There is no question of whether or not Reed College will have to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. The only question is when.
It is certain that in the coming decades, as the oceans rise, as famine and drought expand, as our cities sink beneath increasingly severe storms, as climate refugees number globally into the hundreds of millions, as entire ecosystems collapse… Sooner or later fossil fuel extraction will be forced to slow down and then to stop entirely. At that point, everyone with investments in fossil fuels will be left with “stranded assets,” high and dry on the wrong side of a financial crisis.
The goal is to get out before that happens. As it is, our college is gambling tens of millions of dollars on a bet that we will do nothing to stop climate change. Yet in order for civilization to survive, let alone our college, this is a bet that we must lose.
The security of Reed College and its endowment are not all that is at stake in divestment. The decision also implicates the preservation of academic freedom. If our college takes a stance on this eminently political issue, will it remain a safe space for the exercise of free inquiry, research, and debate? This summer, Roger Perlmutter of our Board of Trustees argued that investing in the fossil fuel industry is the only way to keep our college politically neutral.
On the contrary, it should be clear that the political influence of the fossil fuel industry pervades our society. No one can deny that massive investment in the fossil fuel industry by the core institutions for public life translates into political support. As long as Reed College and institutions like it are profiting from climate change, it will be impossible for politicians to enact regulations on fossil fuel extraction. The financial viability of Reed College depends on preventing climate change policy from going into effect. More importantly, the political viability of ongoing fossil fuel extraction depends on the public support of institutions like Reed College. This unholy duo can be broken by the simple act of divestment.
The fossil fuel industry is going after increasingly marginal fossil fuel sources, blowing up mountains to reach coal, devastating wetlands to reach tar sands, and shattering bedrock to reach natural gas. It tends to operate in poor communities, especially communities of color, where there is little political power to prevent refineries from poisoning the air and water. Fossil fuel refineries have been overwhelmingly found to cause drastic increases in environmental diseases like asthma and cancer in these working class communities and communities of color. The industry is able to enact these disastrous programs only by putting the full weight of its enormous profits behind massive and sustained political lobbying.
Much more troubling than fossil fuel’s political power in our society is the sway it holds within our own institution. Several of the Trustees for whom Roger Perlmutter spoke are owners or Board Directors of fossil fuel companies and many more are deeply invested in the industry. More importantly, professors and administrators in support of divestment have repeatedly confessed to us in private that their jobs would be put at risk if their support was public and vocal. Academic freedom is already threatened by our institution’s explicit stance in support of fossil fuel investment.
Divesting from fossil fuels is not akin to taking a stand on a partisan political issue. It is, rather, a stance against an overwhelmingly oppressive institution that is killing our planet, corrupting our democracy, and undermining academic freedom here at Reed College. Divesting is a necessary step towards a more sustainable future for our planet and our school. Several alumni have already announced in letters to Reed Magazine that they will stop donating to the annual fund because they refuse to let their money support fossil fuels, and more are sure to join them. How long will our Board of Trustees let this industry control our college, threaten our endowment, and weaken our community?
If you want to see change, don’t stay silent. We will be holding fun activities and gathering petition signatures on Global Divestment Day this February 13, and we’re working with Senate and Diversify to organize an open forum on the issue of political neutrality. Come to these events and let President Kroger know that it’s time for Reed to start investing in the future instead of the past. If you want to get more involved, we meet at 7 PM on Thursdays in the Infoshop. Everyone is welcome.
(The above article can also be found on The Quest’s website.)