Divestment: It’s Not Just Our Turn, It’s Our Obligation

By Maeve Grady

One year ago, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund divested $860 million from the fossil fuel industry. Now it’s our turn.

The philanthropic fund bears the well-known name of John D. Rockefeller, philanthropist and founder of Standard Oil, the company we now know as ExxonMobil. His heirs’ uncoupling from the fossil fuel industry and entrance into the ranks of over 450 institutions that have divested from fossil fuels works to fundamentally shift the way we think and talk about the fossil fuel economy. Steven C. Rockefeller and the other trustees of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund have established that it is simply not enough to promote green innovation; it is imperative to challenge our implicit support of an industry that profits off of the world’s most marginalized communities.

It is well established in climate science and public discourse that there exists an excess of fossil fuels on this planet. Our atmosphere and well-being as a globe will be compromised beyond remediation long before the planet’s fossil fuels are depleted. What isn’t often enough remembered is that the fossil fuel industry knew ¬¬well before the general public that their product was destroying the planet. Indeed, ExxonMobil executives made strategic decisions as early as 1981 based on the established connection between fossil fuel extraction and climate change.

Instead of using early knowledge of climate change to propel research into clean energy or create an awareness of the large-scale dangers of an extractive economy, ExxonMobil chose to fund climate change deniers in an effort to protect the company’s profits. As people across the world labored to extract oil and gas, the majority of the company’s profits funneled back into the United States.

This is where we come in. Not necessarily because we want to be involved, but because we must be involved. We as a nation have been drawn into this conversation by burning oil from across the planet and exporting the effects of our consumption back across the globe.  The United States comprises about four percent of the world’s population and as of 2008, we emit about 19 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide. As an institution, we pride ourselves on our efforts towards “sustainability.” With our carbon neutrality goal, we eschew consuming fossil fuels on campus and yet when considering our endowment, fossil fuels are not seen as detrimental to our “greenness” but as diversity in our portfolio.

Here in Vermont, we do not yet feel the most dramatic effects of climate change. Rising sea levels affect island and low-lying nations, volatile “booming” and “busting” economies affect those communities closest to extraction sites, pipelines commonly cut across the lands of those without the resources to fight back. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called climate change “the human rights challenge of our time” and he’s right.  While we, Middlebury students, reach for “global citizenship,” we neglect the true impact of our consumption. As we reinforce “our commitment to integrating environmental stewardship,” as outlined in our mission statement, what do we overlook?

Middlebury is seen as an example of sustainability around the world. We have the luxury to build a biomass plant or go carbon neutral independently from the national energy infrastructure. “Go green yourself” is our message to the world, but our solutions are not accessible to most. The fossil fuel industry is so entrenched in our national and global infrastructure that it prevents a green and just transition for the vast majority of the world’s population. Middlebury’s accomplishments in green technological innovation are laudable, but as a privileged leader on the global stage, it is our obligation to not only improve our own energy consumption but to challenge the credibility of the industries that exploit and perpetuate our global dependence on fossil fuels.