Twenty-nine years ago, the Middlebury College Board of Trustees stood on the right side of history when they voted to divest from the South African Apartheid. The College was one of over 150 campuses across the country to divest from companies doing business in South Africa – the leading ethical issue of the time. Now, Middlebury College is at a crossroads and has the chance to once again stand on the right side of history by divesting from fossil fuel companies. Climate change is the defining ethical issue of our generation. The College has the opportunity to make history once again, or to be vilified by it.
Middlebury College prides itself on its practices of environmental stewardship and its innovations in institutional sustainability. The College started the first environmental studies program fifty years ago this fall, helping to kickstart an era of environmental policy and legislation the likes of which our nation had never seen. The College was an incubator for programs of recycling and composting far before these issues reached national prominence and gave rise to 350.org, one of the fastest-growing environmental justice organizations in the world. The College also plans to go carbon-neutral by the end of 2016 and is well on its way to achieving this admirable goal.
However, the College’s investment in fossil fuel companies jeopardizes its reputation as a champion of climate justice by profiting from the exploitation of the environment and marginalized communities. Professor Emeritus of Religion Steven Rockefeller –yes, a member of the Rockefeller family that made their fortune on oil – wrote during his time here that the College should “avoid investments in businesses and products that are inherently unhealthy for human beings or that threaten serious environmental harm.” Rockefeller wrote these words twenty years ago, yet they still remain true today. As long as the College’s endowment is invested in fossil fuel companies like Exxon and BP, it is actively contributing to a system that threatens the future of our planet.
From UC Berkeley to Harvard, students on campuses around the country are asking their administrators whose side they are on: the side of the fossil fuel companies who feed on the Earth and its people like parasites to maximize economic success, or that of the new generation calling for a just transition to a greener future. Arrests of students at Yale University and University of Mary Washington show administrators that this fight is about something much bigger than the institutions we attend. And people are noticing. Just in the past month, Syracuse University, the Guardian Media Group and Prince Charles have committed to move to fossil free investments.
With the quest for carbon neutrality nearing its completion, we have to ask – are we truly carbon neutral if we are invested in fossil fuels? It is time for Middlebury to rise up and once again do what is right over what is easy. It is time to change the system that perpetuates social and economic inequalities. The environmental movement is always evolving and can no longer be an elitist movement that only wealthy white folks can access and engage in. It has shown its ability to bridge gaps of race, gender, generation and wealth as it has spread across the world. Climate justice is a global issue, one that affects all people.
It is our responsibility as Middlebury students to be at the forefront of this battle. Students have organized here to usher in peaceful change in the past, and I know that this will happen again. Through education, thoughtfulness, organization, passion and hard work, we are fighting to create a movement that will be larger and longer than the four years we spend in Addison County. So the question remains: whose side are YOU on?
Vignesh Ramachandran '18 is from Fremont, Calif.