In the fall of 2012, when the global campaign to divest university endowments from fossil fuel holdings was just getting underway, the idea behind it, as Bill McKibben told me at the time, was “to a get a fight started, and to get people in important places talking actively about the culpability of the fossil fuel industry for the trouble that we’re in.”
Two and a half years later, it’s fair to say that the fight McKibben wanted has been engaged, in earnest, and that those conversations about the industry’s role in our impending catastrophe are now happening in elite precincts—even, dare I say, going mainstream. Last spring, Stanford University, under pressure from students, alumni, and faculty, announced that it would begin to divest, starting with coal. It joins more than twenty US colleges and universities that have committed to divest, most recently Syracuse and The New School.
In September, the Rockefeller siblings, heirs to the Standard Oil/Exxon fortune, announced that they would divest their philanthropic fund—having tried and failed in their efforts at shareholder engagement. In a first among media companies, The Guardian announced last month that it would divest, and then joined with 350.org in a campaign to persuade the world’s two largest charitable funds, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the US and the Wellcome Trust in the UK, that fossil fuel holdings are no longer morally and financially tenable. Just last week, the University of Edinburgh—alma mater of Charles Darwin and Adam Smith—announced a recommendation by senior managers to divest from coal and tar sands. It followed Glasgow University, which announced in October that it would divest. And so the honor roll grows.
Speaking at Harvard University last Friday, McKibben told a boisterous standing-room crowd, “When arguably the first family of fossil fuel has lost confidence in coal and gas and oil, and says this is not what John D. Rockefeller would be doing, then we’re at the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel age. The question is how quickly we can make it end.”
Not everyone is getting the message. McKibben and I were back on the Harvard campus last week, along with a couple hundred other alums—including Cornel West and former Senator Tim Wirth of Colorado—because those who run the world’s richest university have refused to engage in an open debate on the issue, despite the relentless efforts of the student-led Divest Harvard campaign (in which I’ve been engaged since 2012). In fact, last year the Harvard Corporation increased seven fold its direct holdings in fossil-fuel companies. So we were there to join the students in a week of direct action (dubbed “Heat Week”), successfully shutting down Massachusetts Hall, where President Drew Faust has her office, and University Hall, the main administration building (even occupying the Harvard Alumni Association office for two straight nights). The students’ weeklong protest was part of a spring wave of escalation on campuses around the country, from Tulane to the University of Mary Washington to Swarthmore and Yale.