A Response to President Mills

Below is a response to the objections raised by President Mills when he met with Bowdoin Climate Action to talk about divestment from the fossil fuel industry.  The response was also emailed to the signatories of the petition and posted to gofossilfree.org.

The emblems of Bowdoin College are two staple icons of the environmental movement. Our seal is the sun, the reason for life’s existence on earth and driver of all natural process. Our mascot is the polar bear, that cute and cuddly arctic creature identified as the first species in danger of going extinct because of anthropogenic climate change.

So, you could say, environmentalism is tied to the very fabric of the College. But you don’t have to rely on symbolic tropes to get that message across—just take a look at the mission of Bowdoin College, which states that we have a duty to understand our “natural environment, local and global, and the effects and the role of human beings regarding it.” Or even our environmental mission statement, in which we members of Bowdoin College pledge ourselves to the cause of a “just and sustainable future.”

Divest fossil fuels

Climate activists at Bowdoin College call on President Mills to divest fossil fuels.

That future is now looking neither just nor sustainable, however. Unfortunately, despite the pledge to the contrary, Bowdoin is implicated in the destruction of its students’ future. We invest in fossil fuels; we invest in climate change.

Student activists at Bowdoin urged our president Barry Mills on Tuesday to divest our endowment from the ruin of civilization that the College’s purpose is to upkeep. President Mills had words of caution for us—the endowment is not something to be taken lightly, especially when we’re on the verge of hitting the symbolic $1 billion mark.

First, the president first warned us of divestment’s efficacy. Fossil fuel companies make their money through selling a product: fossil fuels. By buying natural gas to heat our school and oil to drive our cars, the students and the administration alike help the fossil fuel industry profit. This underscores that we cannot rely on divestment alone to prevent climate catastrophe. We also need to be researching ways in which colleges nation-wide can totally go fossil free, with wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

The fossil fuel industry’s existence, however, relies on this clean revolution never happening. By investing in fossil fuel companies, we also invest in the prolonging of fossil fuels as an energy source, delaying the emergence of renewables as a viable option. We must divest fossil fuels.

Second, the president conveyed the seriousness of divestment’s consequences. He claimed that our endowment would suffer such that the College would have to cut something significant. He gave us our pick: financial aid, staff wages, faculty salaries, or a comfortable student quality of life? That’s a lot of guilt on our consciences, but this isn’t an either/or situation. Although the College certainly could be creative in what it cuts, and although I’ve talked to a professor who would be ready to take a salary cut if we were to divest, Bowdoin may not have to make such sacrifices.

Hours after our meeting with President Mills, Middlebury announced it had started the formal process of looking into divestment. The school announced that nearly $32 million were invested in fossil fuels—a paltry 3.6% compared to Middlebury’s $900 million endowment. If all that money were taken out of fossil fuel companies and placed into socially responsible funds that generate a similar (if not an exact) return, would Middlebury then have to face slashing financial aid or staff wages? Unlikely. Bowdoin’s endowment is probably pretty comparable in terms of fossil fuel investments (although there’s no saying for sure, because transparency is another problem). Bowdoin can afford to divest, but can it afford not to? We must divest fossil fuels.

Finally—and this was the president’s biggest objection—the College, as an educational institution, has a fiduciary duty to use its donated funds in a manner that furthers education. When alumni give to Bowdoin, they give expecting their money to be maximized to best suit the educational needs of the students. Without universal support, especially from our own government, President Mills claims that he cannot divest from fossil fuels in order to support one socio-political agenda.

Fortunately, Mother Nature is not one socio-political agenda, but the socio-political agenda. We are all inhabitants of this earth and we all will be affected by a warming climate, the common denominator. The devastation will come disproportionately. Not only will the poor suffer more than the rich (Haiti did not emit the same amount of carbon dioxide as America, but Hurricane Sandy did not care), but also will the young suffer more than the old. Carbon we burn now willstill linger in the atmosphere long after President Mills has left office. The future that college presidents around the country leave us with is not the future as they inherited it. Ours is looking much bleaker.

Not to divest, then, is to advance a socio-political agenda that no one agrees with. Regardless of whether members of Congress believe in climate change, climate will change—unless we do something about it. So while the fossil fuel industry has been pumping millions of dollars into Congress to make sure Shell and BP never have to pay a carbon tax, we students will take a stand. The destruction of our future is where we draw the line. We must divest fossil fuels.

As President Mills relayed to us, divestment is not a matter to be taken lightly. But neither is our future. Bowdoin teaches us to rise to challenges. Because we find something difficult is not an excuse to give up the search for solutions. It should be no different if that something is difficult as well as profitable.

Divestment’s difficulty, then, lies only in the lack of money and political will. The concern over the endowment should reminds us at Bowdoin that we have more money than most. And now, we students are providing the will. We are polar bears standing up for polar bears, ensuring that the sun will continue to rise over a planet with a “just and sustainable future.”

Ultimately, the choice that divestment poses is whether Bowdoin supports that future or supports the backwards practices of the fossil fuel industry. The decision, much like our school colors, is black and white.

Sign the petition: http://act.350.org/sign/Fossil_Free_Bowdoin/

Like us on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/BowdoinCarbonNeutralCarbonFree

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