Letter to the Editor: Divest the Rest
Issue   |   Tue, 10/06/2015 - 21:09

For three years the word “divestment” has been peppered throughout campus publications, plastered on the walls of Val and scrawled with chalk on the steps of Frost. But what does it really mean?

One could say the word arrived on campus in September 2012, when environmental activist Bill McKibben came to speak in Johnson Chapel. He argued that by investing in fossil fuel companies, Amherst College was an active participant in the climate crisis. The Green Amherst Project decided to ask the board of trustees to divest from coal, reasoning that divestment from one fossil fuel was more realistic than divestment from all of them. After all, Amherst didn’t even have any direct investments in coal companies, so all the board had to do was promise not to invest in them in the future.

Last February, the board released their answer on coal divestment — not a yes or a no, but a 1,200-word “Statement on Sustainability and Investment Policy” in which they argued that divestment from coal would be a hollow act with little financial impact on the industry. Flummoxed by this response, the Green Amherst Project spent the rest of the spring semester planning its response.

Which brings us to this year. Now its own group separate from the Green Amherst Project, Divest Amherst is asking the board to divest not just from the coal industry, but from the fossil fuel industry as a whole. By doing this, we align ourselves with the majority of college divestment movements around the nation, which have been asking for complete fossil fuel divestment all along, as well as with our own faculty and alumni, who have released statements in favor of complete divestment.

It might seem misguided to demand more of the board when they were so dismissive of our smaller request. But that’s precisely the point: The board asserted that divesting from the coal industry would be pointless, so we’re asking them for something more meaningful. Complete divestment would show the industry that Amherst will not support the environmentally destructive and morally reprehensible practices that the industry represents. If the industry fails to respond to the people whose lives — and planet — it is destroying, it will eventually collapse.

As first-years may know from their summer reading, Naomi Klein wrote in “This Changes Everything” that “Young people have a special moral authority in making this argument to their school administrators. These are the institutions entrusted to prepare them for the future; so it is the height of hypocrisy for those same institutions to profit from an industry that has declared war on the future at the most elemental level.”

We ask the board to recognize this hypocrisy and divest now.

Joe Wilson '64 (not verified) says:
Fri, 10/09/2015 - 23:20

Brian and Esther hit the nail on the head-twice: First, it is because of the "environmentally destructive and morally reprehensible practices that the [fossil fuel] industry represents" that Amherst should divest. Second, it is this generation of students who will live with the consequences of continuing to support the discovery, extraction, and burning of fossil fuels which gives you the "special moral authority" to call for divestment of all fossil fuel investments now.

Sam Caldwell '70 (not verified) says:
Fri, 10/09/2015 - 23:50

Amherst is deeply wrong about divesting from fossil fuels. Like the tobacco industry and cancer -causing cigarettes, Exxon Mobil has known about its own complicity in climate change for many decades and suppressed the information and its role. Unlike cigarettes, however, climate change is trending toward the extinction of human life on the planet. Knowing this and refusing to divest from fossil fuels is both cowardly and immoral to the extreme. Amherst is not alone. It is joined in its reprehensible conduct by many other elite colleges who should know better, but are probably cowed by bullying fat cat ideologues. For that reason, I am sending my contributions to the MuLti-School Fossil-Free Divestment Fund at www.divestfund.org until which time the college wakes up from its moral stupor and does the right thing.

Charles Stover (not verified) says:
Sat, 10/10/2015 - 11:40

Divesting from fossil fuel companies is an excellent way for the Trustees to show leadership by highlighting the urgent need for action on climate change. Putting aside the investment arguments, where there is a lot of disagreement on strategy, someone at the College needs to inform alumni and students whether climate change is or not an urgent, far-reaching problem that needs to be addressed broadly. The trustees' role is not solely financial management. At its broadest, it has responsibility to provide a expert point of view on critical issues to students and alumni. A poll of trustees to determine whether or not they view climate change as a critical, existential issues- and whether urgent action is necessary would settle this issue. If they trustees truly do not view climate change as dangerous and urgent, then so be it- let the alumni know. If they do, then what do they advise the alumni and students?

Rob Yamins '72 (not verified) says:
Sat, 10/10/2015 - 16:57

The arguments the College has made against divestment are shallow and unconvincing. They ignore the Amherst’s distinguished history of recognizing those rare moments when an educational institution must step up and speak out against beyond just tending to its own house. Doing so is not inconsistent with Amherst’s values and purpose, rather it’s an ultimate expression of them, as its motto and Mission Statement teach us. As Prof. Kim Townsend wrote in his biography of former Amherst President John William Ward: “He [Ward] had said many times that Amherst should not inspire students with ideals and then just leave them thinking that there was nothing that they could do to bring them into being or to
defend them when they were threatened.” And threatened they are, by fossil fuels and the disinformation surrounding them. Yet another indication of that appears in today’s NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/10/opinion/exxons-climate-concealment.htm...

There is much evidence suggesting the College would incur little or no financial loss, and would ultimately profit, from divestment when looking at a 5 – 10 year time frame. History of other difficult times for the College also suggests that, if the College would give them a chance, there are alumni who would rally to ameliorate whatever short-term financial loss (if any) that might be incurred.

I too have directed my alumni fund contribution to the Multi-School Fossil Fuel Divestment Fund ( www.divestfund.org) and have notified the following College officials of my decision to do so. It is important that contributors to the Divestment Fund let the College know in order for their action to have impact:

Chief Advancement Officer Megan Morey: mmorey@amherst.edu
Director of Annual Giving Elizabeth Anema: aeanema@amherst.edu
Alumni Secretary Betsy Cannon Smith: ecsmith@amherst.edu

Matthew McFeely '05 (not verified) says:
Mon, 10/12/2015 - 10:25

I applaud Brian and Esther for their piece and their other divestment efforts. Given the emergency we are facing, it is frankly reckless to continue to fund the digging of fossil fuels out of the ground and the industry's disinformation campaigns. I encourage those who feel similarly to both demand that Amherst divest at FossilFreeAC.com and, as Sam suggested above, contribute to DivestFund.org rather than the college directly.