Divestment: To fulfill Offer of the College, we should divest
I write to address two issues raised in recent Orient articles: whether environmental literacy should be a distribution requirement, and whether the College should divest from fossil fuels. When David Orr wrote, “All education is environmental education,” he could have had in mind the second line of William DeWitt Hyde’s Offers of the College: “To count Nature a familiar acquaintance.” Bowdoin’s environmental studies program is built on that same ideal; its website emphasizes that “A liberal arts education should promote environmental literacy: an understanding of the world around us… our role in it, and our effects upon it.” Compared to most colleges, Bowdoin has a vibrant ES program and a rich array of courses that address sustainability. We are leaders in terms of campus recycling, reducing our carbon footprint, etc. But is the College actually fulfilling Hyde’s famous offer? Do our students graduate with enough know-how and motivation to address the hugely serious environmental problems they will inherit? Ten years ago, when the Curriculum and Education Policy Committee was working on a new system of distribution requirements, a number of faculty argued that environmental literacy ought to be included. Today, 10 years deeper into an extinction crisis, and with our climate changing right before our eyes, it’s time for our curricular structure to catch up. Given logistical problems such as staffing new courses, adding a distribution requirement in environmental literacy may not be the best answer. But I believe the College needs to show much more urgency and creativity in trying to figure out what the best answer might be.
As for the proposal for Bowdoin to divest from investments in fossil fuels—gradually, responsibly, by targeting the most egregious fossil fuel companies, and without unduly compromising our core programs and commitments—I support it for several reasons. First, the tough questions asked by the student Climate Action group have sparked exactly the sort of debates one would hope to hear on an intellectually engaged college campus. Not just among students, but also among a faculty and administration that seem newly energized by our students to grapple seriously with environmental issues. Witness the packed attendance at the Sustainability Panel two weeks ago, as well as recent film showings and seminars by visiting speakers on the issue of climate change. Second, our curriculum says a lot about what Bowdoin stands for. So does our endowment; it should reflect the same values as our curriculum. If in the classroom we decry the mining and burning of fossil fuels, should the College be enjoying profits from those activities? Third, although divestment won’t solve the problem of our overreliance on fossil fuels, it’s a start. Even symbolic gestures can have an outsized educational impact. Two colleges in Maine have already made the move to divest, leveraging their relatively small endowments to make a nationwide statement about sustainability. Soon, though, to effect change we will need to end public subsidies for oil and gas companies and put a price on fuels that reflects their true environmental and social costs.
Finally, we don’t have to be purists or turn our back on modernity in order to make a difference. After all, safeguarding our environment for future generations is a marathon, not a sprint. But our students should know that the issues are real, complicated, serious, and upon us. So, all hands on deck.