Posted by: coastlinesproject | April 21, 2015

Harvard divestment.


Chapter 25


Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks.



On April 17, 2015, I attended a week of protests held to convince Harvard University to divest itself of its fossil fuel stocks. It was an eye-opening experience.


In 2012, I had helped establish a non-profit organization to aid coastal communities in dealing with the effects of sea level rise. For years I had been urging our members to stay narrowly focused on adapting to climate change and let the bigger national organizations deal with reducing global warming.


But I had a personal reason for my arguments as well. I had watched brilliant people spend their entire careers on achieving a global treaty to protect the oceans, only to have all their work wasted when Ronald Reagan refused to sign the Law of the Seas Treaty. After watching that debacle I had decided I would rather spend my time working on smaller local problems where you had a greater change of making a real difference.


And quite frankly I also felt it was simply too late to stop climate change, and there was nothing that we could really do to fight the global economic machine that was hell bent on wresting every last natural resource out of the earth and converting it to cold hard cash. Our species seemed to be hard-wired into having more and more babies, and driving more and more gas guzzling cars.


But here was this group of bright, eager, sleep deprived young undergraduates free of such skepticism and willing to take on both Big Oil and the richest University in the world in one fell swoop. They were full of energy despite being in the midst of exams, having colds and having to finish writing their theses. God did it make me feel old!


By ignoring the odds of defeat they had already been successful. They had garnered the attention of the New York Times, Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal among many other news organizations. They had done it by making the point that the Rockefeller Foundation had decided to divest itself of all its fossil fuel holdings, after spending years trying to reform their unruly family cash cow, Exxon. Stanford was also way ahead of Harvard having already sold its stocks in coal companies, why even that bastion of radicalism, the World Bank had just announced they were in favor of divestment.


The students had also driven Harvard into the uncomfortable position of lamely defending the many wonderful things it had done to stop global warming. Its favorite seemed to be that one of its faculty members had developed an artificial leaf that mimicked photosynthesis.


The president of the university, Drew Faust looked especially uncomfortable. She had skipped her midterms as an undergraduate in order to march in Selma, Alabama. She had to admit that Harvard had already divested itself of tobacco and companies that had been doing business in South Africa. Now she was trying to make the argument that Harvard had a responsibility to earn the highest return on its endowment, even though the University had lost $21 million dollars on it’s fossil fuel stocks in just the last six months.


She had finally been reduced to arguing that divesting would be meaningless because other investors would simply snap up the stocks and make a killing. But, in the face of the rapid destruction of the planet, which the Corporation didn’t dispute, did that really matter?


Perhaps the former President of Harvard Derek Bok said it best when the university had been deciding what to do about apartheid, “There are rare occasions when the very nature of a company’s business makes it inappropriate for a university to invest in the enterprise.”


It certainly seems like this is one of those occasions. I hate to encourage Harvard’s already hyper inflated sense of itself but it is clear that the symbolic significance of convincing Harvard to divest itself would help trigger a cascade of similar actions, and that doing nothing would be an even bigger political statement.


But I took home another lesson as well. If these kids could take on Harvard and win, perhaps even this old dog could learn some new tricks!




William Sargent is the author of 20 books on science and the environment. His latest book, Islands in the Storm, is about Plum Island. It is available in local bookstores and through and at







  1. Marvelous, Bill !!

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. The U.S. should never sign any treaty that can be amended after the fact without the same approval process in place as what approved the treaty at first.

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