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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.