We must hold all leaders accountable, even those on our side

by Julia Berkman-Hill, class of 2017

It was surreal standing at the rope line of a Hillary Clinton event in Portsmouth, NH last Saturday evening, knowing that in a few moments I would be pressing her on a question she has evaded for months. What I had to do was so simple, but my heart pounded nonetheless. I took a deep breath, reached for her hand, and asked, “Secretary Clinton, will you pledge to stop taking money from fossil fuel lobbyists?” Immediately, her face hardened and she forcefully retracted her hand without a word.

Debriefing the event later that evening, another activist mentioned that she always felt nervous putting pressure on Clinton since she felt accountable to her in a way she didn’t feel accountable to the Republicans we were also pushing on climate issues.

I found that feeling in myself, too. Clinton does share a lot of my values, and she is an amazingly effective politician. She believes in climate change, renewable energy, a woman’s right to choose, as well as lots of other liberal things. In some ways, it’s easy to feel that she is good enough. It’s easy to feel that I should be fighting for her instead of fighting for better policies from her.

At the same time, I see the effect that activism has had on her, pushing her on issues such as oil extraction on public lands. All summer, protesters publicly disrupted her town halls and rallies chanting “Act on climate!” and holding banners and signs. Shortly after Clinton came out against Arctic drilling, Allyson Gross ’16 interrupted Clinton at a rally in Portland, asking her about her position on the Keystone Pipeline. Five days after that action, Clinton came out against the Keystone pipeline as well. The first time she was pressed on each of those issues, and the fifth time or even the fiftieth, she refused to take a stand. It is the persistence of activists across the country that has led her to move steadily to the left.

Still, Hillary continues to take money from the fossil fuel industry, and she is not the only one. When I came to Bowdoin, I felt that it, like Clinton, was good enough. However, not only is Bowdoin’s endowment invested in oil and gas, but plenty of the College’s trustees are heavily invested personally in these industries, too.

When I learned that Sheldon Stone, a Trustee who sits on the Investment Committeeruns a hedge fund with $2 billion in energy investments, largely oil and gas, it put Bowdoin’s silence on divestment into perspective. If he and other trustees are profiting from the companies that are polluting our communities, he would have no incentive to engage productively on divestment from those companies. When I further heard that Greenpeace referred to Stone as the “kingpin of carbon” in 2014 and that Stone and his wife have donated generously to Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio, I understood why he and other trustees are not seriously addressing Bowdoin’s complicity in the climate crisis. Even if a concern for personal profits doesn’t directly affect his vision of Bowdoin’s future, Stone’s investments in oil and gas send a clear message that he stands on the side of fossil fuels.

A good number of first years I’ve talked to have asked me why I think Bowdoin has yet to divest. After all, barrels that transport oil are currently worth more than the oil inside of them. We have more evidence than ever that climate change is happening now and that it’s being caused by the fossil fuel industry. We know that oil refineries and coal plants are hurting our citizens’ health and threatening the existence of communities around the world who are vulnerable to rising seas and extreme weather.

And still, Bowdoin stays silent on divestment and silent on its connections to the fossil fuel industry. I haven’t known how to respond to those first years, because to me, and to them, divestment seems like common sense, and the inaccessibility of the Board has been incredibly frustrating and without easy explanation.

I think the answer is pretty clear to me now. Through their personal investments, many Bowdoin trustees have shown they have a stake in the continuing success of oil and gas companies. They have yet to show, however, their stake in mitigating the effects of climate change or transitioning to a new and sustainable economy.

As students at this institution we have a right to know how and why key decisions are made at Bowdoin, and understanding our trustees’ backgrounds is a big part of that. Just like Hillary, Bowdoin is not perfect. Bowdoin knew about these ties to the fossil fuel industry. Let’s keep asking questions. Let’s keep working to make Bowdoin reflect our values.


Finding Judaism in my passion for environmental activism

by Jonah Watt, class of 2018

Originally published October 16, 2015

Every Sunday morning for 10 years, I sat in my Hebrew school classroom, passing around a small tin tzedakah box and emptying my pockets full of loose change into it. At the end of the year, we dumped out the contents and counted the money inside. In an exercise of early childhood democracy, we would vote as a class where to donate the tzedakah, and then our teacher would send a check to the animal shelter or local food pantry of our choosing.
I grew up in a Jewish family and a vibrant Jewish community, raised on the values of tzedakah (justice), tikkun olam (repairing the world) and l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation). I was taught how to promote justice, how to engage in acts of repairing the world and how it was my responsibility to care for the planet and to ensure that it was left in the same condition, if not better, for my children and future generations. (Finding a Jewish spouse and producing these future generations was another value imparted on me from an early age.)
When I came to Bowdoin, I attended Hillel candle lighting for the first few weeks, and then less and less, much to my mother’s chagrin. Instead, I spent more and more time at Bowdoin Climate Action (BCA) meetings, an initially daunting community filled with what I perceived to be radical eco-terrorists.
For a while, it seemed that my Judaism had been put on the backburner, replaced by a newfound love for climate action. That is, until a few weeks ago, when I was asked to be on a panel for the teach-in. In preparation for this event, I dug down and found my Jewish identity and values deeply sedimented in my climate activism.
The panelists were asked to find texts from our religions that shape our relationship with nature and climate change. I struggled to find excerpts from our torah on how to avoid disastrous floods (besides ushering two of every animal species into an ark) or how to combat the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on not only our climate but our political and economic structures as well.
After reflecting on all of my Hebrew school torah study, I came to realize that there were no explicit teachings or stories that informed my stance on climate change; rather, the values that I had grown up with had become internalized and, unknowingly, drove my advocacy for climate justice.
In my work with BCA, I find examples of tzedakah, tikkun olam and l’dor v’dor. Fighting for a more sustainable, fossil-free world, we advocate for climate and racial justice and act to ensure that we can pass on an inheritable world to our children. Though I had not realized it until I was asked to find direct relations between my faith and my stance on climate change, my Jewish values had been informing my quest for climate justice since the beginning.
As I campaign for fossil fuel divestment, I think back to my days in Hebrew school, passing around the tzedakah box and donating loose change to worthy causes. Though the contents of a tzedakah box and the contents of our endowment are vastly different pools of money, I firmly believe that they should be regulated by the same guiding principles with which I was raised. And though I may not be the one voting on where our endowment’s tzedakah money is invested, I sure as hell won’t stand idly by as they go towards industries antithetical to my values.
Just as I know that five-year-old me would not have voted to donate our tzedakah money to Shell, Exxon or any other corporation that profits from the destruction of our planet and our people, I know with equal conviction that current-day me would not support such investments in injustice, either.