Growing up just outside of Houston, in a suburb containing the sixth-largest refinery in the United States, the fossil fuel industry was omnipresent in my childhood.
From confusing the refineries’ smoke stacks for “cloud makers,” to knowing far too many family members—beside myself—who developed asthma, I was always peripherally aware of the fossil fuel industry, without considering what it meant to be raised in the center of an extractive economy. Fish, as they say, do not know they are in water, and growing up less than a mile from seven different major oil refineries, I was too close to really think critically of their effects.
As a first year I became sick and found it hard to breathe every time I returned to Houston. I realized that I was safer away from home than in it.
In the process, I learned how my hometown of Deer Park, Texas, is in the first percentile of worst air toxicity in America. The Shell refinery that employs so many of my family friends had recently settled a lawsuit with the Environmental Protection Agency for years of Clean Air Act violations to the tune of over $117 million.
Living within two miles of the refineries down my own street increased my chances of developing leukemia by 56 percent.
What had for so long been merely background scenery for me—cloud makers and perpetual copper skies—now sharpened viscerally into a menacing industrial reality. While I’ve enjoyed the comforts of my new life in Maine, I felt guilty and helpless that my family remained exposed, and my community remained unaware.
Overnight, my ideological support for the Bowdoin Climate Action’s (BCA) fossil fuel divestment campaign transformed into active participation. The dangerous realities of the fossil fuel industry lived too close to home—literally.
To remain silent was no longer an option. That the College to which I had chosen to dedicate four years of my life continues to invest in and profit from the industry that is polluting my home is more than antithetical to my own personal values—it is antithetical to Bowdoin’s own. An extractive economy does not aid the common good.
By investing in the fossil fuel industry, Bowdoin is consenting to the practices of the fossil fuel industry and tacitly approving of communities like mine remaining financially dependent upon an industry that is polluting our air and poisoning our health. That my Bowdoin tuition is indirectly funding the industry that is destroying my home is about more than carbon budgets, two degrees Celsius or investment portfolios—it’s about my family.
Divestment is the tactic, and climate justice is the goal. Fossil fuel pollution disproportionately affects low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. The disastrous impacts of climate change will only exacerbate already existing inequalities. This is a justice issue harming real people in America in 2015.
Climate justice isn’t just about climate change, however. It’s about what we value—life, land, resources and people. The same systems that perpetuate other social injustices fuel the climate crisis. In believing we can somehow recycle ourselves out of a climate catastrophe, Bowdoin is turning a blind eye to larger systems of oppression.
Lessening the influence of the fossil fuel industry and seeking justice for those harmed by its violent business model are at the very heart of the movement for fossil fuel divestment.
It’s for all of these reasons and many more that I joined BCA’s divestment campaign this time last year. While the College has had the opportunity to lead, it is quickly falling behind our peer institutions and ignoring the calls of student and faculty voices to disentangle ourselves from our ties to the fossil fuel industry.
Since the movement’s inception, 25 colleges and hundreds of institutions, whose endowments total over $50 billion, have divested worldwide. From Stanford, which divested from coal companies last May, to the New School and the University of Maine system last week, divestment is winning and reaching far beyond the Bowdoin bubble.
After two years of building support on campus, myself and three other members of BCA met with the Board of Trustees last October to formally propose divestment at the College.
Since our meeting, there have been 112 days of silence from the Board of Trustees. We have proceeded through the proper channels of engagement and have been repeatedly ignored. We petitioned. We rallied. We presented our case.
As the Trustees meet this weekend, I want them to keep in mind what the fossil fuel industry is doing to my hometown. Academic institutions are endowed for the common good, and the Trustees have a choice to make. Do they stand with me and my hometown, or the fossil fuel industry? Bowdoin, whose side are you on?
Allyson Gross is a member of the Class of 2016.