Divestment March Turns Up Heat
After listening to a speech by founder of the 350.org organization Bill McKibben, over 200 members of the Whitman community marched around campus chanting slogans in favor of divesting the college’s endowment from fossil fuels.
The largest event held so far by Whitman’s divestment movement, the march energized supporters of the movement and built upon momentum the movement has built over the semester.
“I had never led a march before, and I was astounded that we had that [much] energy on the campus. Not just in the students, but there were professors on that march, there were community members on that march, there were staff members on that march,” said Divestment Leader, sophomore Collin Smith.
McKibben is the leader of the national environmental movement 350.org and the nation-wide divestment movement, which aims to convince institutions to divest from the 200 companies with the largest fossil fuel reserves. The movement believes this divestment will bring public attention to global warming and carbon emissions, as well as strip these fossil fuel companies of their “social license.” According to McKibben, this will limit their ability to influence government policy, and allow politicians to pass legislation against fossil fuels.
Although he is the leader of the national divestment movement, McKibben was originally scheduled to visit campus to speak to first-years about his environmental text Eaarth, which was read in the Encounters course in a unit on trauma and transformation. The divestment movement was launched last fall and began at Whitman in January 2013, while McKibben was scheduled to speak last spring.
“He absolutely laid it down for divestment and he totally stuck it to the man with everything he said, and we didn’t think he was going to do that. We thought that because he’d been invited by the college he had to keep up the formality of not pointing out the hypocrisy of Whitman [not divesting],” said Divestment Leader, sophomore Sierra Dickey. “The remarks he made about Whitman doing the right thing did a lot to fuel the success of the march, which just took off.”
The divestment march, which was organized only a few days before McKibben’s visit, marked a distinct change in the tactics of the divestment movement at Whitman. While previous actions had focused on raising awareness and bringing new members into the movement, the march was a physical manifestation of the support that has been built over the semester.
On the same day as Whitman students marched across the campus, students at the Rhode Island School of Design held a sit-in in their president’s office, in pursuit of the same goals as divestment at Whitman: an immediate end to new investments in the 200 fossil fuel companies targeted by the movement, and a gradual divestment over the next five years.
“If we get a lot of push-back from the trustees we’ll definitely turn to actions styled like this [march] … but we don’t think that’s going to happen. We think it’s going to be a collaborative thing that we don’t need to be [forceful] about,” said Dickey. “People aren’t down with direct action. People want to stay moderate and want to protect their necks and play it cool, and direct action isn’t always cool. I don’t think we’ll need to do it, [but if] we do I hope that we’ll have the campus with us, ready to get over that stigma.”
At the end of the march, ASWC President Kayvon Behroozian publicly endorsed the divestment movement. ASWC passed a resolution on April 14 encouraging the Board of Trustees to halt all new investments in fossil fuels and to assemble a committee of students, faculty, staff, and members of the governing board to investigate the potential financial impacts of divestment, as well as the potential for active shareholding or green investment managers.
“After the talk I was a lot more persuaded than I was before…” said Behroozian. “The one thing I’d do is try to get everyone to go convince their friends that this is not a radical movement, that it’s a completely conservative [movement].”
McKibben spent an hour and a half in the afternoon meeting with leaders of the divestment movement to discuss their strategy for the coming year. He suggested the movement attempt to re-frame the issue of divestment to portray themselves as moderates and their opponents as radical.
“There’s nothing radical about what we’ve been talking about, nothing at all. All we’re asking for is a planet that works more or less the way it was when we were born … that’s not a radical demand, that’s a deeply conservative demand,” McKibben said. “Radicals work at oil companies … Our job is to learn to check that radicalism, not to invest in it. If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, then it’s wrong to profit from the wreckage of the climate.”
While the divestment march united members of the Whitman and Walla Walla community who support divestment, many attendees of McKibben’s speech left rather than attending the event.
“[I worry about] how difficult it will be to convince other people, especially people who are not yet convinced, because it seems to me that a lot of people who will be easy to talk to about this and easy to sway are already on the side of divestment. It will difficult to convince people who are already set in their opinions against it,” said first-year Emrys Dennison.
On Thursday, May 2 divestment leaders will meet with members of the Board of Trustees to try to work out an agreement. While compromise will likely be necessary in the short-term, the divestment movement plans to remain committed to a long-term divestment in all fossil fuels. ASWC members will also meet with members of the Board to discuss the resolution which was passed.
Correction (May 1, 2013): The article, which originally quoted McKibben saying, “Radicals work at all companies…” has been edited to reflect his actual words, “Radicals work at oil companies…”
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