Keep Whitman Divestment Buzz Alive

Sam Chapman

For those of you who don’t know, the situation for Whitman College’s fossil fuel divestment campaign has taken a sharp turn. Until now, the members of the 350 council have focused on changing the minds on the Board of Trustees, who just released a statement some might think puts the issue to bed.

“Although we appreciate the significant symbolic value of fully divesting the small exposure the college has in these companies, we find divestment difficult to reconcile with our reliance on these companies to heat our buildings, power our electronics and fuel our transportation,” the letter reads. “Therefore, we believe there are more effective ways for the college to be a leader in combating the effects of climate change.”

People now like to cry that divestment is dead, but I’ve spent time with the people spearheading the movement before, and they are so determined and resilient that I hesitate to declare their efforts dead until they themselves are actually, physically dead. In fact, I suspect the trustees’ decision is ultimately immaterial, if not perversely helpful. My opinion of divestment has always been that its goals take a backseat to its process, that actually removing fossil fuels from Whitman’s endowment portfolio is secondary to making as much noise as possible, so as to keep the conversation going about our individual contributions to climate change. Viewed this way, there is no bad publicity. At least the trustees’ letter has everyone talking again. It forces the environment to the forefront of the debate, a critical effect in an arena where apathy is our worst enemy.

So what’s the problem? Placing the 350 campaign in this role leaves its activists necessarily static. All they can do is eternally find ways to keep climate change fresh in our minds, a Sisyphean task even if you’re not dealing with 1,500 overworked college zombies. There’s no way to win and innumerable ways to lose.

How can we fix this? Clearly, divestment needs an endgame. But all the rhetoric surrounding it starts by acknowledging that it can’t harm the profits of fossil fuel companies. First of all, what people don’t say after that is that there are plenty of other great ways to harm the profits of fossil fuel companies. In my last column, I called for a return to the Age of Sail. Carbon taxes, or creating a green energy infrastructure that even comes close to rivaling the one we have for dirty energy, would be great ways to do this as well, but that’s a subject for another week.

One solution for divestment movements across the country might be to persevere, as described above, until they come into enough power to affect these solutions. I call this the generation kill switch. Eventually, the young people who are far more aware of environmental problems will be the ones making decisions to solve them. Unfortunately, waiting that long will leave a lot of mess to clean up.

Despite not having been involved in 350 for a long while, I still get their updates, and their goal for the post-trustee phase intrigues me: go viral.

It’s the perfect solution to the necessity of keeping buzz alive by themselves: distribute the load. Instead of one long, continuous slow burn of a message, take the one you were planning to send by divesting, rework it and get the world to repeat it for you. I have always seen the environmental endgame as a revolution not in technology, but in consciousness, and people who are as dedicated as our campus activists surely can unite to spread that even though the trustees don’t agree. The trick is to spread their ideals in such a way that they need not be carriers. It’s a task I do not envy, though I still believe they can do it.