Bill McKibben writes: Thirty-five years ago, students began demanding that Harvard sell its stock in companies that supported South Africa’s racist regime. The university said no; it was only after years and years of organizing—everything from building a mock shantytown in Harvard Yard to electing Desmond Tutu (and Al Gore) to the Harvard Board of Overseers on a divestment platform—that the university began selling off its apartheid-tainted stock. When the issue was tobacco, it was years after the American Medical Association recommended that medical schools divest their shares that Harvard sold its holdings—and only after a medical student, Philip Huang, ran a clever radio campaign pointing out that then-President Derek Bok was supporting an industry “that markets death and disease to blacks, women, the poor, and Third World countries.”
Now the issue is merely the fate of the planet’s climate system. With it is the future of our civilizations. At the moment, we’re on track to raise the planet’s temperature 4 degrees Celsius by century’s end, which is the biggest thing we’ve ever done. Ask the folks already abandoning islands in the Pacific, or twiddling the faucet handle in drought-stricken São Paulo.
Climate change threatens not only humans but a huge percentage of the Earth’s other species—the plants and animals carefully cataloged in the endless file cabinets at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology or the Harvard University Herbaria. But as usual, Harvard is sticking by its time-honored playbook. Despite huge majorities of students demanding fossil fuel divestment, despite powerful letters from the faculty, and despite the example of institutions from Stanford to the Rockefeller family beginning to divest, the Corporation has said no. President Drew Gilpin Faust, in fact, has issued a letter explaining that the university should be “very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the university as a political actor rather than an academic institution.” Just as it was very wary of letting women take classes or taking a stand against tobacco or apartheid. [Continue reading…]