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For over 25 years, my family’s primary source of income has been a gas station. Although I am biased, I would staunchly defend that it is completely unique. Rather than the typical spinning hot dogs, sticky floors, and dimly lit corners, our gas station is much more like a mom-and-pop store. In my small, rural hometown, many people rely on us for their groceries, local newspaper, and morning coffee.
Throughout high school, I occasionally worked as a cashier. As a stereotypically aloof teenager, I had difficulty seeing the value of unfolding sweaty dollar bills and emptying the trash cans by the gas pumps. Now, thinking back on the late Friday nights when the high school football fans would rush in for a halftime snack and the hurried weekday mornings when friends would bump into each other on the way to work, I understand that in our community, the store brings people together. My grandfather, the owner and manager, has always understood that value. Whenever he can, he uses the store to bring together and give back to the community that supports us.
The idea that our store, an unassuming fixture of a tiny town, contributed to the perpetuation of the disastrous fossil fuel industry never occurred to me until Harvard announced its divestment from fossil fuels. While my peers ecstatically high-fived and celebrated, I hesitated because the decline of the fossil fuel industry could mean the end of my family’s way of life.
Of course, my family is not the only cog in the machine of the fossil fuel industry; the livelihoods of many other people are also currently tied to fossil fuels. As other companies and institutions hopefully follow Harvard’s lead and the fossil fuel industry is pressured, the lives of these individuals and my family will be forced to change.
To be clear, this change is absolutely necessary. Climate change is an immediate threat that requires immediate action, but as we pursue action, it is also our responsibility to consider how that action will affect the people within the lower ranks of the fossil fuel industry.
Advocating for the end of an industry could lead to job loss and financial hardship, but it also creates a vacuum that can and should be filled by renewable resources. Filling this gap and helping those reliant on the fossil fuel sector transition requires both divestment and reinvestment. The liquidated funds from Harvard’s divestment should be reinvested to support the growth of the renewable resource industry.
This proactive approach boasts clear financial and reputational benefits for Harvard.
Reinvestment is a logical continuation of the financial argument in favor of divestment. If it is prudent to withdraw investments from a dying industry, it makes perfect sense to redirect these investments to a growing industry. Of course, being involved with an industry on the rise has obvious advantages in terms of endowment return.
As one of the world’s leading academic institutions, Harvard should strive not to meet expectations but exceed them. This means actively working for positive change. Demonstrating a strong commitment to creative action against climate change can bolster Harvard’s reputation as innovative and globally-minded.
Strengthening the renewable resource industry is key to a smooth energy transition. If the industry is seen as stronger, it will be much easier for individuals and families, like mine, to become financially independent from fossil fuels and possibly adapt to rely upon renewable resources instead. Most importantly, however, investing in renewable resources is a long-term investment in a sustainable future.
Harvard’s divestment presents the perfect opportunity for this kind of metaphorical and monetary investment, which will almost immediately pay dividends.
I have made peace with the fact that change will inevitably transform my family’s gas station. For me, my family, and others involved in the fossil fuel industry, divestment is personal, but it is not bad. Rather than shying away from what might be seen as a threat, we should share our perspectives, allowing for a more thoughtful and effective transition away from fossil fuels that we and future generations will benefit from.
Libby E. Tseng ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Pforzheimer House.
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