Harvard Management Company executive Colin Butterfield recently took divestment activists by surprise when he announced that he would not invest in fossil fuels, including minerals, oil, and gas. “I clearly feel that we are stealing from the future generations,” he said. “When you go out there and invest in natural resources, and you start looking at what’s happening in the world of natural resources, it’s pretty scary.”
For the students of Divest Harvard, a movement I co-founded in 2012, this is a welcome and long-awaited sign that reason and righteousness can prevail. Butterfield acknowledged what we have long fought to instill in our community: Every dollar of profit from fossil fuels is a theft of the future. This is the case even without the official sanction of university leaders who have stubbornly refused to acknowledge that fossil-fuel investment constitutes what Harvard Professor Jane Mansbridge called “an immoral bet.” Harvard President Drew Faust has stubbornly refused even to debate divestment with students and faculty, let alone exert moral leadership on this urgent subject. Such has been the state of affairs in the world’s wealthiest and most prestigious university, whose cherished motto is veritas—truth.
Butterfield’s declaration brings home two critical lessons for today’s citizens and activists. First, youth are the true leaders in our age of climate justice. As Bill McKibben wrote in The Guardian upon hearing Butterfield’s announcement, “Credit a remarkable campaign. Harvard students—like those at so many other places, including Penn and Cal where campaigners are currently sitting in—waged a relentless fight, even as officials told them no over and over again.” Second, Harvard’s bottom-up path to change is one more sign that too many people at the top of our most powerful institutions have forfeited—through intransigence, inaction, self-interest, or ignorance—their right to lead. Good and reasonable people from every corner of our society are forging new paths toward the future. In the matter of climate chaos, we will no longer wait for the people at the top to approve.
If you’re just learning about Divest Harvard, it’s worth noting the fierce dedication with which Harvard students sustained this “relentless” campaign to educate our campus, engage our administration, and resist the status quo. Our first meeting in 2012 drew 10 people. In two years, over 70,000 people had signed on to our campaign. Over 270 members of Harvard faculty joined the call for divestment. We were the first campus to hold a referendum on divestment: 72 percent of Harvard students called for their school to divest from the 200 largest fossil-fuel companies. We blockaded Massachusetts Hall, our president’s office building, for over 24 hours, asking for nothing more than a public dialogue on divestment. Harvard arrested a student—the first campus arrest since the Vietnam War and the first of the fossil fuel–divestment movement—rather than facilitate an open discussion. More than 180 people around the world joined us for a weeklong fast.