.

Remaining neutral only upholds the right of the fossil fuel industry to perpetuate human and environmental abuses. The situation in the 1980s called for decisive action then, and now we are again forced to take decisive action, this time on climate change. Those students upheld the values that Wellesley was founded on. As current students, we are trying to do the same.

In her recent convocation address, President Bottomly quoted our founder, Henry Durant: “All our plans are in outspoken opposition to the systems and the prejudices of the public. Therefore, we expect every one of you to be, in the noblest sense, reformers.” She asked us to consider the history of thoughtful activism at Wellesley and encouraged us to advocate our beliefs. We are now asking you to dig deep and to consider which values you hold dear.

Students are the backbone of the College. The archives show that as the Trustees deliberated divestment from South Africa, students organized teach-ins and planned actions. The outpour of student support for fossil fuel divestment last semester brought us into this Board of Trustees meeting, and now Fossil Free Wellesley needs your support more than ever.


  • Anonymous says:

    While I admire your passion for environmental protection and social justice, I would like to take some time to explain why divesting from South Africa and divesting from fossil fuel companies are not the same thing. When colleges around the country decided to divest from companies that operated in South Africa, their goal was to pressure the government to dismantle Apartheid. It is fair to assume that the deeper goal was to stop racism in South Africa. Of course, simply getting rid of Apartheid was not going to do that, but stopping blatant systematic racism was the necessary first step towards equality.

    The path divestment advocates wanted South Africa to take was a clear, straight path. The South African government would dismantle Apartheid, and therefore all South African citizens would have equal rights and equal opportunity. I would like to mention again that this does not mean racism dissipated, and that is a much different and more difficult issue to tackle. My point is that in the absence of Apartheid, it was only natural for the government to grant all South African people equal citizenship. The natural opposite of segregation is integration. Although integration does not automatically insure equality, it is the necessary first step towards equality.

    This same logic does not apply to the fossil fuel industry. Dismantling the fossil fuel industry is not the first step towards environmental protectionism and the rise of green energy. While South Africa was physically able to operate without Apartheid, our world is not physically able to operate without fossil fuels. Green energy is just too inefficient to power our world. Imagine that enough institutions stop investing in fossil fuel companies. Fossil fuel companies go bankrupt, and then… what? While the subsequent legislation after the fall of Apartheid naturally paved the way towards equality, the fall of the fossil fuel industry will not make green energy any more efficient. Our problem is not in our governments or in our world views. Our problem is scientific.

    Fossil Free Wellesley has said that their goal is not to actually dismantle fossil fuel industries, but to stigmatize them and hold them accountable for their actions. Fossil fuel companies do irreparable harm to our environment and to humanity. No one is arguing against that. The people working for these industries know this. But as of now, there is no better option. Asking for the end of Apartheid naturally meant asking for equal rights under the law. Advocating for divestment from fossil fuel companies does not stand towards a solution as South African divestment did. It only stands against a problem.

    I understand that Fossil Free Wellesley’s main statement is “it is wrong to fund our education through companies that harm the environment.” Fine. That is a different issue. But I ask you not to equate yourselves with South African divestment when what you stand for is so fundamentally different.

    • Sonja says:

      I was at U.C. Berkeley and in my late twenties when the effort to divest from South Africa got underway there. It was a messy, confusing and only sometimes exciting business. In retrospect, it was also only one of a broad range of efforts contributing to the end apartheid, and while it was a necessary and appropriate effort, this seems more obvious now than it did back then.

      I suspect the current efforts to divest from fossil field companies may be similar: they are only one of many necessary, mostly messy, confusing and not always exciting efforts that need to take place. The difference is that if we fail to address to climate change, accomplishments such as ending apartheid will seem hollow indeed.

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