Sometimes, however, change does come. Consider what happened in the 1980s, when 55 colleges and universities either fully or partially divested from South Africa, which suffered under a cruel apartheid regime. Of this campaign, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a renowned opponent of apartheid, said the following in a New York Times op-ed: “There is no greater testament to the basic dignity of ordinary people everywhere than the divestment movement of the 1980s.” In other words, divestment in no small way contributed to the downfall of the horrific apartheid regime.
Though much has changed since then, we unfortunately find ourselves once again embroiled in a fight against a terrible regime. We did not choose this fight: the times demanded it. We saw what havoc Hurricane Sandy wreaked on the Northeast and what hell the wildfires and drought that raged across the nation raised this summer. This does not include the destruction that climate change is causing all over the world. It should come as no surprise then, by the reckoning of economist Sir David Stern, inaction on climate change will cost us 5 percent of global GDP each year, “now and forever.”
The situation becomes undoubtedly more troubling in light of the fact that fossil-fuel companies — which, according to one writer, hold “five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn” — continue to lobby against action on climate change. This is why these firms, with their iron grip on Washington D.C. and capitals around the world, deserve to be a called a regime — and a frightening one at that. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, ExxonMobil, which journalist Steve Coll rightly calls “a private empire,” spent close to $3 million on political activities in 2012 alone. That is to say, there’s a reason why action on climate change has been blocked time and time again.
At this point, you might be wondering how you, as a Princeton student, alum, faculty member, staff or parent, are connected to the terrifying beast that is the fossil-fuel industry. The answer is simple: through the endowment. I am well aware of the fact that the endowment is a touchy subject. Mere discussion of it brings up all sorts of unpleasant conversations of power and inequality.
It does not have to be this way. We are well-endowed, which makes us the envy of many institutions. When the University does something with its endowment, it is significant: The University is showing its concern or lack thereof about a given issue. Beyond that, Princeton University itself has great sway in academia and the halls of power. In short, then, whatever the University does with its sizable endowment, it resonates through society and the world at large.
The University, however, is more than just a large endowment; a set of core values defines this prestigious institution. These core values manifest themselves in the University’s unofficial motto: “In the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” The meaning of these words is simple and incredibly beautiful: In all matters, Princeton University will act in the best interest of the nation and the world. The University is essentially saying it’s a save-the-world type.
Thus, if Princeton is to live up to the true meaning of its creed, we as the Princeton community must stop the University from investing in what Go Fossil Free, a campaign led by 350.org with support from a number of other environmental groups, identifies as the top 200 worst publicly traded fossil-fuel companies.
This demand is by no means illegal, as Will Sullivan ’09 was alleging earlier in these pages. Were it illegal, the 55 colleges and universities that either fully or partially divested from South Africa would not have been able to do so. It’s also worth noting that, when I spoke with him, Sullivan made it clear that he supports the social and political goals of the divestment movement, but noted that profit maximization should be the University’s primary goal.
But that is not enough. If we truly wish to end the regime that is bringing us closer and closer to climate catastrophe and to live by our words, we should divest immediately. Though it is tough, change can happen.
Isaac Lederman is a sophomore from New York, N.Y. He is also the co-president of Students United for a Responsible Global Environment (SURGE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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