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Divestment Debates

Divestment Debates

Swarthmore Mountain Justice launched an extended sit-in for fossil fuel divestment on the campus that birthed the now global divestment campaign, kicking off a historic spring of escalating nonviolent action throughout the student divestment movement. 

The national fossil fuel divestment movement started at Swarthmore with the student group Swarthmore Mountain Justice.  In 2010, a group of students traveled to West Virginia on their spring and fall breaks to learn about mountaintop removal coal mining and its effects on the communities of Appalachia. Back at Swarthmore, the students “decided on a divestment campaign as a way for us to use the power and position we have as students to move our institution’s money to stop funding practices that harm people’s health and communities.”  The fossil fuel divestment campaign, picked up and expanded by and others, has become one of the best-known organized responses to climate change. 

Pictured from left to right: Professor of Religion Mark Wallace, Professor of Sociology Lee Smithey, Professor of Biology Scott Gilbert, and Professor of Philosophy Peter Baumann.
Pictured from left to right: Professor of Religion Mark Wallace, Professor of Sociology Lee Smithey, Professor of Biology Scott Gilbert, and Professor of Philosophy Peter Baumann. Photo by Mindy Cheng

Swarthmore’s Environmental Studies faculty, all agreed on the urgent importance of mitigating climate change, nonetheless hold a range of opinions about the efficacy of the divestment movement.  Several members of the program—Betsy Bolton (English), Peter Collings (Physics), Giovanna Di Chiro (then Lang Professor for Issues of Social Change), and Mark Wallace (Religion)—participated in a Climate Change and Divestment Teach-In back in 2013.

In the spring of 2015, Mark Wallace joined the student sit-in for divestment; Tim Burke (History) wrote an opinion piece “Against Divestment;” and Betsy Bolton, Carr Everbach (Engineering), Carol Nackenoff (History), and Mark Wallace were four of seven signatories of the “Third Way Proposal” suggesting divestment from non-commingled funds as a way forward from the stand-off between Swarthmore Mountain Justice and the Board of Managers.

In an open letter to The Swarthmore College Daily Gazette (February 3, 2015), Religion Professor Mark Wallace took issue with Vice-President of Finance Greg Brown’s reiteration of the Board of Managers’ view that “[the College does] not believe the endowment should be used to make social statements, no matter how compelling the cause.”  Professor Wallace argued that

"Either the College does screen its investments, in which case fossil fuel divestment is a candidate for removal from the College’s portfolio on moral grounds. Or the College doesn’t screen its investments – in spite of its earlier South African divestment – in which case, my and my colleagues’ salaries, and our students’ financial aid packages are being funded, arguably, by unethical and illicit activities. Does the College have no moral compass by which to guide its portfolio decisions?"

Professor Wallace then sketched the visible impact of fossil fuel extraction on a nearby landscape and community, tying these effects back to the College endowment:

"I recently took a group of students to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a city just north of Philadelphia, to observe the environmental squalor that the Marcellus Shale extraction industry has wrought in an area historically called the Endless Mountains. What was once a beautifully preserved habitat of forests, rivers, homes, and farms is now pockmarked with eighteen-wheelers barreling down the highways; well-pad flares all hours of the day and night; and compressor stations, retention ponds, and gas pipelines converting sylvan woodlands into a loud, ugly, toxic industrial zone.  Mr. Brown’s vision of unfettered investments in the very industries that are destroying the Endless Mountains – and by extension, the planet as we know it – is grounded on a short-term interest in financial returns rather than the long-term well-being of Earth’s vital systems. Until and when Swarthmore’s finance and investment decision-makers balance their drive for profits with ethically-based common sense, the College’s heritage and mission as a learning institution with a social conscience will be fundamentally undermined."

In “Against Divestment,” another opinion piece in The Daily Gazette, published February 11, 2015, History Professor Tim Burke took issue with Professor Mark Wallace’s appeal to morality, pointing to “a better argument for divestment from fossil fuels.” For Professor Burke, this better argument could be summarized in these terms:

"Fossil fuel companies only appear to be a good investment because of a massive infrastructure of governmental subsidies and assistance and because they’re permitted to treat their huge contribution to anthropogenic climate change as an externality, charging it to the global public. If the U.S. government and others like it were willing to withdraw some or all of those subsidies and support some form of carbon taxation, alternative energy sources would instantly be competitive in the market, and fossil fuel production would be exposed as a risky, destructive investment."

"This is a strategic argument about how to impede the environmentally destructive production of fossil fuels. […] This strategic idea has yielded a tactical proposition: that current governments can only be pushed to dismantle extensive support for fossil fuel production through popular political pressure, and that this in turn can only be secured through changing popular perceptions of the fossil fuel industry. This in turn led to the suggestion that one way to change that perception would be for major institutional investors to publicly disavow owning shares in the major fossil fuel corporations."

While accepting this strategy and these tactics as one possible response to fossil fuel production, Professor Burke criticized the college campus divestment movement for its “self-flattering and insular” nature. Burke argued for a more multidimensional response to climate change and fossil fuel reduction, offering two main suggestions:

  • it might be that universities can most affect the image of fossil fuel producers by focusing intense curricular and analytic attention upon them.
  • efforts to change consumption of fossil fuels within academic institutions are very likely to be more potent even just as a symbolic source of persuasive legitimacy for wider publics than changes in investment policy. If students, faculty, and staff agreed, for example, to forgo 20% of their previous travel by air during an academic year, that might demonstrate to wider publics a more expansive and determined form of community will than tinkering with the strictures on a $1.5 billion endowment.

Two months later, on Earth Day 2015, four Environmental Studies professors—English professor Betsy Bolton, Engineering professor Carr Everbach, Political Science professor Carol Nackenoff, and Religion professor Mark Wallace—joined with Sociologists Joy Charlton, Lee Smithey, and Sarah Willie-LeBreton to propose a compromise between the Board of Managers and Swarthmore Mountain Justice.  Their “Third-Way Proposal” worked to articulate the common ground shared by these opposing sides:

"The stalemate is often framed this way: on the one side are those who are committed to defending the endowment’s role in financial support of the College and maintaining its independence from political activism; on the other side are those who believe investment is not politically or morally neutral and who want to use the endowment to make a political, symbolic statement. Moral arguments can be and have been invoked in defense of both sides."

"But we see a common ground shared by these two positions: in particular, both sides are concerned with reducing intergenerational inequity, either by maintaining financial resources to support future students or by influencing larger movements working to reduce the intergenerational inequalities associated with climate change."

The Third-Way proposal asked the Board of Managers to emphasize this common ground by declaring the separately held assets of the endowment to be free of fossil fuel stocks.

Students at a Divestment protest

"This very modest compromise proposal works to support both sides, by preserving the independence of the vast majority of the endowment while offering a small yet potent symbolic gesture of support to a broader social movement working, in response to an unprecedented global challenge, to encourage economic and political policies to reduce striking intergenerational inequities."

The proposal emphasized the importance of working with students intent on building a social movement capable of grappling with the immense challenge of climate change:

"One of our greatest contributions to mitigating climate change may well be sitting on the floor outside Greg Brown’s office at this very moment—or sitting somewhere else, listening and thinking about the divestment debates. The students protesting are among those most motivated to challenge our reluctance to move beyond business as usual, the most motivated to lead their generation toward a future that allows for broader distribution of human prosperity. Finding a way to support and steer these students—our own precious human capital—may be our best contribution to a flourishing human future."

In May, the Board of Managers voted not to divest the endowment from fossil fuels, but they did create a new endowment fund, free of fossil fuel investments, where supporters of divestment could donate to the College.

The divestment debates will surely continue.