This op-ed was cross-posted in the Daily Gazette today.
As much of the campus knows, Mountain Justice is working to end Swarthmore’s dirty financial ties with the destructive fossil fuel industry. Through its financial investments, Swarthmore is supporting some of the most destructive extraction companies in the world. For the next two weeks we will be at Sharples circulating a petition calling on Rebecca Chopp to start moving the College toward the process of divestment. We want to show her that students are willing to take a stand against dirty energy companies that are poisoning communities and contributing to global climate change. As we ask for support with the petition, we wanted to address some questions and concerns we’ve heard from students so far in the campaign.
Why doesn’t Mountain Justice propose a shareholder resolution?
Shareholder resolutions are useful in cases where a company can reform its practices, principles, or procedures, but are virtually impossible when the reform undermines the economic purpose of the company in question. In other words, shareholder resolutions can pressure a fossil fuel company to “clean up its act,” but they still allow the company to continue to extract and use fossil fuels. Companies can, and frequently do, throw out shareholder resolutions that are “related to the company’s ordinary business operations.”
Why is divestment the best solution?
As mentioned above, dirty energy is dirty energy, no matter how “cleanly” extracted, and is not sustainable. By withdrawing both ideological and financial support from these companies through divestment, we are sending a clear message that we will not be complicit in irresponsible extractive practices OR the continuation of a destructive dependency on fossil fuels.
In 1986, Swarthmore College ended its complicity in an unjust system by divesting from companies supporting South African apartheid. This nation-wide campaign was hugely successful in working toward the end of the South African apartheid. It is now time for the College to respond to an analogous system of injustice.
Won’t divestment negatively affect the endowment?
Many studies have dispelled the myth that securing a financial bottom line necessitates throwing social and environmental responsibilities out the window. According to Mercer, a vast majority of studies on socially responsible investments show environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) factors can have a positive impact on portfolio returns.
We understand that this transformation will entail necessary public discussions about the College’s financial transparency and investment strategy, and we want to affirm our own commitment to a healthy endowment and maintenance of Swarthmore’s financial aid. We are ready and willing to do everything necessary to see this process to its completion.
Will this really make a difference?
It’s true, a single campus divestment campaign is not enough. This is why we are working with a national coalition of students from universities around the country who are all pushing for fossil fuel divestment. A single voice is rarely enough to change stayed and corrupt practices, but a concert of voices from institutions of higher learning around the country can make a huge impact, as we have seen with the campaign to divest from South African apartheid. Swarthmore has an amazing opportunity to redefine the role of higher educational institutions and set a bold precedent in the fight for climate justice and the common good.
Why so urgent?
There are people fighting the dirty extraction practices poisoning their communities every day. We couldn’t stay silent and allow Swarthmore to champion struggles for social justice while pouring money into the same companies that are destroying communities all over the country.
We have done a lot of thinking about how we, as Swarthmore students, can best support communities on these front lines of climate change and fossil fuel extraction. While we are not often on those front lines, we can stand in solidarity with those communities and use the power we have. We are members of an institution that controls huge amounts of money. When Swarthmore makes choices to invest in certain industries, it is actively allowing those industries to continue those practices – something that we, as students, can guide to a more just purpose.
By signing our divestment petition, you are showing your support for Rebecca Chopp to move forward with discussions about how to create a truly responsible endowment. We understand that this is a very complicated process. However, we don’t accept its complexity as an excuse for inaction. On the contrary, we look forward to the challenge!