Dispatch from Peabody Shareholder Meeting

This afternoon, a loose coalition of students, frontline community members, retirees of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), forgotten people from Black Mesa, the Powder River Basin Resource Council, and allies converged on the annual shareholder meeting of Peabody Energy in Gillette, Wyoming. Peabody bills itself as the "world's largest private-sector coal company," and we were there to confront them on their horrendous business practices.

Primarily I was there supporting the voices of the people most affected by Peabody: relocated off their ancestral land, cheated out of their pensions and healthcare, menaced by hungry strip mine expansion. But as a student at Washington University in St. Louis involved in the campus campaign for fossil fuel divestment, attending the meeting had a further, more personal significance.

Not only is Peabody headquartered in St. Louis, but in 2011, the company endowed a research institute at WashU, the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization. So, when Peabody advertises on its website that it is a global leader in "clean coal solutions," it can point to the work done by WashU faculty and students. This is despite the fact that the Consortium's primary focus, carbon capture and sequestration, will only be commercially viable after the window to prevent catastrophic climate change is long shut. It's flagrant greenwashing.

Even more disturbingly, Peabody's CEO, Greg Boyce, sits on my school's Board of Trustees. To put that in perspective, this guy who was asked to preside over the longterm integrity of an institution fundamentally about the future directs a company that plans on destabilizing the global climate system for money.

From the perspective of increased funding (and, worryingly, corporate direction) for engineering research, bravo. From the perspective of students trying to catalyze a shift in the University's myopic investment policy away from fossil fuel companies, tough luck.

These kinds of tight relationships between corporate funders and academia are nothing new, but they certainly provide another reason to divest: to stop directly validating companies and economic models bent on wrecking the planet's climate stability and endangering us all. Moreover, these relationships require us to expand our notion of divestment. As it's often a college's Board that must sign off on a change in endowment investment strategy, we must make sure we don't need to divest our schools of some trustees, first.

Many of the folks at the shareholder meeting in Gillette were there to confront the company directly about their concerns long swept under the rug. For me, it was also a step towards removing Greg Boyce from the Board of Trustees. That's one big reason why I followed Peabody to Wyoming: to build the case for why even among big businesses with generally poor environmental, labor, and social records, Peabody is a pariah that deserves no part in deciding anything having to do with my future. While he is a sitting member, there's virtually no chance of my school divesting. It's that simple.

We have our our work cut out for us.

This post is from Dan Cohn, a student activist and senior at Washington University in St. Louis, in partnership with the Responsible Endowments Coalition

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