“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.
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.