Divestment’s missed opportunity

Last Sunday’s Spring Plenary saw two resolutions aimed at promoting social justice. One of these focused on “transforming the social dynamics” of Haverford’s own student body. The other aimed to promote fair labor practices abroad, a cause whose intended beneficiaries generally live thousands of miles from campus. Conspicuously absent was a resolution that would have sparked discussion about a problem that will eventually confront both first-world Fords and the developing world.

That problem is climate change, and the missing resolution a statement of support for Divest Haverford and their demand that the Board of Managers ensure that the College’s endowment portfolio is virtually free of holdings in oil, gas, and coal companies within the next five years.

At a “teach-in” held in the DC sunken lounge in late January, the students behind the divestment campaign painted a portrait of the dire environmental upheaval in the decades to come if we fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They argued that global warming, like racial discrimination and the exploitation of workers in developing countries, is an important social justice issue that ought to be brought within the ambit of Haverford’s ethical concerns.

On the whole, the presentation was a compelling case for using divestment as a way of avoiding complicity with myopic and unsustainable industrial practices. Some important questions were left unanswered, however; there was no clear sense of how much a divestment policy might cost the College, and the speakers were vague on whether they believed that the strategy is actually an effective way to reduce the fossil fuel industry’s profits.

While some independent research suggests that divestment would add a negligible amount of risk to an endowment portfolio, it would not have a direct effect on any company’s revenue stream. Journalist Christian Parenti, a contributing editor at The Nation, writes in an editorial for The Huffington Post that while he is sympathetic to the need to take action on global warming, “stock markets are not where the ‘bottom line’ is produced,” and that the focus of climate activists should be on bringing about change in macro-level policies.

That said, widespread divestment could create a “PR nightmare” for the fossil fuel industry, as Green Bowdoin Alliance representative Bridget McCoy told Bowdoin’s student newspaper. Haverford could readily combine divestment with more concrete actions, like a commitment to increasing the share of the College’s power obtained from renewable sources.

Divest Haverford has put a great deal of effort into keeping people engaged and updated about developments in their campaign. Or rather, about developments in similar campaigns elsewhere. A Facebook post from February 13 congratulates the University of North Carolina for passing a student government referendum on coal divestment. Recent tweets offer similar praise for the Pitzer College Student Senate’s passage of a fossil fuel measure, and for the work of climate activists at Harvard.

Conveying a sense of the movement’s scale and its progress on campuses across America is obviously vital to demonstrating the divestment strategy’s viability. Nevertheless, it is ironic to see Divest HC celebrating the passage of student government resolutions at other schools while passing up an opportunity to do the same at Haverford. As mentioned at the January teach-in, Spring Plenary coincided with a rally in Washington against the Keystone XL Pipeline, which many Divest Haverford members attended. While the group was protesting in DC, why not appoint someone to stay behind and help the campaign multitask?

None of this is to suggest that the students involved have not been working assiduously behind the scenes to lobby the Board of Managers and to collect signatures on petitions, or that the divestment campaign is doomed without a Plenary resolution backing it up. Yet regardless of how often such resolutions are able to accomplish their objectives, they remain the best tool that the student body has at its disposal for forcing the administration to take a public position on an issue.

Those agitating for financial aid to be extended to undocumented applicants can point to a passed resolution that has been collecting dust for a year and ask why nothing has yet been done. Those who wish there were a Blue Bus stop at the apartments may still be disappointed, but it was action at Plenary that convinced the administration to hold several days of test runs and to offer up actual reasons – however thin – for not making them permanent.

Divestment is a worthy proposal that can be implemented smoothly given further research and a clear plan. It is far from a panacea, but it is an important step that should be taken in concert with other, more tangible initiatives to reduce Haverford’s carbon footprint. Divest Haverford clearly believes that its approach is needed to both preserve Haverford’s moral credibility and to help take the national conversation about climate change to the next level. Regrettably, we still don’t know how much of the student body agrees.

ABOVE: Kathryn Dorn ’14 holds a sign at the February 17 Spring Plenary. Photo by Ian Gavigan ’14.

4 Responses

  1. Samantha Shain says:

    All good points and worth discussing!  We made the conscious decision to not pass a plenary resolution for a few reasons– one of which being that a plenary resolution serves as a recommendation to the president, and we wanted to save that tactic for when we have a president who isn’t interim.  Also, we’re still waiting for members of the Haverford endowment team to give us more clear numbers about the cost to the institution.  Knowing that we didn’t have complete information, we thought it was better to wait for the next Plenary cycle.   We’re looking forward to more community discussions– certainly, there’s plenty more to say!

  2. Ian Oxenham says:

    To elaborate on Sam’s points:

    The fact that Fall Plenary will be the first one in which resolutions will be addressed to the new President Dan Wiess while Spring Plenary resolutions would go to the departing Joanne Creighton was, as Sam indicated, a major reason behind the decision to not have a Plenary Resolution this semester.  Both strategically and symbolically, we felt it made more sense to “greet” the new President with a resolution on divestment at his first Plenary rather than be something that happened during the previous administration.

    Also. like Sam said, we lacked the information necessary to give a full response to the “what exactly will this cost” us question; which from the responses we got while collecting petition signatures was a major question people had.   In my view, Plenary is a place where  the pro and cons of any proposal should be throughout debated, ideally on the basis of facts.  Logistically, we knew we could not get the answer to the question in time for Spring Plenary, so we thought it best not to waste everyone’s time with an unproductive and uninformed debate based on at best partial information that might lead us to greatly exaggerate the potential costs.

    Also, oddly enough, the Aperio Group report your  “independent research suggests that divestment would add a negligible amount of risk to an endowment portfolio” statement  is referencing is something we ourselves not only found (after we had the teach-in), but presented to the members of the Board of Managers that met with us on February 8th.  There still however, the outstanding issue of a potential difference in the endowment’s operating fees between the current investment strategy and having a screened portfolio which is still under investigation.

  3. Aaron Madow says:

    While I admire Divest Haverford’s activism, there are many ways other than by our investment that we can protect our “moral integrity” and Quaker “values” when it comes to climate change. More than half of climate change can be attributed to the livestock and slaughterhouse industries. The fact that the Dining Center makes slaughterhouse animal flesh available at every meal is certainly an ethical concern from the perspective of how we treat our fellow inhabitants of this Earth; whether you believe structural violence and oppression against animals is an ethical concern or not, meat-eating is not morally defensible on environmental grounds given that more than half of our greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to the manufacturing of animals and their by-products.

    So it’s all good and sound to lobby the Haverford powers-that-be to stop sending our endowment to corporations that care little for all living beings affected by their technologically enhanced havoc, but let’s not pretend that divestment is the end-all-be-all of environmental, or any, morality. Every time you eat, you face an ethical decision whether you realize it or not. You are deciding whether you are comfortable with other human beings and machines slaughtering other living beings for you, and you are deciding whether you approve of the enormous environmental impact caused to sustain the pleasure you take in incorporating another being’s flesh into your own. So if we care so much about environmental impact, I think we need to have a conversation about our collective meat-eating practices on campus.  Is it really necessary to serve meat at every meal?

    Climate Change and Livestock:
    http://51percent.org/
    http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf

    Meet Your Meat:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32IDVdgmzKA
     

    • Ian Oxenham says:

      Funny you should mention that, since a lot of us are actually vegetarians partly for those reasons (myself included) and moreover, many of us are also involved with the Beet Goes On Co-op and the Real Food Challenge, the latter of which aims to substantially increase the portion of ethically and sustainably produced food in the DC, and is also part of another ongoing national campaign.  If you would like to get involved with that, I suggest e-mailing Sam Shain.

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