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In the fall 2019 semester, I was arrested at the Harvard-Yale football game for protesting both universities’ investments in fossil fuel companies. I tell you this not to be another voice calling on Harvard to divest (which they still should and must do), but to confess something more personal: I’m a hypocrite. After I was arrested next to a banner that read "Nobody wins. Yale and Harvard are complicit in climate injustice," I invested in fossil fuels. While Harvard has been complicit in climate injustice, I must confess, so have I.
Here’s how it happened. Last winter, like many young people barraged by stories about “Unleashing the power of compound interest by investing early,” and finding myself fortunate enough to have a full-time job, I decided it was time to start saving a little bit for retirement. After minimal thought, I bought shares in a Vanguard fund called VTI that tracks the entire U.S. stock market. I certainly wasn’t alone. VTI and other index funds have been lauded for democratizing diversified portfolios, making investing less risky, and reducing the cost of entry for small-scale investors. Today, Vanguard’s Total Stock Market Index Fund, which includes VTI, holds more than $1 trillion in assets. Looking back, given how much of the economy VTI covers, it seems exceptionally careless that I didn’t investigate further. I didn’t really care for analyzing my investments. I wanted to deposit some money, forget about it, and hope that in 50 years compound interest would work in my favor.
Last month I thought about my own complicity while hearing the moving words of Harvard’s own Amanda S. C. Gorman ’20. At President Joe Biden’s inauguration, she said, “We will not be turned around / or interrupted by intimidation / because we know our inaction and inertia / will be the inheritance of the next generation.” At first, I felt pride, thinking of how we stood up to Harvard, refusing to turn around or be intimidated by the police as they arrested us, knowing that our inaction would be inherited.
But this pride quickly became personal embarrassment. I was the inaction. I was the inertia. I investigated and found that as of today, VTI holds $5.4 billion in ExxonMobil, $4.6 billion in Chevron, $4.5 Billion in Nextera Energy, and $2.0 billion in Duke Energy Corp. All of these holdings harm our collective future. We know that divestment is effective at fighting climate change because it materially harms fossil fuel companies; even Shell admits that. And the right thing for Harvard to do is also the right thing for all of us to do. Yet here I was holding fossil fuel shares.
Looking back, my conviction that we have a moral imperative to disobey laws when necessary in order to protest large-scale injustices blinded me to an equally important imperative: putting your money where your mouth is. From a practical standpoint, we single out holders of concentrated financial power because pressuring them is the most efficient and effective way at realizing change. This makes sense when 55 percent of Americans invest in the stock market but the corporate power imbalance is so severe that in the near future twelve individuals will likely have decision-making power over most U.S. public companies. Clearly, fighting climate catastrophe necessitates large-scale pressure against massive financial institutions and billionaire investors like Harvard — but they’re also much easier to point fingers at. It can seem like smaller, personal investments don’t need as much scrutiny. Perhaps that feeling is why Vanguard’s Total Stock Market Index Fund holds 24 times as much money as Harvard, but I gave Vanguard my money and called on Harvard to divest.
For too long, I’ve worked to criticize the investment practices of large institutions like Harvard without holding myself accountable. We must investigate our own practices, not just those of our institutions. For a criticism to stick, it must be universal. For the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers to be compelled to take immediate action to divest from climate-destroying companies, we must not only disrupt, like we did at the Harvard-Yale game, but must also show them that their shame is our shame, that we will not profit from destruction and neither should they, that morality requires the same for them as it does for us.
I realize that not many of us are in a position to invest, particularly in the depths of an economic crisis. Nonetheless, in a country where everyone is largely on their own to provide for a secure old age, we will all need to think about saving for retirement, and as we are often told, the sooner the better. If you do invest, take the time to make sure that you do not invest in fossil fuels.
Now, in the process of divesting myself, I can once again call on Harvard. It’s time to divest.
Nicholas S. Brown ’23 is a Social Studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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