Power, privilege and race. These are everyday buzzwords at a school like Whitman where everybody is eager to prove their progressive politics. But what does this mean in terms of environmentalism on campus?
Climbing gyms, Patagonia jackets and young toned, national park frequenting white bodies are symbols of the environmental movement here. We are told to switch off our light-bulbs, eat less meat, buy reusable water bottles. Eco-consumerism will save us all. Some people’s privilege permits them to become plastic-free, food conscious eco-consumers, but those who do not have the privilege to buy their environmentalist badge are excluded.
There is a fundamental incongruity in the way we are dealing with climate change. When the latest IPCC report spun briefly into the spotlight of the 24-hour news cycle, warning of the need for full-scale global economic restructuring within the next 12 years, it told us what those in the Global South and our most marginalized communities already knew: that catastrophic climate change is here and needs to be handled with the utmost urgency.
Regardless of whether we convince our friends to wash their laundry on “cold” or buy reusable wax-based sandwich bags, the fossil fuel industry will continue to accrue wealth at the expense of the marginalized. It will continue to exploit Native lands, and contribute to genocidal environmental degradation at an unchecked pace, destroying communities and creating climate refugees who are rejected by the Global North.
Our neoliberal capitalist world is designed to accumulate wealth in the hands of a few and then tell us that “change” can only come from the individual actions of those it has economically disenfranchised. This is inherently racist, given that capitalism has built itself on the backs of people of color.
With an investment of over $6.5 million in this industry, Whitman is complicit. And because Whitman’s actions are done in our name, so are we. By continuing to pour money into an industry that perpetuates catastrophic damage to our world and its people–along unequal lines of race, class and power–Whitman has made a clear statement about whose lives matter: those who are affluent and privileged.
Divest Whitman has been calling for the removal of Whitman’s money from the fossil fuel industry for six years (a removal that would not affect funds allocated for financial aid). The Board of Trustees has, time and again, neglected to respond to our requests, despite proof of student and faculty support, despite proof of a ravaged world and environment, despite the fact
that to invest in the fossil fuel industry is, frankly, to invest in climate genocide. Our campaign began under the tagline “Now is the Time,” echoing then-president George Bridges’ fundraising slogan. Well, it’s been the time for quite awhile now. In fact, it’s well past the time. This isn’t about which side of history we want to be on anymore, Whitman has already made that clear. This is simply a necessary step in preventing further climate catastrophe.
Which brings us to our current moment. From Nov. 7 to 9, the Board of Trustees will be meeting to discuss our latest proposal, calling for a removal of all endowment funds invested in the coal industry (around $2.1 million). This is a moment of great significance. If Whitman refuses to divest from coal, an industry that is the epitome of detriment to land, people and lives, where will its immoral actions stop? What will strike the administration as so morally reprehensible that it will no longer choose to dirty its hands in its profits?
One of the requirements of the Board’s divestment proposal framework is that the industry in question must be “conscience-shocking.” Tell me, how can the systemic and totalizing destruction of land and communities not shock one’s conscience? How can the catastrophic effects of climate change on marginalized communities not strike one as fundamentally unethical? How can complicity in climate genocide justify a small monetary
Whitman marketing itself among the “Best Western Colleges,” “Colleges with the Happiest Students” and “Green Colleges” masks the moral hypocrisy of this school. Integrity in marketing and practice is the least it can do. We demand that Whitman practice a basic standard of human decency and finally wipe the coal dust off our blood-stained hands.