Why Divestment is the Right Cause For College Students

Many of the opponents of fossil fuel divestment on college campuses, including here at Middlebury, like to attempt to counter arguments in favor of action by claiming that the whole process is a waste of time. I have to admit that I originally fell into this camp. A year ago, it seemed like the latest quixotic cause du jour: something that would inflame the activist crowd for a few weeks and then fade away.

It didn’t, and it shouldn’t.

To be fair, a lot of the arguments initially made by divestment supporters played right into this case. They’d say that divestment would affect the share price of oil companies or cause their CEOs to take climate change seriously. Or they’d argue that divestment will somehow lead to a renewed interest in cap-and-trade in Congress. Unfortunately, neither of these arguments make much sense. So opponents would point out the lack of a connection and use that to claim that the whole issue was a waste of time. They’d suggest that we leave our investments to the ‘professionals,’ and focus on those actual issues.

But the truth is, the fossil fuel divestment is an effective use of the time and passions of collegiate climate activists, partly because of a lack of better options. What issue should we fight for, if not this one? Raising climate change awareness? It’s 2013. We are aware. You are aware. Even Steve King is aware; he just chooses to ignore reality. Replacing light bulbs and appliances with more efficient versions? Schools like Middlebury and Hobart and William Smith have already taken a lead on this. They’ve created positions for sustainability directors to oversee these efforts. Getting to carbon neutrality? Again, forward-thinking liberal arts colleges have already made carbon neutrality goals and plans, and getting there is now a technical challenge rather than a matter for continued lobbying of the Administration and Trustees. 

College students are not, prior to graduation, able to write and pass a new carbon control bill, or participate in the writing of the legislation that could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a task for the workforce. And while it’s important to elect environmentally-friendly legislators, the election cycle – thankfully – is not quite permanent. So that just leaves becoming educated for a career in one of the fields I’ve mentioned, and advocating for divestment.

Fossil fuel divestment does a number of interesting things. It gets college students – like myself – who might otherwise go through life without thinking about how investments are chosen to think about the system of wealth management that the modern world has developed. Until recently, we’ve been content to place our money in a moral black hole, where we care only about how much money comes back every year regardless of our opinions and knowledge of the operations of the companies we profit from.

Where else would we be content to hand our money over to a guy who promises the highest returns as long as we don’t ask too many questions? To quote President Obama (wildly out of context), in any other scenario “you wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal.”

Fossil fuel divestment also keeps college students – including those who might be interested in finance but not in climate politics – engaged with the broader environmental movement as it progresses, expands, and moves between causes. It keeps the conversation going without letting it become stale.

So it’s important not to fall for the argument that this whole campaign has been a waste of time. It hasn’t wasted my time, your time, Bill McKibben’s time, or the time of college presidents. It’s a worthy cause. And the next time somebody counters support for divestment with the argument that it’s a poor use of time, ask first what would be a better use of time, and then point out that it’d use less time if we could stop arguing about whether it should happen, and start planning the specifics of how it will happen.

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