Recently, the Argus published an op-ed entitled “Why Divestment Falls Short of Its Intended Goals.” This article is predicated on a glaring misunderstanding of divestment as a whole.
The article bases many of its arguments in misguided teachings of neoliberal economics. Firstly, people pushing for divestment (at least at Wesleyan) are not doing it because of the possibility of declining returns. Divestment is pushed due to the perpetuation of violence against communities — particularly Indigenous peoples, people of color, and low-income folks — as well as ecosystems, nonhuman animals, and the land by fossil fuel companies. To cite that individuals are still reliant on fossil fuels is the classic “you critique society, yet you live in one” argument. Arguments like this perpetrate a defeatist mindset that must be eliminated in order to prevent climate catastrophe. Given the immediacy of the effects of climate change on the planet’s socio-ecological systems, we must act now to transition society off fossil fuels. Doing this requires us to envision a vast restructuring of our society, our economy, and our infrastructure. Divestment aims to accelerate this change by removing money from the fossil fuel industry.
Regarding divestment specifically at Wesleyan, the author states that “a multitude of financial instruments mix in fossil fuels.” This is a classic argument made by those looking to delegitimize divestment; however, just about any form of capital will be connected to some immoral industry in the global economy. By divesting Wesleyan’s endowment from both its direct and indirect holdings in the fossil fuel industry, we are able to pinpoint the parts of the economy involved with the fossil fuel industry to the most accurate extent possible, while acknowledging that we are currently in an epoch in which capitalism creates an inevitable a web of immorality when it comes to investment. We must make strikes where we can.
Furthermore, we know that keeping our endowment invested in the fossil fuel industry is not only a risk to the future of society at large, but also to the financial performance of the endowment itself. Even if one does not agree with the moral imperative to divest, there is a compelling financial argument as well. This year, after a six-year battle waged by organizers at the University of California, the University system finally agreed to divest its $134 billion endowment and $80 billion pension fund from the fossil fuel industry. The UC systems chief investment officer and the chairman of the UC Board of Regents’ Investment Committee later explained that the university’s assets entangled in the fossil fuel industry “posed a long-term risk to generating strong returns for UC’s diversified portfolios.” As our planet runs out of extractable oil, profits in the fossil fuel industry decrease, making it financially unwise to continue investing in it. In 2018, researchers from the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis published a report demonstrating an increasingly bleak future for stocks in the fossil fuel industry. They also point out that companies now take climate activism and resulting policy into consideration in their calculation of unquantified risk. In the same year, four economists concluded that fossil-fuel free investment portfolios perform at the same level that unconstrained investment portfolios do. Knowing this, Wesleyan ought to follow suit from peer institutions like Middlebury, Pitzer, Whitman, and Lewis & Clark.
Consider the historical trajectory of Wesleyan’s investments. In 1977, nearly half of Wesleyan’s endowment was invested in companies operating directly in the South African apartheid state. While students and professors began a divestment movement at Wesleyan, the administration adopted a policy of “constructive engagement” with companies in South Africa, with the idea that companies profiting from and paying taxes to the apartheid state could work to make it better. Years went by, and Wesleyan continued making money off an increasingly violent apartheid state. After over a decade of activism, Wesleyan fully divested from direct holdings in South Africa.
If you were to ask someone now if one should have been invested in the South African apartheid state, there would be no pandering about it. In contrast to his harsh opposition to WesDivest’s demands, President Roth was one of the hundreds of Wesleyan students who protested in favor of divestment from South Africa in the 1970s. Today, when we talk about fossil fuel divestment, there are a lot of counterarguments. Some make economic arguments, asserting that divestment won’t do anything, that it is better to work on policy, that personal choices are the answer, and so on. On his FAQ page, for example, President Roth claims that divestment makes no “meaningful impact” on climate change because “the University relies on power from these companies every day.” One day, we will look back and ask how we could have remained invested directly in companies that perpetuate violence against people, against the land, and against the environment as a whole, and ask how we could have made such excuses.
Climate colonialism is a problem now. In January 2019, armed RCMP (Canadian police) and military forcefully moved onto Wet’suwet’en territory in the name of installing the TranCanada Coastal Gaslink, resulting in arrests for the protection of their own land. The Dakota Access Pipeline was installed through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation against the will of the Standing Rock Sioux in 2016, forcibly constructed by the use of state violence. Man camps made up of those working on these colonial energy projects installed on Indigenous land have shown to cause a sharp uptick in crime and violence against Indigenous women. Moreover, the Energy Transfer Partners company had contracted G4S, a firm notorious for its use of psychological warfare and extensive human rights abuses, as a private militia to safeguard the pipeline from Indigenous protestors. G4S has also assisted Israeli authorities in the imprisonment and torturing of Palestinians. As Israel continues to encroach on Palestinian territory, land is destroyed for settlements, and natural resources are extracted. The human rights abuses in Palestine connect largely with atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples and land in other parts of the world. We must end these human rights abuses.
Across the world we see how climate change and colonialism are inextricably linked, causing violence against people and the land. We must understand that climate change and divestment is an issue of colonialism. By investing in fossil fuel companies, we are investing in colonial violence, which depends on a reliable intake of capital to continue said violence. We must stop pandering to the idea that top-down gradual policy change is the only way to go, or is even effective given the immediacy of the issues at hand. Furthermore, we must terminate Wesleyan’s reliance on fracked gas sourced from the Algonquin Pipeline, which is being built by Spectra Energy within several hundred feet from the Indian Point nuclear power plant. President Roth’s solution is to commit to carbon neutrality by 2050, while peer institutions like Bowdoin College have already achieved this.
What immediate role will Wesleyan play in averting climate catastrophe? As a university deeply committed to civic engagement, it is Wesleyan’s moral responsibility to divest from fossil fuels and the Israeli occupation now.
Thayne Hutchins is a member of the Class of 2022.
Leah Levin Pensler is a member of the Class of 2020.