Over two months ago, 2,631 students cast ineffectual, symbolic ballots on an Undergraduate Council referendum asking Harvard to divest from fossil fuels. The result? A massive victory for the Harvard Pat Yourself on the Back Caucus. Fossil fuel divestment “passed” the UC with 71.5 percent of the vote, 71.5 percent more than the percentage of Harvard’s endowment which will be divested from fossil fuels. Harvard Management Company’s Board of Directors, the body with the power to manage Harvard’s endowment, was bound to take no action as a result of the vote. Despite the results of the referendum, divestment remains a pipe dream.
I can’t blame or judge those who supported the referendum. I voted for divestment. I believe that the global reliance on fossil fuels is leading to massive increases in destructive greenhouse gasses, and that Harvard damages its moral standing by affiliating itself with it. Harvard has already divested from big tobacco in 1990. And I believe saying that the University has no choice but to invest its endowment in morally questionable industries is logically disingenuous.
Though divestment is an honorable goal, we achieved nothing honorable by voting for it. If University President Lawrence S. Bacow and Harvard’s Board of Overseers were to act on the UC referendum, it would take a while before the possible effects of increased tuition and decreased University funding impacts students’ Harvard experiences. The student body would have taken a moral stand without facing any consequences.
If we’re as serious about fighting climate change as 71.5 percent of us claim to be, let’s take direct action and put our showerheads where our mouths are. Let’s ask Harvard Campus Services to disable hot water in student dorms and martyr ourselves with 50-degree showers for the planet.
Imagine the case that would make for divestment. Harvard students care enough about climate change to put themselves on cold rinse in February, in the middle of a snowstorm. With effective messaging, a cold-shower, energy-conserving movement could spread to schools around the country. Instead of agitating for legislators and bureaucrats to make changes, students could be the changemakers for energy conservation ourselves, with Harvard leading the way.
Granted, I like my hot showers as much as the next person. But they are not a necessity. Military academies sometimes go without. Some people never take hot showers to begin with. In an age where the depletion of our resources and the mass consumption of energy are enormous concerns, we should ask ourselves what is necessary, as we ask corporations and other fossil fuel producing industries to do the same.
Hot showers aren’t the only concrete sacrifices we can make to show we’re serious about conservation. San Francisco in 2015 launched an initiative called “Brown is the new Green,” encouraging residents to stop watering their lawns to conserve water in the midst of a historic drought. Imagine the statement on climate change we would make if we stopped watering Harvard Yard and let it go brown.
Both of these changes would impact important and visible parts of our days. Some would argue they go further than necessary. But perhaps drastic action is necessary in a nation whose lawmakers and in a university whose investors delay action on climate issues. Who better than the nation’s young people to shock decision makers awake? Who better than the nation’s most privileged than to make some of the first sacrifices?
We have an opportunity to prove that Harvard students are willing to sacrifice for our ideals. If we take it, we will make a much stronger case when we ask the Board of Directors to do the same.
Alternatively, we can keep voting for vague ideals that cost us nothing and move on with our lives. We are, after all, liberals.
Nicholas C. Fahy ‘22, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Pennypacker Hall.