“Divestment spring” is what anti-fossil fuel protesters are calling their “escalated” forays into climate activism. Students at Yale, Harvard, Bowdoin College, Wesleyan University, University of Colorado-Boulder, Tufts University, University of Mary Washington, Tulane University, University of Colorado-Boulder, and Swarthmore College have left off writing petitions and instead staged sit-ins to demand their alma maters divest from fossil fuels.
Syracuse University announced its plans to divest on March 31, following a student sit-in in November and escalated action in the spring. The Mary Washington students held the president’s office for three weeks; Swarthmore Mountain Justice activists (students, alumni, and professors) filled a hallway in the finance office for more than four.
The nod to the “Arab Spring” is intentional. Divestment activists see their cause as cut from the same cloth as the Middle Eastern push for democracy. Fossil-fuel companies, per sustainability uber-activist Bill McKibben, have bought themselves the American political system, and hence are “Public Enemy Number 1.” College trustees, according to the students, are perhaps Public Enemy Number 2. Trustees enjoy “privileged” positions of power over students, and almost all of them have declined to cater to the schedules and the demands of activists who want de-oiled endowments now. That makes them, in the parlance of social-justice warriors, entrenchers of systematic student oppression.
Capitulate Or We’ll Scream
“President Mills has been allowed to act with unilateral conviction and disinterest (sic) in the opinions of the students and faculty around him,” Bowdoin Climate Action members charged after two dozen students marched into Mills’ office on April 1. His refusal to “compromise” by divesting made “meaningful dialogue…impossible” and evinced a “dangerous and deeply cynical view of higher education” in which administrators, not students, make administrative decisions.
At Yale, when 19 students who refused to vacate the president’s office were escorted out by campus police and cited for trespassing, Fossil Free Yale reprimanded the administration: “Yale’s failure to engage in a conversation on climate justice shows just how unaccountable the true decision-makers are to the Yale community.” President Salovey had spoken with and listened to the protestors shortly after they arrived at his office on the morning of April 9, but “conversation” has now become social-justice code for “capitulation.” Hence Fossil Free Yale Project Manager Mitch Barrows could report with a straight face, “Yale would rather arrest its students than re-engage in the conversation.”
Swarthmore students setting up house in a finance office hallway cited a litany of grievances, foremost that the board of managers had shirked “productive dialogue” by declining, in a series of meetings with the activists, to develop a plan to divest. “We cannot stand idly by,” Swarthmore activists announced in a press release, while the board chairman and finance chairman “continue to prevent the Board of Managers from responding to the mandate from the Swarthmore community to align our investments with our values.” When the board announced on May 2 its decision to maintain endowment fossil-fuel investments, activists accused the managers of crossing a “mandate from the Swarthmore community” and standing “on the wrong side of history.”
When campus police escorted University of Mary Washington student activists out of the president’s office after a three-week stay, the UMW Divest Twitter account lit up with gleeful horror at the “police action” perpetrated against their members. “Our admin watched as their own students were arrested for engaging in an entirely peaceful protest. We know whose side they’re on,” typed campaign leader Zakaria Kronemer. #WhoseSide is the trademark hashtag of the activists, a shameless attempt to tag any administrator’s disagreement with the tactic as opposition to the students.
American Education Is Just Like Middle Eastern Genocide
There’s a deep irony in a clique of privileged students at prestigious, comfortable, safe-space-swaddled institutions playing protest and feigning oppression at a time when genocide is chewing up the Middle East and democracy is severely threatened in Eastern Europe. Then again, this is the generation that swooned when Hillary Clinton called climate change “the most consequential, urgent” issue facing the world and went wild when President Obama repeated the trope during his State of the Union address.
I predicted “escalation” sit-in season, because I’ve been talking to student protestors and following their divestment campaigns for more than a year now. My key findings are traced out in a chapter of “Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism,” a new report from the National Association of Scholars. I was there when Divest UMass leader Varshini Prakash told her fellow activists, “This is about us! This is about power!” Prakash, a paid “Fossil Free Fellow” with McKibben’s 350.org, was leading a training session the day before the People’s Climate March in September.
“This is about intimidation and power,” Prakash instructed her audience of student activists flown in from around the country. “We are the generation that will deal with the effects of climate change”—and therefore, the generation that should call all the shots.
Prakash got some pushback from students who saw their cause as a noble self-giving commitment to save animals from heat waves and their fellow neighbors from smog. Many divestment campaigns consider themselves “allies” of “frontlines” communities whose backyards have become coal mines and landfills and who blame their children’s asthma on industrial pollution. Swarthmore students take an annual trip to West Virginia coal country to refresh their witness to the environmental damage they want to divest from. Self-conscious of their own “privilege,” their protests are meant to exude “solidarity” with those less-endowed.
Watch Me Be So, Like, Totally Selfless, Guys
But self-conscious selflessness can also be a recipe for selfishness. Constant navel-gazing at one’s own “privilege” in attempts to advance social justice will magnify all social grievances to the level of assaults on human dignity. That makes all attempts to right those wrongs into moral crusades with deeply personal commitments.
Divestment has been roundly criticized even by stalwart environmentalists who recognize its inefficacy at stalling oil drilling or persuading Americans to consume less energy. But such utilitarian calculus is philistinism to the activists. Disagreement, to them, signifies penny-pinching heartlessness. They’ve been told, even by the most altruistic of environmentalists, that this is the issue of their times, that they can build on the success of the civil-rights movement, the gay-rights movement, and earlier labor movements to make sustainability the crowning achievement of Generation Y. That makes reality checks tough to swallow.
Activists say they want a conversation about divestment, and they want administrators to admit that they can be proven wrong. Divestment activists would do well to take their own advice.