Boston is no stranger to divestment. In 1984, student groups played a key role in Boston University’s divestment from private institutions with ties to apartheid South Africa by building a mock shantytown in the George Sherman Union Link, said Keith Lyle, College of Communication Class of 1988 graduate, in an email.
Students gathered Sunday in Cambridge to urge Boston-area schools to divest from large corporations involved in fossil fuel mining and development. About 150 students from eight schools around Boston, including members of DivestBU, marched through Harvard Square calling for schools to cease funding companies responsible for creating large carbon footprints. Activists called for universities in particular to set a precedent for other institutions and withdraw investments from oil companies or other corporations with similar carbon outputs.
Good thing BU already has a record of improving the school’s carbon footprint. Marciano Commons was awarded a Gold Certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design in September. Sustainability@BU is a special faculty-run group on campus geared toward initiating new environmentally friendly programs on campus. We even have the option to compost in the GSU. Students are already familiar with the steps the school has taken to improve the environment.
Divesting endowment funds from fossil fuel companies help reduce BU’s hand in our carbon footprint, but the action has grander symbolic implications. Such action has the potential to familiarize a generation of students with the advantages of divesting. BU graduates are entering pretty much every facet of the workforce, and if this eco-friendly mindset spreads to multiple industries, more than just universities will make the choice to divest. With students from around the globe, BU graduates influenced by clean-energy initiatives can incorporate that knowledge to their careers, even if that means using hybrids as company cars or ensuring that offices properly recycle.
If schools such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and BU start divesting from fossil fuels, that can influence more institutions to change their current policies. Divesting is a statement for other institutions to emulate. A university moving away from an oil company may not impact the industry too greatly, but it is a symbolic gesture.
But investing in these companies obviously has its advantages for BU. The university is not taking student fees to fund oil companies or other business ventures — BU is intending to make money in the future. You know, like any investment. BU students who call for divestment have to prepare themselves for losing the financial benefits and amenities for the sake of making a statement against climate change.
Then again, we cannot put a price tag on the overall health of the planet for the sake of current students. Divesting from fossil fuels puts into perspective the long-term effects of pumping carbon emissions into the atmosphere. With an issue like climate change, it is hard to convince older people to reconsider environmentally unfriendly business deals because they most likely do not have to worry about the planet in 50 years. We, as students, do. A sustainable future, our future, is worth more than the wealth of any academic institution.
Unfortunately, people still invest in companies with questionable business practices. To some, the obvious choice is to take the environmentally safe route, but in our current system, the best business practices are driven by revenue and not on the long-term effects of the deal. In the 1980s, divestment made sense because there were immediate human rights violations in South Africa that people could see. Climate change will affect our children’s children the most, but for now, there are no immediate repercussions that opponents can see. You’d think the past few hurricanes and typhoons would be enough proof for institutions to change their ways.
For now, Boston area schools should choose to think about the future as opposed to the immediate benefits of investing in oil. Find other industries to gamble students’ money that do not warm the oceans. We are willing to sacrifice the benefits of investment in non-sustainable areas — so long as it is balanced by smart fiscal sense in university spending — to make a statement claiming responsibility for our future.