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From apartheid to the climate crisis: Divestment at Princeton

Photo Credit: Benita/Pixabay
Photo Credit: Benita/Pixabay

35 years ago, my eyes were opened to the power of financial protest to shape the world. As an undergraduate at the University, I was part of the last wave of students who pressured the University to divest from South African investments. Our movement was part of a sustained, global campaign to end apartheid. We marched, and we chanted, “Princeton divest, oh yeah! Just like the rest, oh yeah!” We were briefly arrested, and in 1985, I wrote an op-ed calling on the University to divest. This experience convinced me that Margaret Mead was right: a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

Now an alumnus, I am again moved to action, this time to support Divest Princeton, a group of students who are pressuring the University to remove fossil fuel assets from its $26 billion endowment. Others, including Desmond Tutu, have made the link between the struggle for justice in South Africa and the struggle to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

Why is divestment necessary? The world is experiencing a climate emergency, with ten years to cut carbon emissions by 45 percent to prevent true catastrophe. Only a massive disruption of current practices, including business practices, will bring that change quickly enough. As Margaret Salamon explains in her book, Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, this disruption requires an emergency psychology akin to that of a world war. We must act, all together, right now, no matter what it takes.

Fossil fuel companies’ campaigns of misinformation and denialism have unconscionably manipulated public perception and heightened climate risks, as explained by Nathaniel Rich in Losing Earth: A Recent History. Decades of these sinister practices have already cost millions of lives and destroyed communities and cultures around the world, disproportionately affecting those who are least responsible for the current crisis. The fossil fuel lobby continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year to block or delay climate-motivated policy. Fossil fuel emissions are fueling the droughts and floods that lead to illness, refugee crises, and threats to US security. More directly, fossil fuel particulates are unequivocally associated with respiratory illness and neuropsychiatric disorders that negatively impact the health of all young people, including Princeton students, right now.

Some will say the University should use its influence to remain in the conversation with fossil fuel companies. But if preserving the planet is our intent, we must acknowledge divestiture has worked and stockholder pressure has not. Supporting companies that consistently distort the truth in order to obtain massive subsidies and market gain unavoidably supports the pre-eminence of these companies over others.

Students are told their divestment demands politicize the endowment. But the energy industry’s lobbying campaign, which has trafficked blatant lies and distorted the conversation around climate change, has undeniably been political all along. Climate change is evidentiary. Investing in politicized, non-scientific positions that destroy life cannot be justified on a campus committed to truth.

All universities, Princeton included, fundamentally seek to promote higher ideals, the pursuit of truth, and the promotion of human well-being, as reflected in the informal motto taught to every student on entry, “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”  Failure to address the climate crisis has been declared a violation of fundamental human rights. The Dutch Supreme Court recently affirmed that the Netherlands has an obligation to stop the catastrophic effects of climate change, which threatens the lives and well-being of its citizens and others around the world.

The health impacts of climate change for young people include cognitive damage, rising rates of psychiatric disorders, and increasing stress in every system necessary to thrive. Continued investment in fossil fuels actively undermines the intellectual and personal future of the students Princeton and other universities seek to foster, as well as our human and natural communities.

To President Eisgruber and to all other universities entrusted with the welfare of our young people: Supporting fossil fuel companies is a political position that harms your students. Divest of fossil fuel assets, and of companies that invest in them.

Dr. Elizabeth Haase ’85 is a psychiatrist and a founding member of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance.

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