Today, a federal judge overturned the EPA’s veto of the Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County, West Virginia. The Spruce mine, which would be the largest MTR site in West Virginia, is owned by Arch Coal, one of the 16 companies on Swarthmore MJ’s divestment list.
March 19, 2012
by Rachel Giovanniello
Over spring break this year, six members of Mountain Justice drove down to Appalachia, Virginia, to participate in Mountain Justice Spring Break 2012. We met with frontline activists, community organizers, and students on college campuses in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Michigan, and elsewhere.
The time I spent in workshops, actions, and talking with other organizers was a powerful reminder of how environmental issues in Appalachia (like issues of environmental justice throughout the United States and the world) are inextricably tied to issues of race and class, of access to land and ownership over that land.
Although I’ve been heavily involved in MJ for about a year and a half now, I had never been down to Appalachia or seen an MTR site firsthand. I‘ve seen a lot of pictures, but none of them conveyed the spectacular emptiness of the space where a mountain used to be, the way the landscape looks dead even after restoration has occurred and new grass has been sprayed on. It wasn’t only the geography, though, that hit us so hard. Mountaintop removal is destroying mountains in Appalachia, but it’s also destroying people’s lives, communities and culture. We traveled to the MTR site with a local activist who explained to us how he became involved in organizing with the national Mountain Justice movement about 7 years ago. In 2004, 3 year-old Jeremy Davidson was crushed to death by a boulder that fell from an MTR site after the road was widened to make room for larger coal trucks. The town of Inman came together almost immediately afterward, marching in protest through town and beginning to organize against MTR and strip mining more generally.
I wanted to use this place to retell the story we heard while in Appalachia because it’s not a story that often gets a lot of press coverage. Mountaintop removal remains an issue that’s rarely spoken of outside of Appalachia. Of course the organizing is coming from Appalachia; the communities that have been most affected are the ones who have done some of the most amazing work organizing to put an end to MTR. But having spent time in Appalachia I felt a distinct sense of responsibility to the communities I met and organized with.
As Mountain Justice, we’ve thought a lot about (and continue to wrestle with) how to position ourselves in a way that supports the work that folks in Appalachia have been doing and continue to do, and how we could use the power and privilege we have as Swat students in a way that was useful and respectful. This is the logic of our divestment campaign – as Swatties, we are part of an institution with a great deal of economic power. When we continue to invest in destructive extractive industries, we actively allow those companies to continue destroying communities and the environment. Swarthmore is thus implicated in any violation of human rights Alpha commits (formerly Massey Energy, Alpha was implicated in Upper Big Branch mine in WV that killed 29 miners), in all the exploitation perpetuated by coal, natural gas, oil and hydro-fracking companies – for we have allowed them to continue to exist.
I am not from Appalachia, and though the time I spent there meant a lot to me, I’m now back at Swat, going to classes and eating in Sharples, hundreds of miles away from an MTR site. But the people I met matter, the community I visited and the community we formed together matter.
It meant a lot to all of us to spend 4 days in a community that knew it was in danger, that was organizing around an issue that has never been only “environmental”. Mountaintop removal is an issue of social justice, an issue that highlights already existing oppression, especially in terms of class. West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee are states where coal industries have been exploiting residents for as long as mining’s been around – MTR is simply their newest and best way to do it. But people are organizing, people are coming together to fight for the land rights they were stripped of years ago, to call on major banks to stop funding such a destructive process.
As Swat students, acting in solidarity with communities in Appalachia is the best way we’ve been able to come up with to support the people we’ve met and communities we’ve interacted with even while we’re far away.
Mountain Justice has been working on a fossil fuel divestment campaign for a year now. We’ve had numerous conversations with various students and student groups in an effort to assess the views of our peers regarding the issues we are confronting, and to get feedback on our methods. Last month, we decided it was time to gauge the opinions of the student body as a whole to get a better sense of the campus’s attitudes towards this issue. In order to do this, our group wrote a petition that any student could sign asking President Chopp to support divestment.
Going into the petition drive, we weren’t sure how to feel or what to expect. Was the support we had gotten from individuals representative of the student body? Would people feel comfortable
attaching their name to a statement written by a “green group”?
Collecting signatures on the first shift at the top of Sharples immediately removed our qualms. People were not just willing to sign; they expressed an excitement to support our cause in whatever way they could. Some people literally grabbed the pen from my hand; many people I’d never met before told me how great they think MJ’s campaign is. Over the course of just one hour, I was reminded again and again of why we do the work that we are doing: students at this school believe that Swarthmore needs to be held to the standards it sets out for itself, and in this case, that means DIVESTMENT.
We collected hundreds of signatures in a matter of days. We don’t have a final count yet, but we know that in less than two weeks, about half of the student body signed on. If we were uncertain of how widespread our support was at the beginning, there is no question now. The student body is concerned about Swarthmore’s investment policies and the school’s ongoing support for destructive, dangerous, and oppressive fossil fuel companies, and we want that policy to change. We don’t have 700 people at our weekly meetings, but we have their support as we go forward in this struggle. Now more than ever, it is clear that we need to bring President Chopp to our side as well in the fight against the extractive industries and towards a clean investment future.
By Dan Apfel @ HuffPost
In January, NACUBO, the National Association of College and University Business Officers and Commonfund, an investment manager for non-profits and pension funds, released their annual “Study of Endowments.” The results of the annual survey show endowment returns and answer many other questions about how colleges are investing their money. University and college administrators have been waiting to see how their peers have fared over the last year and what kinds of investment decisions they are making. As a community, higher education needs to stop watching the race to the top of the return tables. Instead, it’s time we focus on how endowments support the educational mission of schools and meet the needs of their community and society.
In most articles and discussions, the institutional returns take center stage. These tables, in articles likethis one, in Inside Higher Ed, focus on the returns on the investments of the top endowments in the country. This article, in aiCIO, a magazine for Chief Investment Officers, has the headline, “Institutions Boast Investment Returns Averaging 19.8 perecent in Fiscal Year.”
While there is a warning that the numbers are inclusive of donations and spending, these articles inevitably lead the reader to the following train of thought: Did you know that the University of Virginia’s endowment rose 28.4 percent, while Cornell University’s managers only returned 15.5 percent? What are those investment officers doing in Ithaca? Did they spend the whole summer sunning by the gorges rather than seeking out the best investments? And there clearly must be something wrong with schools like Harvard University, where the returns were only 15.1 percent. Have they been swimming by the banks of that River Charles, in that dirty water?
Apart from helping us determine how Chief Investment Officers at different schools spent their summers, these numbers do nothing to address how colleges are making those returns. Nor do these articles mention the fact that those numbers are a snapshot of a certain moment in time, rather than how a college’s endowment is truly performing for the school, not to mention the social and environmental impacts of their investment decisions.
You will also notice when you read many of the endowment articles that the way the school uses the endowment is rarely mentioned. Other important questions go unreported as well, though they may be answered in the study. How much are they spending from the endowment and what is it used for for? Are the expectations of higher returns leading to greater risk-taking?
We need more articles to analyze whether growing endowments yield better educational results or are smart for the institutions and society. This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, As Endowment Manager Turn to Private Equity, Questions Arise is a start in the right direction. It might not be easy, but it is important. While schools may use these numbers differently, from the outside, it often seems that the endowment returns competition is just a contest between growing empires.
Colleges are non-profit, tax-exempt, educational institutions that have an obligation to manage their social and environmental impacts. College endowments are simply not hedge funds where the only thing that matters is quarterly or annual returns. They are set up with a long-term purpose of supporting the colleges’ educational and research mission. In order to have a meaningful conversation, it is time we try and look at them that way.