Fossil fuel industry, look out: Campus Sustainability + Occupy = Divestment

by Blair Halcyon, Swarthmore College

SWARTHMORE, PA -- On campuses across the country, students are writing a new chapter in the youth environmental justice movement. The last five years of student organizing have won huge victories. “Sustainability” is on the tip of every college administrator’s tongue, and 674 institutions have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment to long-term carbon neutrality. Colleges have taken real leadership in the fight for climate justice.

If one thing is clear, though, it’s that we haven’t won yet. The United States and other countries continue to block any international progress on confronting climate change. Mountaintop removal coal mining still devastates communities in Appalachia. A misguided push toward fracking is causing deadly water contamination here in Pennsylvania and across America. And, while we had a big victory on the Keystone XL pipeline, tar sands oil extraction continues to threaten the health of First Nations peoples and menace the global climate.

This is why a new wave of students is bringing new urgency to the movement. We’re following in the footsteps of our predecessors who fought for carbon neutrality, and bringing an Occupy-inspired awareness that money at the heart of our social and environmental ills. American universities collectively invest over 350 billion dollars. Believe it or not, a lot of that money goes to propping up the dirty, dangerous and outdated fossil fuel industry. Here at Swarthmore, a group of students came together because we just couldn't sit around and watch this happen. We couldn't stay silent while our school pours money into companies that are making people sick and destroying the planet. Along with students at UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Illinois, and several other schools, we are demanding that our schools divest our money from the fossil fuel industry.

This divestment campaign will be an uphill battle, so entwined are our endowments with fossil fuels. Despite their commitments to sustainability and social justice, Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp and other administrators have learned to think of the college’s investments as entirely unrelated to the values of the institution. They work within a bureaucracy that is structurally resistant to change. And the dominant, outdated and flawed logic of investment finance tells them that any restriction on the college’s investments will result in diminished returns. All of these factors cause them to ignore the contradiction between values and investment practices, or deny they exist.

Fortunately, our position as students, as young people, and as idealists allows us to see the obvious contradiction. Swarthmore’s relationship to its ideals is a tangle of moral knots that needs untying. We refuse to be bogged down by the cynical belief that change is not possible, or the heartless belief that it is not necessary. We negotiate, we organize, we antagonize, we educate, we delve into the tangle because we know we can chart a new course forward for Swarthmore, just as the nationwide fossil fuel divestment movement seeks to chart a new course for our whole society.

We are not willing to settle for a college that exists in moral purgatory. It is not enough to reduce on-campus energy consumption—colleges must prevent their dollars from subsidizing filthy energy companies elsewhere. We need our colleges to confront the contradiction between their investments and their values. Frontline communities—those most impacted by extraction and climate change—demand it. Our personal and institutional commitments to struggle against injustice require it. Lives are at stake every day. Through divestment, colleges can unequivocally proclaim that they stand for sustainability, justice, and human decency.


Blair is a student organizer at Swarthmore College. Get in touch with them at swarthmoreMJ@gmail.com. Learn more about Swarthmore’s divestment campaign at swatmountainjustice.wordpress.com.

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