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Beyond Fossil Free

Illustration by Daniel Semenciuc.

On a Sunday afternoon last September, the three musicians started to groove. The fiddle wailed, and the bass ba-dummed. “We got this battle,” the melodica-player crooned, “We’re gonna sit in their office, get a fossil free Yale.” It was a real-life protest song, the twenty-first century Pete Seeger. I knew it was corny. But as a folk musician myself, I couldn’t help but feel excited.

“Welcome!” said a tall blond woman in a white summer dress. She introduced herself as Diana Madson, a second-year student at the Yale School of Forestry. She looked like just about everyone else in the room: attractively but casually dressed, slim, white. “Together, you, me, everyone here—we are Fossil Free Yale,” Madson continued. “And we are happy you’re here, because the more people we have, the more likely we are to get the university to divest from the fossil fuel industry.”

We were in a classroom in WLH  to talk about how to convince Yale to sell its stocks in energy companies with high emissions to considerably dent the fossil fuel industry. Fossil Free Yale was preparing for a Yale College Council student referendum in November to gauge the level of support among undergraduates for divestment. They would then present the referendum’s results to Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. The referendum, the first in the school’s history, was a landmark push for a democratic voice in university governance.

Fossil Free Yale’s proposal asked that the university investigate one hundred coal companies and one hundred oil and gas companies identified by a 2011 Carbon Tracker Initiative report as having the largest carbon reserves. If a company refuses to disclose its emissions data, Yale’s investment managers would then request the data. And if the company did not release the information within a business quarter, Yale would divest over two years. Companies that already make high level of emissions known have just one business quarter to implement a plan to clean up their progress. If they didn’t don’t make sufficient progress, Yale would divest over two years.

At $20.8 billion, Yale has the second-largest university endowment in the country, smaller only than Harvard’s. Students at Yale who support the divestment campaign believe that this gives Yale the power to make a large impact on the environmental practices of energy companies.

But critics of divestment say that impact would be temporary at best. If Yale sold its stocks in fossil fuels, some hedge fund manager would buy them up, said Jonathan Macey, the chair of Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. And what difference would that really make for the environment? The shares would be bought and used anyway, and Yale wouldn’t make any profit.

Madson countered that divestment has symbolic value. “Yale is a big school,” she said. “Everyone knows it. If we divest, it goes in the New York Times and sends a big message to fossil fuel companies.” She hoped that they and the government would then be pressured into pursuing cleaner energy policies.

History suggests that Madson is right. In the mid-eighties, the divestment of 155 universities from companies that were doing business in apartheid South Africa helped push the U.S. government to pass the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. This act imposed sanctions on South Africa that were critical to ending apartheid in the early nineties.

Yale fell short of playing an important role in this campaign, however, even after years of sustained student struggle for full divestment. In April 1986, after years of quieter campaigning, students built a shantytown in Yale’s Beinecke Plaza to grab the administration’s attention and embarrass the university. Over seventy students camped out in cardboard and plastic shacks. They declared that they wouldn’t leave until the university removed its estimated $350 million worth of stock held in companies doing business in South Africa.

They stuck to their word. For ten days, they slept in the shanties. On a Monday evening in April, Yale police arrested seventy-eight people living in the shantytown, seventy-three of them Yale students. Seven hundred protestors responded with demonstrations on Beinecke Plaza; national media in both the United States and South Africa then told their story.

The protestors were soon released on bail, and Yale administrators reluctantly allowed the shantytown to remain. The rest of spring brought rallies and protests to Beinecke Plaza, transforming a central part of campus into a hotbed of protest and debate. The activists even constructed a large wooden monument bearing the names of black South Africans who had died in the recent unrest. They paraded the monument around Beinecke Plaza in stark contrast with Yale’s own war monument (“In Memory of the Men of Yale Who Gave Their Lives So That Freedom Might Not Perish From the Earth”). The shantytown survived until 1988, when it was torched by a disgruntled alum at a reunion.

The Yale Corporation ultimately removed shares from seventeen companies doing business in South Africa at a total market value of twenty-three million dollars, according to Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. But Yale never fully divested from apartheid, even though the very idea of divestment was born at the university. In 1972, a Yale professor named John Simon and two graduate students, Charles Powers and Jon Gunnemann, published a book called The Ethical Investor: Universities and Corporate Responsibility, arguing that a university should remove its investments from a company when it is causing “grave social harm,” and that harm cannot be remedied by working with the company. Fossil Free Yale hopes that this time, divestment at Yale will play a more critical role in affecting change, rather than reacting to the political tide.

The idea that divestment could bring this kind of student involvement—and this kind of success—was exciting to me. I couldn’t tell from the kick-off meeting if Fossil Free Yale was ready for this kind of political campaign. But I knew I wanted to find out, so I signed up to work with the organization. My first step: a weekend in Pittsburgh at an environmental conference called Power Shift.

I first saw the city from the height of a stagecoach bus. Along with over six thousand college students, I was headed toward a giant white convention center, to one of the largest environmentalist conferences in the country.

I had imagined that Power Shift would look like Woodstock in 1969. And it did, if Woodstock had involved Twitter, an advertising team, and a weekend-long agenda of workshops and panels. Despite the attendees’ youth and leftist tendencies, corporate America loomed.  Gaggles of white girls with dreadlocks in baggy pants hula-hooped while on a break from sessions like “Environmental Justice 101.” Nearby, a young black man in thick-rimmed glasses rode a bike around the lobby holding a sign that read, “PROTECT APPALACHIAN COMMUNITIES.” But conference goers were never very far away from the lobby featuring Coca-Cola advertising and a Sierra Club table touting merchandise for “Swag Prices!”

Since Power Shift began in 2007, its members have met every two years to plan protests and form advocacy groups on issues such as fracking, tar sands, and environmental justice. This year, in Pittsburgh, they wanted to focus on grassroots strategies. Power Shift chose the location because Pittsburgh is the first American city to ban “dirty and dangerous fracking,” according to the promotional materials at the conference. They further claim that the measure was all the more impressive because Pittsburgh is within a few hours of the coal mines of West Virginia and the shale gas fields of Pennsylvania.

Looking outside the convention center window to Pittsburgh’s old factories and black-and-yellow bridges, I saw a city built on fossil fuels. Pittsburgh largely owes its existence to the energy-intensive steel industry. But inside the lobby of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, I couldn’t feel further from the heart of coal country.

It was hard to tell if other Power Shift attendees were worried about the contradictions of this “green” convention and the potential pitfalls of “green-washing.” Just looking at what we were wearing, you could tell we were a divided group. The granola-crunching hippies wore baggy pants; the trendy urban hipsters dripped with asymmetrical jewelry; the eco-conscious yuppies-to-be sported Patagonia; the moody anarchists wore all black. And underneath the surface, there lay more important, less visible philosophical distinctions.

There were the students who had come to learn about green energy and divestment, including many members of Fossil Free Yale. These environmentalists liked that the convention center was gold LEED-certified, but its walls also sported ads touting Pittsburgh’s commitments to “progress” and “industry.”

They differ enormously from activists like Ariana Shapiro, the Yale student who organized the trip to Power Shift. Shapiro is not a current member of Fossil Free Yale, though her work was key to the group’s campaign in the 2012-2013 school year. She quit this past fall, frustrated with divestment’s acceptance of the assumptions of modern industrial capitalism. Shapiro considers herself a grassroots, front-line environmental activist, and she sees social and economic reform as central to the movement. Many activists share her trepidation, feeling that divestment lacks the social vision of more radical environmentalism.

Shapiro is from Ithaca, New York, where reserves of natural gas lay in wait, and under threat of being extracted by fracking. Her fight for her home community played a major role in her decision to take a year off between high school and Yale. During that year, she dedicated herself to fighting fossil fuel production, even getting arrested in Washington, D.C. alongside Bill McKibben, an environmental activist and the mastermind behind the current movement to divest from fossil fuels. Shapiro takes care to point out, however,  that she comes from a white, middle-class background, while the consequences of environmental destruction have hit lower income, non-white communities hardest.

Activists from these affected communities were less prevalent among Power Shift attendees, but discussions of race, class, and privilege were not absent. Kimberly Wasserman, one of the weekend’s best-received speakers, had organized a campaign to shut down two of the dirtiest coal plants in the country to protect herself, her son, and her Chicago neighborhood from asthma and economic decline. She came to Power Shift to ask people to stop focusing on big “green” campaigns like divestment and to start a conversation about the underlying issues, like an economic system that creates ever-expanding production and consumption at the cost of marginalizing certain populations. A large percentage of her community is unemployed, she said, leaving them vulnerable to joining companies that engage in practices that are not only environmentally dangerous but also dangerous for the health of her son and her neighbors. “We don’t need that junk,” Wasserman said. “What we need is an investment in our communities.”

Divestment can potentially serve as a key to this kind of real environmental and social change. On the last day of the conference, I met Prexy Nesbitt, who fought apartheid with the African National Congress, the political party that eventually came to govern post-apartheid South Africa. He drew comparisons between what divestment meant in the nineties and what it could mean now.

“Divestment is a good answer,” he said. “But it becomes a good answer to the extent that we link it to other issues. It cannot be done in a vacuum.”

Nesbitt told me what I hadn’t wanted to admit: an institution like Yale may not want to widen its campaign to address the social issues that are underwritten in the environmental crisis. Yale’s resistance to divesting from apartheid, despite its clear social harm, does not bode well.

Yet it is universities’ very resistance to campus divestment movements that can help move environmentalism beyond the rhetoric of saving the Earth. The environment has always been in flux. The crisis is whether the human species will be able to survive in the environment we are creating—or, more trickily, which members of the species will not just survive, but also live well. The climate change crisis is, at its root, about more than the trees or the polar bears. It is about the health and survival of human societies.

After Power Shift, I knew that several other members of Fossil Free Yale wanted to change the course of Yale’s history and make a successful, socially-based movement on campus in addition to advocating for divestment. They wanted a campaign aligned with cultural and social justice groups.  At the first meeting after the conference, on November 3, I pitched the idea.

“This school claims to stand for liberal, humanitarian values. Let’s tear that down,” I said, with the shantytowns on Beinecke Plaza in mind.

But I was shot down quickly. “I think incorporating social justice detracts from what we’re trying to do,” said Sam Miller, a student at the Yale School of Forestry who also attended Power Shift this year, and who had attended before. Miller says he isn’t against furthering human rights, but that he thinks environmental campaigns get too bogged down by attempting to incorporate every affiliated social campaign. Others redirected our focus. Fossil Free Yale needed to concentrate on the upcoming student referendum, they said. For weeks, the group’s leaders had been preparing for the student vote on whether or not Yale should divest.

Over half of the undergraduates voted between November 17 and 20, and the referendum passed with eighty-three percent of votes. Fossil Free Yale has gained momentum to push the student body to get more serious about pressuring the administration to divest.

But the question remains: what will that push look like? I worry that it won’t transform into a social justice campaign—and that it won’t work.

Despite the referendum’s success, even the less-ambitious process of divestment will not come easily at Yale. Since the referendum, Fossil Free Yale has been negotiating with Yale’s trustees on assessing environmental metrics. But the decision to divest will ultimately fall to the Corporation, and if they say no to divestment, the situation could escalate.

Bill McKibben said it himself: when university investors refuse to divest, the campaign starts to move in a more radical direction. “What it means,” he explained, “is we can start fighting with a little less restraint.”

McKibben believes that my generation is more inclined to respect authority than our predecessors at Woodstock, and rightfully so—but we will have to resist authority more openly to produce the change we desire.

Yale activists may already be headed in this direction. Fossil Free Yale’s new logo features an image of windmills planted firmly in the ground, a widely-recognized symbol for divestment—but its orange square comes from the red square that epitomized the 2012 Quebec student protests against rising tuition. The time will come when Fossil Free Yale will have to act on the radical message symbolized in this logo, and when it does, maybe it will push all social groups on campus to make a serious social statement about their cause.

If we really want to stop climate change, the divestment movement needs to be about more than just divestment. We also need to challenge ourselves to confront uncomfortable issues of race and inequality that underpin our environmental crisis. Fossil Free Yale needs to look beyond the current, short-term conversation about our school’s divestment. It’s time to remember that human communities are the most important part of the ecosystem we are fighting for.

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