Divest Harvard Divest Harvard, April 27, 2015

On April 17, 2015, I attended a week of protests held to convince Harvard University to divest its endowment of fossil fuel stocks. It was an eye-opening experience. 

In 2012, I helped establish a non-profit organization to aid coastal communities in dealing with the effects of sea level rise. For years I’ve been urging our members to stay narrowly focused on adapting to climate change and let the bigger national organizations deal with mitigating emissions. 

But I’ve had a personal reason for my arguments as well. I watched brilliant people spend their entire careers on achieving a global treaty to protect the oceans, only to have all their work wasted when Ronald Reagan refused to sign the Law of the Seas Treaty. After watching that debacle, I decided I would rather spend my time working on smaller local problems where it seemed there was a greater change of making a real difference.

Quite frankly, I also felt powerless in the face of tremendous opposition. I felt it was simply too late to stop climate change, and there was nothing we could do to fight the global economic machine hell-bent on wresting every last natural resource out of the earth and converting it to cold hard cash. Our species seemed hard-wired into more and more consumption; into driving more and more gas-guzzling cars.

But then I met Divest Harvard. Here was a group of bright, eager, sleep-deprived young undergraduates and grad students — free of such skepticism and willing to take on both Big Oil and the richest University in the world in one fell swoop. They were full of energy despite being in the midst of exams, having colds, and having to finish writing their theses. God, did they made me feel old!

By facing the stiff odds, they have already been successful. They’ve garnered the attention of The New York Times, Bloomberg News, and The Wall Street Journal, among many other news organizations. They’ve done it by making the point that the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation had decided to divest itself of all fossil fuel holdings, after spending years trying to reform their unruly family cash cow, Exxon. Stanford, having already sold its stocks in coal companies, is way ahead of Harvard, while even that bastion of radicalism, the World Bank, just came out in favor of divestment.

The students have also driven Harvard into the uncomfortable position of lamely defending the many wonderful things it has done to stop global warming. The University’s favorite talking point — and talking points, it seems are the most important — seems to be that one of its faculty members has developed an artificial leaf that mimics photosynthesis.

Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s President, has looked especially uncomfortable. As an undergraduate, she skipped her midterms as an undergraduate in order to march in Selma, Alabama. Now, she’s been forced to admit that Harvard already divested itself of tobacco and companies that had been doing business in South Africa. She is trying to make the argument that Harvard has a responsibility to earn the highest return on its endowment, even though the University has lost $21 million dollars on it’s fossil fuel stocks in just the thirty months.

She’s been reduced to arguing that divestment would be meaningless because other investors would simply snap up the stocks. But she makes no case that Harvard owning these stocks is any better, and in the face of the rapid destruction of the planet — which the Corporation didn’t dispute — does it really matter anyhow?

Perhaps former Harvard President Derek Bok said it best when discussing the University’s decision to divest from apartheid: “There are rare occasions when the very nature of a company’s business makes it inappropriate for a university to invest in the enterprise.”

It certainly seems like this is one of those occasions. I hate to encourage Harvard’s already hyper-inflated sense of self-importance, but it is clear that the symbolic significance of convincing Harvard to divest would trigger a cascade of similar actions. It is also clear that doing nothing would send an even larger political statement, and show that Harvard continues to stand on the wrong side of history.

But following Harvard Heat Week, I took home another lesson. If these kids could take on Harvard and win, perhaps even this old dog could learn some new tricks! 

Bill Sargent ’69 is a biologist and author who has written extensively on marine biology, the environment, and sea level rise. A former director of the Baltimore Aquarium, he directs the Coastlines Project in Ipswitch, Massachusetts.