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Filthy Lucre

The new divestment movement calls on schools to get their money out of dirty energy

By Brooke Jarvis


Washington University students protest the Keystone XL pipeline.

UNC's campaign grew out of the 2010 student movement that convinced the school to stop burning coal at a university-run power plant near campus. Today's campaigners see that victory as a first step toward campus sustainability. "It's great that we're not polluting our own campus, but we're still investing in companies that pollute other communities," Largess says. He sees the disconnect as a form of greenwashing--more about appearance than impact.

Asked why they got involved with divestment, many students answer that too many on-campus environmental groups focus on goals that feel too small in the face of global climate change: recycling, say, or incremental improvements in campus energy efficiency. "Divestment acknowledges the scope of the problem," Boss says. "It makes the university think about sustainability as more than PR. We have to take moral and ethical leadership on these issues."

"The people who are doing this are doing it because they love this university. They want it to do the right thing."
—Rachel Goldstein

Boss points to the story of Christopher C. Fordham III, who as UNC chancellor in the 1980s sided with students and supported the school's ultimately successful antiapartheid divestment movement. Fordham considered the decision to be a high point in his career. Current administrators have told UNC students that climate change is a different story--not a human rights issue like apartheid, and not enough of an "extraordinary circumstance" to warrant divestment.

"If climate change isn't an extraordinary circumstance, then what is?" Ruddy asks. "We came away from that just stunned," says McAnulty. "But I didn't think, 'This is impossible.' I just thought, 'We have to educate them.'"


The goal of student climate activists may be to change their universities' policies, but they recognize that the process is also changing them. "It's a huge part of what I'm getting out of college," Goldstein says. "I'm learning more doing this than I do in a lot of my classes."

Trying to get a major university to change how it invests is the most high-stakes, involved work many students have ever done. Students research the details of their schools' holdings, learn the complex ways in which endowments are managed, become conversant with climate science, and discuss the future economic impact of popping the carbon bubble. They meet and debate with leading administrators and make their case to students, faculty, and alumni. They write editorials, plan events, and compare strategies with students from other schools. The experience, they believe, is preparing them to keep having an impact after they graduate.

"Divestment acknowledges the scope of the problem. . . . It makes the university think about sustainability as more than PR." —Stewart Boss

McAnulty remembers the first time a reporter from the Associated Press called to talk about the UNC divestment campaign. She panicked and tried to hand the phone off to Boss, who was older and had more experience dealing with the media. Boss wanted to make sure the younger students learned the skills they would need to take over. "You've got this," he told her, and she did the interview. Now she handles media outreach for the campaign. "Seeing her talk to very important reporters at the state's biggest newspaper like it ain't no thing is really rewarding," Boss says.

Ruddy calls getting involved in divestment the best decision she's made at UNC. For one thing, it's changing how she thinks about her future: "We want to keep making change like this for the rest of our lives. A year ago I never would have been thinking of environmental organizing as a career." Adds McAnulty, "A year ago I didn't even know you could make it a career."


Students at Seattle University march to the administration offices. For the divestment movement, Bill McKibben says, a fight is "as good as a win." | Photo courtesy of Seattle University's Sustainable Student Action Club

But Ruddy doesn't have any illusions about the difficulty of the task ahead. "We meet with students, and they're all so idealistic--they care so much about climate change," she says. "It's when we work with the administrators that we realize not everyone is on our side. We realize how tough it is." Ruddy now feels prepared to influence important decisions. "A lot of what I've learned from this campaign is from closed meetings with administrators--learning how to be professional, how to speak the language."

Divestment is also changing how students experience college. Goldstein and Salzman met through their divestment work and have since become close friends. "It's a community at this point," says Goldstein. McAnulty, who transferred to UNC as a sophomore, says getting involved with divestment quickly plugged her into a group of new friends who share her fears and her dedication.

"If climate change isn't an extraordinary circumstance, then what is?"
—Jasmine Ruddy

And because so many college campuses have divestment movements, students are able to network and share strategies with peers across the country--about what arguments work with administrators, for example, and how to convince alumni to respond to fundraising calls with demands for more responsible investing. Last spring, students from some 80 schools, including UNC, Washington University, and Seattle University, converged at Swarthmore College for a weekend of trainings and discussion. "We know that power is not in one or two schools," Jahr says. "The power comes when a lot of schools care enough to choose to divest."

What students are learning may be as important as their goals, Boss contends: "It's exciting if we can achieve some sort of victory on campus, but it's also a big deal to activate people in the climate movement, to get them to engage and think this is something they're going to do after college."

Seattle University states its mission as "empowering leaders for a just and humane world." Jahr credits her passion for divestment to internalizing that goal over her four years as a student. When people ask why it matters whether the school invests in fossil fuel companies, she says, "you can point back to that mission."

Student after student makes the same point: Pressuring their schools to divest isn't about fighting them, but about pushing them to be their best. "The people who are doing this are doing it because they love this university," Goldstein says. "They want it to do the right thing."

At UNC Chapel Hill, the transition from stopping a coal-fired power plant to trying to stop coal investments has got the students thinking about what the next stage will be. Largess imagines meeting a new group of freshmen in a few years, mentoring them as Boss and other students have mentored him, and handing off a campaign with a new and larger goal, one uniting campuses across the state: "You're going to change how Duke Energy does business in North Carolina," he says he'd tell them. "Dude, that gave me chills," Angara says.


BROOKE JARVIS writes on environmental science, politics, and activism.
This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

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