On Campus
Mar 05, 2013, 07:16AM

Your Tuition Dollars Are Killing the Planet

The college divestment campaign.

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Environmental activist and journalist Bill McKibben issued a manifesto in Rolling Stone in late February making the case for why universities should divest from the fossil fuel industry. College administrators invest the school’s endowment in the stock market, often picking out various coal or oil companies. The divestment campaign described by McKibben raises a reasonable point: why are these schools investing your tuition dollars in an industry that’s wreaking havoc with the environment? “If it's wrong to wreck the climate, it's wrong to profit from that wreckage,” says McKibben. Time magazine argues that this is the next frontier for climate activism.

Like so many modern conundrums, the environmental movement is a complex one with a multi-layered and hard-to-trace chain of effects. Figuring out your own role in the system can be a real mind-twister, and in searching for a quick fix, it can tempt you to say: We aren’t giving the money directly to ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal etc. We are giving it to a college, which is then giving it to the fossil fuel companies—phew, now I don’t have to think about this anymore. Obviously, this makes no sense if you’re concerned about the environment.

While Eric Hendey in the Harvard Political Review is less convinced of the efficacy of divestment as the main galvanizer for change, he argues that generating buzz might be one of the most successful things the divestment campaign has going for it. At the very least, it gets people talking.

Since graduating from the University of Virginia in 2008, I’ve given a total of $50 to my alma mater. You’d be right to think I don’t carry much sway at UVA. Furthermore, UVA is not exactly enamored of liberal causes, and 10 bucks says when my husband and I email President Teresa Sullivan to ask her to divest, she’ll ignore us. But you know what UVA and Sullivan are? They’re examples of what a lot of people can do when they come together and make a stink about a shared cause. Last year, the University made headlines when its powerful board of directors fired Sullivan but was then was forced to reinstate her due to public outcry. So while I may not be able to grab Sullivan’s attention by myself, a mob of angry students and alumni might.

A long history of civil disobedience through divestment is why McKibben is betting on a movement that looks to have long odds working against it. You might be more powerful than you think. Collective action has taken down corporate behemoths in the past. Divestment from South Africa in the 1980s is widely considered to have been instrumental in bringing the apartheid government to its knees. Similarly, the tobacco industry was shamed out of its stranglehold on power.

Here are a few simple steps for how to get involved:

Visit the Fossil Free website: www.gofossilfree.com. See if your school has a campaign already in motion. If not click “start” a campaign. There are options for alumni as well. Your paths will be varied from there and the Fossil Free site makes them clear, but in addition, consider writing letters to your school president, trustees, faculty, the Dean of students, or an Alumni contact. The site has thoughts on how to go about this as well as a helpful toolkit for creating a campaign which includes a six-part plan for how you can “turn up the heat.”

  • this is honestly the biggest issue of our time. forget terrorism. the thing that is OBVIOUSLY draining our planet, polluting it, and making us run out of money is the control the oil companies have on the whole architecture of the world economy. We simply need to do things like this to give them less power. They are KILLING PLANET EARTH YOU MORONS. Exxon needs to convert their whole operation to sustainable energy like electricity, and no they don't have the option of claiming free enterprise, because the oil-industrial complex IS killing the planet, and there is no way to argue against that, neocon assholes.

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  • Calm down. Why do put the blame solely on "neocon assholes"? I guess there are no Democrats, like Obama, who take $$$ from corporations that pollute. And I guess colleges, the point of this story, which invest in the companies, are oases of pure liberal thought.

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  • Really? Biggest issue of our time??? Bigger than overpopulation? Bigger than war? Bigger than crime? Bigger than the mainstreaming of hyperbolic statements?

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  • By which I mean, click that second one, if that wasn't clear. This one: http://on.ted.com/AsteroidsClub.

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  • @Texan, yes bigger than all those things because it's related to all those things. Our failure to take real proactive measures on this issue are the result of a failure to understand how changes in the climate relate to war, starvation, disease, and crime. @Poodle that TED talk is awesome and says it better than I can.

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  • By that logic. Overpopulation trumps oil/global warming. If it were not for overpopulation, there would be no global warming or oil shortage. Or education is bigger since global warming and oil useage would certainly go down if everyone understood the precise consequences. Furthermore, our lack in science education on these issues have left us with no viable alternative that would not cause economic hardship. etc. etc. etc. What abour war and religous extremism, if we are all dead, who is left to care about global warming or oil? This like the debt is a mid-term issue at best. Hardly an extinction level crisis at this point in time. Let's try to lay off the hyperbole, it acts as a hurdle to those trying to address these problems

  • Thank you, Texan, for putting this in perspective. I'm a lot more worried, short-term, about the the kooks in Iran and N. Korea than colleges investing in oil.

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