As students and professors prepare for the final push to finish another year at Bowdoin, and administrators led by President Barry Mills tend to the business of running an elite liberal arts college with a centuries-old reputation of excellence, what’s all this fuss being made over divestment? Or rather, given that the independent scientific community globally, including those at NASA, is practically unanimous in concluding that global warming is an extremely urgent planetary emergency, why aren’t people making a bigger fuss?
A review of recent articles in the Orient reveals a paucity of debate—only a handful of people have become involved, all generally in favor of divestment, trading verbal jabs with a cadre of anonymous screen names who may well be on the payroll of Koch Industries or the American Petroleum Institute.
Without repeating in full the cogent analysis of my classmate, Scott Budde ’81, in his February 13 Orient op-ed, I echo his conviction that a transparent discussion needs to occur between the Administration, the members of the Bowdoin Climate Action Committee, and the larger Bowdoin community. So far, the students urging divestment have been politely dismissed, with President Mills sidestepping the moral indefensibility of his position:
“Management of the endowment is squarely situated with our Board of Trustees and, to some extent with the President of the College,” President Mills reportedly told the Orient. “It is not something which at Bowdoin—or frankly any other institution—is subject to a large democratic effort as to how the money is invested.”
Nobody, to my knowledge, is suggesting that student groups should be making daily decisions on the management of the endowment. The divestment movement at Bowdoin is simply pointing out that at present, the College’s endowment investment strategy does not align with the underlying values set forth in the Bowdoin Environmental Mission Statement. Given the urgency of the climate emergency we face, it’s time to close that ethical chasm.
As President Mills has stated: "Global warming is one of the defining challenges of our time...Human activities are responsible for the problem, and working together humans have the ability to help solve the problem. That means taking serious action today to stop adding global warming pollution to the atmosphere. Bowdoin College is committed to helping lead the way."
Serious action? Committed to lead? That remains to be seen. If our children one day ask us what we did to stop the destruction of the planet, we will be left to lament the empty promises we made or let pass unchallenged.
In short, there is no rationale for maintaining Bowdoin’s small percentage of fossil fuel investments. Ethical issues aside, the argument that divestment will result in a $100 million loss to the endowment contains many hidden assumptions. When climate disasters increase in magnitude and frequency, perhaps sooner than we’d like to think, fossil fuel investments will plummet in value as people are forced to reckon with the terrible scientific justice of Mother Nature and ecological tipping points. And as Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org has stated, “If [a student's] college’s endowment portfolio has fossil-fuel stock, then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won’t have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree.”
Those who argue that divestment would be a symbolic gesture with little effect on financial markets or global decision makers are likely not ignorant of history (which would not favor their position), but rather desperately attempt to downplay and marginalize the social capital that the divestment movement is rapidly accruing. As Jay Carmona at 350.org puts it, “divestment is targeting the one thing that those [fossil fuel] companies can’t buy which is their reputation.” Bowdoin can choose to play smart here and stay ahead of the curve, or be dragged to the divestment table kicking and screaming.
During my sophomore year at Bowdoin, I engaged in an exercise with three other classmates in a social psychology lab experiment: we were presented with a mathematical game diagram and instructed to maximize the score. My self-centered, competitive, winner take-all, Wall Street-American world view shifted into gear and I won the game, or at least, I thought I had for about two seconds. The other three students were the rightful winners, as they had acted altruistically under the premise of mutual cooperation to achieve the highest possible cumulative score, which I had decidedly failed to match. That game was perhaps the most important moment of my four years of Bowdoin.
We now face the choice to either work together as a cooperative society to solve the greatest problem in human history, or to be content with lulling ourselves back into our comfort zone, accepting noble statements that espouse such cooperation, but clinging desperately to “me-first” on the inside. Our world is hanging in the balance. What will Bowdoin do?
Jordan Van Voast is a member of the Class of 1981.