Fossil fuel industry, look out: Campus Sustainability + Occupy = Divestment

Swarthmore College and several other campuses have launched a campaign to divest from fossil fuels. Read why and get involved in the campaign!

by Blair Halcyon

SWARTHMORE, PA — On campuses across the country, students are writing a new chapter in the youth environmental justice movement. The last five years of student organizing have won huge victories. “Sustainability” is on the tip of every college administrator’s tongue, and 674 institutions have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment to long-term carbon neutrality. Colleges have taken real leadership in the fight for climate justice.

If one thing is clear, though, it’s that we haven’t won yet. The United States and other countries continue to block any international progress on confronting climate change. Mountaintop removal coal mining still devastates communities in Appalachia. A misguided push toward fracking is causing deadly water contamination here in Pennsylvania and across America. And, while we had a big victory on the Keystone XL pipeline, tar sands oil extraction continues to threaten the health of First Nations peoples and menace the global climate.

This is why a new wave of students is bringing new urgency to the movement. We’re following in the footsteps of our predecessors who fought for carbon neutrality, and bringing an Occupy-inspired awareness that money at the heart of our social and environmental ills. American universities collectively invest over 350 billion dollars. Believe it or not, a lot of that money goes to propping up the dirty, dangerous and outdated fossil fuel industry. Here at Swarthmore, a group of students came together because we just couldn’t sit around and watch this happen. We couldn’t stay silent while our school pours money into companies that are making people sick and destroying the planet. Along with students at UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Illinois, and several other schools, we are demanding that our schools divest our money from the fossil fuel industry.

This divestment campaign will be an uphill battle, so entwined are our endowments with fossil fuels. Despite their commitments to sustainability and social justice, Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp and other administrators have learned to think of the college’s investments as entirely unrelated to the values of the institution. They work within a bureaucracy that is structurally resistant to change. And the dominant, outdated and flawed logic of investment finance tells them that any restriction on the college’s investments will result in diminished returns. All of these factors cause them to ignore the contradiction between values and investment practices, or deny they exist.

Fortunately, our position as students, as young people, and as idealists allows us to see the obvious contradiction. Swarthmore’s relationship to its ideals is a tangle of moral knots that needs untying. We refuse to be bogged down by the cynical belief that change is not possible, or the heartless belief that it is not necessary. We negotiate, we organize, we antagonize, we educate, we delve into the tangle because we know we can chart a new course forward for Swarthmore, just as the nationwide fossil fuel divestment movement seeks to chart a new course for our whole society.

We are not willing to settle for a college that exists in moral purgatory. It is not enough to reduce on-campus energy consumption—colleges must prevent their dollars from subsidizing filthy energy companies elsewhere. We need our colleges to confront the contradiction between their investments and their values. Frontline communities—those most impacted by extraction and climate change—demand it. Our personal and institutional commitments to struggle against injustice require it. Lives are at stake every day. Through divestment, colleges can unequivocally proclaim that they stand for sustainability, justice, and human decency.

To learn more about our campaign at Swarthmore or to get involved, email

DRBC Approves Gas Permit in Philadelphia Watershed

Delaware is a state I do not know much about. From elementary school and a road trip I remember that its capital is Dover and that Delawareans prize themselves on tasty seafood. My knowledge of Delaware extends beyond that, but I don’t claim to be any sort of expert.

But on Wednesday, I was impressed by “The First State” (Delaware). That is because on Wednesday, at a hearing on a proposed natural gas development in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, the Commissioner from Delaware was the lone member of the interstate Commission – the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) – who voted against the Stone Energy water withdrawal permit.

Continue reading ‘DRBC Approves Gas Permit in Philadelphia Watershed’

Building Up Detroit, Bringing Down the Incinerator

In 2009 I arrived in Detroit for my first visit to the city and a Zero Waste Communities Conference. Arriving in the middle of the night, I woke up early the next day to meet other Zero Waste advocates and attend workshops and panels on how to transition cities and towns from places that belch unwanted and used-up materials and pollution, into communities that responsibly reduce waste and reuse resources.

We looked, and easily found, opportunities in shutting down trash incinerators and all other types of incinerators. Conference participants imagined operating vibrant recycling and reuse centers that could employ between six to ten times more people than incinerating or landfilling.  This is in addition to the incalculable benefit of a sharp reduction in exposure to carcinogenic chemicals and asthmatic triggers. The conference filled me with information and we ended the 2009 conference by taking action together. Targeting the world’s largest trash incinerator, graciously hosted by the financially destitute City of Detroit, we partnered with the local Zero Waste Detroit Coalition and brought a busload of school children to City Hall, held a small press conference, and supported local activists who went inside for a meeting about the incinerator.  The trash incinerator’s 20 year contract would be up within the year and after decades of local opposition to burning, massive job losses in the city, and migration out of the industrial heartland, it seemed that beyond the smog, just out of sight, the stars were aligning. Public and political will to end incineration in Detroit was growing. This could be IT, I thought. Continue reading ‘Building Up Detroit, Bringing Down the Incinerator’

Keeping (and Calculating) Tabs on Gas Drilling

Explosion at a Crosstex Gas Extraction Site

In the past decade, our elected officials and regulators opened state forests and impoverished rural communities to natural gas drilling. Environmentalists began talking about animal deaths, land fragmentation, and water, while residents got the short end of the stick. Here’s how it happened in Pennsylvania, and why I think we need to take a look at the economic justice implications of gas drilling.

In 2008, the gas industry had more than 52,000 producing gas wells in Pennsylvania. Between 2003 and 2008, drilling increased 42%, while new enforcement staff hires inched up only 9 percent. My guess is that rates of inspected wells are lower than the unemployment rates; maybe even lower than unemployment rates of the 90s!  The Pennsylvania-based group Damascus Citizens estimates that there are approximately 30 Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) inspectors in the entire state. New York, Texas, and other gas producing states tell a similar story – fewer than 20 enforcement staff in NY are responsible for more than 12,000 wells. In 2008, Texas had 106 enforcement staff responsible for inspecting more 250,000 wells. Continue reading ‘Keeping (and Calculating) Tabs on Gas Drilling’

Amy Wilson

Amy is the Pennsylvania campus and community organizer with Energy Justice Network.  She helps coordinate PA's KEY Coalition youth network.

Community Picks