The fossil free movement at Harvard

“Symbols matter, because they signal our intent, and they invite other people to join in our intent.” – Naomi Oreskes, Professor, Harvard University.


Almost 20 years go by since that confident moment in Kyoto when leaders of nearly all the planet’s nations signed on to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the rain, that day, on the grounds of JFK airport, a proud President Clinton had declared, “[The agreement] reflects a commitment by our generation to act in the interest of future generations.”

Babies born that year are adults now. They look back on two decades of political gridlock and inaction. In a way, they are the first generation our leadership has failed, on that promise, to protect.

This new generation of young adults, though yet individually politically unpowerful, is the force behind the fossil fuel divestment movement now overtaking college campuses across the country. Their message to the leadership is clear: inaction is action. You’re responsible.

And it’s catching on. In May 2014, Stanford became the largest university to pledge disinvestment from a fossil fuel sector: specifically, coal. It joins a list of 26 colleges and universities that have thusfar made similar commitments.

Harvard faculty answer questions at a Divest Harvard event.

Harvard faculty answer questions at a Divest Harvard event.

Divestment as a political tool has a proven record: the tobacco industry in the 1980’s; South Africa beginning in the 1970’s. Though divestment’s direct financial effects are next to zero, a report published by Oxford University, found “almost every divestment campaign… successful in lobbying for restrictive legislation.”

Reflective perhaps of the digital age and the magnitude of the cause, the fossil fuel divestment movement is now the fastest growing campaign of its kind in history.

Just last week, MIT, responding to campus pressure, held the first public debate on the merits of fossil fuel divestment. The school administration invited three panelists each to argue for and against MIT’s participation. The discussion centered on not whether, but how, MIT, a thought and technology leader, should advocate for change. Does it do this through divestment, send a powerful sociopolitical message, and jeopardize “big oil”-funded research on campus? Or can they work from within the system, persuading the fossil fuel industry to work for the planet’s (and their own) long-term interests?

Meanwhile, it’s Heat Week at Harvard University, a weeklong awareness and activism event organized by the Divest Harvard student organization to get the message out. They are holding rallies with famous alumni speakers; they are carrying signs; they are painting sidewalks.  They’re watching closely what happens at MIT as their own administration has stiffly resisted continuing pressures.

Last year, Ben Franta, PhD student at Harvard and one of the board members of Divest Harvard, publicly collided with Harvard President Drew Faust, in a series of open letters.  Hers, to the Harvard community, shared her “strong presumption against divesting investment assets,” due, largely, to her fear of Harvard becoming a “political actor.”  And his, addressed to Faust, published in The Nation, accused her of being “in denial… of important political realities”, and dismissive of the group’s effort at a serious on campus discussion.

He wrote, “you have shown an eagerness to engage with the fossil fuel industry. I ask that you show the same eagerness to engage with members of your own Harvard community.”

I asked Ben what he wants to accomplish, as a leader of the movement at Harvard, why he believes in it so strongly, and for his thoughts on their current progress and challenges. His responses, long but instructive, are given in full below.

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First warm day

The sun on my skin was a feeling I’d missed.  Amidst this slow spring, after the long cold winter, ahead of the week of rain, suddenly, a perfect day.  Outside the law school, people sunbathed next to piles of snow.  I invited Micha out for a walk to the Bio building.  We took the sunniest path.  There, we picked out notebooks, pens, petri dishes.  For the first time this year, I went without a coat.  I bought a Mini vortex mixer for the downstairs lab.

Then we didn’t do much work in the afternoon.  With the sun coming in our windows it was hard to sit still.  Prit suggested we go for some ice cream.  After some discussion, ice cream turned into beers, and we sat in the ampitheater outside LISE and shared a six pack until the  sun went down behind the buildings and it started feeling chilly again.

Winter Hazards III

After the third blizzard there were 2 dead days while the city scrambled.  School was closed and public transit suspended.  Unusual winter hazards began cropping up all over.  Here, the roof of a warehouse collapsed.  There, an old man is run over by a plow truck.  Snow has short-circuited the subway tracks.  A car is crushed by a falling icicle.

There was talk of melting the snow, talk of dumping trucks full of it into the ocean.  My mom called and messaged daily with genuine concern in her voice.  Meanwhile, in our snow cave, we sat, we drank wine, we tele-conferenced, we cooked elaborate meals and played games of DOTA.

Winter Hazards II

My mom asked me on the phone if I was feeling a bit pent up. I said I was feeling definitely a little stuck. Then she said it was almost 60 degrees the other day in Maryland and I asked her to please stop telling me about the wonderful weather she is having.

Larisa sent me today a poem about a solid, quiet love.  It makes me feel simultaneously empowered, and also weak and ashamed.


Take Love for Granted
by Jack Ridl

Assume it’s in the kitchen,
under the couch, high
in the pine tree out back,
behind the paint cans
in the garage. Don’t try
proving your love
is bigger than the Grand
Canyon, the Milky Way,
the urban sprawl of L.A.
Take it for granted. Take it
out with the garbage. Bring
it in with the takeout. Take
it for a walk with the dog.
Wake it every day, say,
“Good morning.” Then
make the coffee. Warm
the cups. Don’t expect much
of the day. Be glad when
you make it back to bed.
Be glad he threw out that
box of old hats. Be glad
she leaves her shoes
in the hall. Snow will
come. Spring will show up.
Summer will be humid.
The leaves will fall
in the fall. That’s more
than you need. We can
love anybody, even
everybody. But you
can love the silence,
sighing and saying to
yourself, “That’ s her.”
“That’s him.” Then to
each other, “I know!
Let’s go out for breakfast!”


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