In an otherwise stagnant national and international discourse on climate change, there has been a groundswell of grassroots student action to push the conversation in new directions. Last Tuesday, Fossil Free Mac (one of over 300 similar student coalitions across the country) proposed a resolution to our student government that calls upon Macalester College and the Social Responsibility Committee “to initiate a process to explore socially and fiscally responsible divestment from the fossil fuel industry.” After a series of actions over the past week, including “Fossil Fools’ Day” on Monday to raise campus awareness about the movement, and obtaining our 962nd signature on a petition with similar language, MCSG passed this resolution in a decisive 20-2 vote.
President Brian Rosenberg’s recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “For College Endowments, Ethical Stands Can be Complicated,” laid out a reasonable rubric that educational institutions must consider before taking a stance on a moral issue like climate change. Members of Fossil Free Mac agree with the main themes of the article—that the “central function of colleges is to educate,” and that colleges thus must be cautious when considering a prospect like divestment.
When we ask Macalester to initiate a process for divestment, we are asking for consideration of all the variables described in Rosenberg’s article. The logistical difficulty and financial costs of the action, and its potential for limiting debate and personal agency are concerns we absolutely must consider, but it is time for us to start a conversation about what divestment would mean for our college. Rosenberg reflected this sentiment best in a recent Huffington Post article about gun control: “Inaction is a form of action and silence is a form of tacit acceptance.”
In the Chronicle, Rosenberg’s two initial concerns are common arguments that regard divestment with justified caution—the action we take to divest will be difficult and may lower financial returns. However, he acknowledges there are “crimes so egregious [they] deserve resistance and protest in all available arenas”: arguments based purely off finances and logistics are not grounds for dismissal. This is certainly the case for our campaign—we are fighting an industry that makes a profit from extracting carbon from the earth by any means necessary, and burning it regardless of its detriment to public health, biodiversity, the infrastructure of our cities and the entire atmosphere. Indeed, arguments that divestment is “too hard” or might cost some money are not convincing considering the difficulties we will face if the industry is allowed to continue business as usual.
Rosenberg also notes “each time a college declares that there is a right answer to disputed questions, it runs the risk of limiting the freedom of debate and inquiry” and “the potential for certain forms of institutional activism make personal activism less meaningful and too easy.” Yet the magnitude of climate change requires us to act on both personal and institutional levels. Macalester has encouraged individual action through student organizations and the Sustainability Office, which provide students with the resources they need to pursue independent projects. We have also begun to take action at an institutional level: under President Rosenberg, we have committed to Zero Waste by 2020, Carbon Neutrality by 2025, and signed the Real Food Campus Commitment. Rosenberg has personally prioritized this crisis through his role in the Leadership Circle of the American College & University President’s Climate Commitment. When Macalester takes a stance as a college, it does not quash personal agency—rather, institutional and personal actions are mutually reinforcing, and both are essential in the fight against climate change.
We recognize that there is no single path to a just and sustainable future. However, we agree with our President when he said (in his piece following the Sandy Hook shootings) “to withhold money is to speak a language they will understand.” Divestment from the fossil fuel industry sends a strong message: we will not support an industry that profits from the destruction of the earth’s atmosphere and ecosystems. To benefit from these investments is to surrender to the current practices of the industry. The students and our representatives in MCSG have spoken—we must initiate a process to explore fiscally and socially responsible divestment from fossil fuels. If the administration is serious about their commitment to a just, sustainable future, it is time for them to act. This cause meets Macalester’s high standards for institutional action, and is an opportunity to take a place at the forefront of the climate movement.