Then sophomore Amy McDowell leads students during a divestment rally in Red Square on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Mcdowell, who was majoring in urban development and planning, chanted through the march “Divest now Western.” // Photo by Alex Powell
Co-authored and submitted by James Loucky of the anthropolgy department, Jill MacIntyre Witt of the environmental studies and health and human development departments, Peter Sakura of the language & culture programs and the Western Students for Renewable Energy
Western Washington University lies in an unparalleled location — on the shores of the spectacular Salish Sea, below the Cascades and within the traditional territory of indigenous peoples who have lived here since time immemorial. Yet we also see in heartbreaking accounts of recent deaths of resident orca whales that the sea and its denizens are seriously endangered — including the threat of increasing oil tanker traffic. We see shrinking glaciers whenever we look at the mountains. And we look with gratitude to our Lummi neighbors for their leadership in environmental stewardship.
Why, then, is Western not among the U.S. universities that have formally committed to divesting from fossil fuels? They include Oregon State, Seattle University, Lewis and Clark, Pitzer, University of Hawaii and the University of Maryland, among others nationwide. And how can this be so, when everywhere we see evidence that worst-case climate change scenarios are coming true, and that the window for effective response is closing quickly?
Several arguments may be the reasons why Western is not moving more swiftly away from investments in climate-damaging endeavors. One is that fiduciary responsibility requires maximizing returns on endowment investments. While investing in the energy sector for diversification, growth and income is standard practice, investing in harmful and inherently risky commodities exposes that endowment to unnecessary peril. Evidence from performance analyses of portfolios reveals that reinvestment in responsible endeavors does not reduce returns. Public institutions especially need transparency and money managers who provide fossil-free and sustainable investing options.
A second rationale is that divestment would politicize financial decisions, yet the reality is that no investment is apolitical. Investing responsibly yields powerful possibilities to positively influence change. So, why are we not moving in a direction that most benefits earth and life itself?
Living well on earth and with each other involves intricate interweaving of social, economic and ethical practices and principles that ultimately are political in nature.
Third, divestment has been characterized as being grounded in stigmatization. In fact, it is aligned with growing awareness and agreement about the serious state of the world. The wider public, as well as shareholders and leaders in numerous enterprises, are part of a unison of people across the country and worldwide who recognize we cannot continue business as usual. For us to not take a stand is to choose the status quo.
Institutional inertia is common. Universities are notoriously slow to change, particularly when more than incremental changes are needed. Western isn’t immune to these tendencies. Yet, today, nearly 1,000 institutions worldwide have divested over $6 trillion. They include universities, faith-based institutions, foundations and even cities, states and countries that have committed publicly to move promptly toward a sustainable model of investing called for by the need to address the climate crisis.
Western’s motto “Active Minds, Changing Lives,” affirms that universities can be powerful change agents. Our fundamental responsibility is to ensure that teaching, research and outreach address the pressing issues of our time. Climate change is the greatest challenge facing humanity. It is not simply a single issue among many. As planet and posterity cry out for action, a university’s priorities and investment decisions can and must accord with its mission and its potential. Growth, commoditization and overconsumption are forces to be challenged rather than reinforced, even implicitly. A shift in investments would further ensure our reputation and role as an environmental leader, something that will, in turn, be reflected in Western’s attractiveness for potential students and new faculty — not to mention Sierra Club and other school rankings. It will also increase donor support for scholarships.
Students have voted overwhelmingly to divest from fossil fuels. Over 500 faculty and staff members have called on Western Washington University to do this as well. Divestment means screening out fossil fuels and reinvesting through instruments and money managers with abilities to bring investments into greatest harmony with one’s values. By investing in the future, Western’s president and the Western Foundation will encourage synergies and solutions, while also emulating the advice of Martin Luther King Jr., that “it is always the right time to do the right thing.”
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