We at Brandeis Climate Justice are excited about the increased steps to reduce Brandeis’ carbon footprint, such as the hiring of Mary Fischer, the formation of the sustainability task force and the Turn It Off Days. All the same, we feel this university can and must do much more in the global struggle against climate change. Undeniably we will have to make changes to reduce our day-to-day level of consumption. That said, 2015 is set to be the hottest year on record. We’ve seen extreme weather events like Hurricane Patricia, sustained droughts, fires and an increase in climate refugees, 19.3 million of whom were driven out of their homes by natural disasters last year. We’ve seen growing seasons shrink and oceans rise. We’ve seen indigenous communities, low income communities and communities of color continue to bear the weight of the destructive processes of extracting, transporting and refining fossil fuels. By all means we should continue to challenge our own community to do better when it comes to energy use, but it is time we also start addressing the root cause of climate change: the fossil fuel industry. It is time we see ourselves beyond the Brandeis bubble and instead as agents for change within society. It’s time we divest from fossil fuels.
To divest from something means to remove all your stocks from a particular company, group of companies or specific industry. However, divestment has never been about financial devastation. Instead, the tactic is about undermining social legitimacy—taking away the power these companies have in society. Additionally, if we claim to be an institution that cares about social justice, then how can we profit from the very companies that caused a small town in West Virginia to develop staggeringly high numbers of brain tumors after the introduction of mountaintop removal? These are the same companies whose oil refineries are poisoning the Texan communities of color where these refineries are primarily built and the same companies that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic last year when a train carrying oil derailed and exploded. They are the same companies that have committed countless other crimes against humanity. We are currently profiting from that destruction. Our tuition money is currently invested in those deaths. For an institution that claims to stand for social justice, that’s not just complacency, and it’s not just irresponsible—it’s a morally bankrupt act of extreme violence.
Some will say it is hypocritical to use fossil fuels at all while advocating for divestment. This brings us back to the conversation on energy use, turning off the lights, taking shorter showers, turning down the heat and every other “greening” activity. The fossil fuel industry’s most successful lie is that we are all equally responsible for causing climate change. Sure, the American lifestyle is unsustainable, and yes, when it is the most vulnerable communities who are hit first and hardest, we have a responsibility to look at our own lives and start asking questions. But we cannot forget the larger sociopolitical context that we live in. The fossil fuel industry has blocked policy, it has shut down renewable infrastructure and it has funded climate denial at every point of this fight. But we exist in a country that runs on fossil fuels. We don’t have a choice about that and no choice we make as individuals will change that. The fossil fuel industry and the system of constant unsustainable growth it represents is what causes climate change.
We can spend all of our energy working on our own personal purity, moving off the grid and fighting for our own escape route out of a corrupt system, but when we get out, we will be alone. We will have left the rest of society behind. If instead we can put that energy towards destabilizing the structures that forced us here in first place, we might stand a chance of maintaining some semblance of a just and stable future. We can put that energy towards recognizing that we as a university, as a place of knowledge and as a community with principals, are uniquely situated to amplify the voices of those who have been fighting on the frontlines for decades. Those who have already lost their homes, their health and their livelihoods and can never get those things back.
When our only focus is turning off the lights, we are accepting the narrative that our only power exists as individuals and as consumers. This robs us of our ability to organize and our ability to stand as a community and affect real change. The truth is, we don’t have time to wait. We can’t afford for one more pipeline or gas plant or fracking site or refinery to be built. We need the vast majority of the fossil fuels we know about to stay in the ground. We need to redesign how we get and distribute energy and we need to do so in a way that is just for the communities involved. We’re not saying we shouldn’t think about these personal lifestyle changes; what we’re saying is that these changes do not represent the revolution that we need.
The divestment campaign has existed for three years now. We’ve passed a referendum, we’ve had petitions and we’ve had the committee on fossil fuels that released a report recommending divestment. We’ve had rallies and marches, and despite promises to respond, the administration has ignored us. There is no such thing as neutral anymore. We either stand up for justice, or we are part of the violence. Brandeis: which side are you on?