The Courage to Act

This Tuesday The New York Times ran an article on student demand for divestment from fossil fuel companies. In the article, Harvard was cited as remaining firm in its stance to continue its current investment strategies. The university’s refusal to rethink the fate of its $31 billion—despite a 72 percent majority vote on the Undergraduate Council referendum—has a number of people understandably upset.

Initially, I was one of divestment’s biggest proponents. However, I realized that the voices in the debate had been primarily those of students. To paint a complete picture, I was curious to hear from faculty and alumni, who may have greater perspective on the effectiveness of movements of political opposition.

Bill E. McKibben ’82, environmental activist, author, and former Crimson president, has not been shy about criticizing his alma mater for resisting giving into the divestment trend set by many other colleges across the country.

In response to the college’s decision not to consider divesting, McKibben wrote to me in an email: “Don't be disappointed by the first no—it's as predictable as the first robin of spring in Harvard Yard. It needs to be the start, not the end of the campaign. It just means the fight is on.”

He cited the student body’s consensus in a widespread email to subscribers of, an international organization dedicated to solving climate change, as well as in an op-ed for The Boston Globe this past Sunday, both of which reach millions around the world. If his goal is to focus the attention on Harvard, his efforts are working.

In this debate, McKibben’s is not the only voice to be reckoned with. Daniel P. Schrag, Harvard Professor and adviser on science and technology for President Obama, disagrees with McKibben’s views, maintaining that, rather than pulling funds away from fossil-fuel companies, the university should focus its efforts around what it does best: teaching students and conducting research.

“If we’re going to mobilize student opinion,” he told me, “I want to do it in a really intelligent way. Only a tiny fraction of all universities’ cumulative endowment is invested in energy.” He made the convincing argument that rebuilding the economy of the world to support a more sustainable future does not come from divesting, but rather investing in research and development to explore new technologies.

Schrag also noted that fossil fuel companies—with already accreted power and capital—will likely be leaders in clean energy once technology becomes more widely available. After talking with him, I was a bit less certain about my previous unwavering stance. It turns out the most effective way of initiating change is not as clear as I thought.

Marshall L. Ganz '60, Harvard Kennedy School professor of public policy and social change movements, also acknowledges the difficulties that come with trying to influence something as powerful as the fossil fuel industry. “When you try to out-lobby Goliath, you have to find other tools from which you can generate enough power to deal with opposition, to have the chance of making a change,” he said. “Divestment has varied in how effective a tactic it’s been.”

However, he was optimistic about students’ ability to rally around a cause and make, if not a financial impact, at least a symbolic one. Movements must pass a certain threshold before they spur significant transformations. McKibben and Ganz both drew the parallel between divestment from fossil fuels and divestment from South Africa during apartheid. While the university was also hesitant to divest at that time, the action eventually became a common tactic for making political statements.

“The University is not only a source of wealth, but also has a moral standing in the broader community,” said Ganz.

I don’t understand economics well enough to know whether divestment makes fiscal sense or not. I’m doubtful fossil fuel companies will care about thousands or even millions of dollars, when the net worth of Exxon Mobil is over $400 billion. What I do know is that we, as students with access to a world-class education, have to do something—and do it wisely.

There has been a lack of discussion on campus surrounding our consumption habits and, if nothing else, this divestment campaign brings some much-needed attention to the fact that we, as educated Americans, consume more than anyone else in the world—ten times more than every Chinese person, for example. We have to start talking about how our needs compare with our wants. We have to start talking about our motives for desiring such a high standard of living. Once we’re done talking, we have to act.

Climate change is not as “easily” fixed as apartheid, as we have already likely permanently disrupted the carbon cycle. While there will undoubtedly be complications along the road, that shouldn’t stop us from embracing this challenge. I believe divestment will play an important role in the coming stages of the movement towards sustainability, but mostly insofar as it shifts common discourse to one of a greener nature. Whether your economic policies agree with divestment or not, let us not let differences in opinion prevent us from demanding change.

“I agree with the outrage,” said Schrag. “I’m not satisfied with the status quo—part of me wants to march in front of Massachusetts Hall and protest. But it’s not just Exxon Mobil that’s the problem; we’re the problem.”

Anneli L. Tostar ’15, a Crimson news writer, is an anthropology concentrator in Eliot House.