This diary is third in a series of diaries on fossil fuel divestment at the Claremont Colleges, a group of small colleges snugly located in the well-off suburb of Claremont, California, near Los Angeles. Previous installments include this diary, about a demonstration at Pitzer College, and this diary, about Pitzer’s decision to pursue a program to divest its endowment portfolio from fossil fuel interests. For the students, the point of this get-together was simple: if Pitzer College can be persuaded to divest, then perhaps Pomona College can be persuaded to try to do what Pitzer College already did.

The movement to pressure colleges to divest from fossil fuels is important because colleges claim to be in the “knowledge business” while at the same time they are handmaidens of capital. The real knowledge, the knowledge that the colleges ought to be producing and that therefore their trustees ought to know, is that capitalism (and especially fossil fuel capitalism) is the driver of a process that will, if carried far enough, wreck global ecosystems and make human life much more perilous here on planet Earth than it is now. Colleges, then, are by their collective position in society the first place to fight what Antonio Gramsci called the “war of position” — the struggle to influence society so that it is poised to change for the better.

The global divestment movement is also important in that it is an aspect of the actually existing movement to mitigate climate change which targets capital, while at the same time attracting the attention of the New York Times and the Washington Post. It thus digs at the root of the problem while engaging a sizable audience.


Claremont CA, March 1st, 2014: A small group of students organized a march/ rally/ conference with President Oxtoby of Pomona College today to present a request to the College that it rethink the proposal of divesting the College’s trust fund from fossil fuel interests.

The march, organizing after 2:30pm, went from the Smith Campus Center to Oxtoby’s office, where the students entered, standing. A number of students presented the case that “since Pitzer agreed to a divestment plan, why can’t Pomona look at what Pitzer College did and re-open the discussion of divestment?” Students favorably compared Pitzer College’s transparent structure for decisionmaking about divesting the endowment from fossil fuel interests to Pomona College’s “listening” to student opinion, and then ignoring it. Perhaps much of the content of this conference had the flavor of an airing of grievances to it, and so this flavor might have distracted from a student emphasis upon the severity of the coming climate crisis.

Oxtoby’s response to this conference, at any rate, was unequivocal: we can’t divest because omigod endowment structure, or something like that. Oxtoby suggested a position of “we don’t know what Pitzer did” but somehow “their endowment structure is different.”


Students outside at the beginning of the event

President Oxtoby conferring with students


Sometimes I have to wonder if the world’s moneyed elites think that the problems of the world can be resolved with public relations gestures. The real world, the one which accumulates 2.3 parts per million of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere every year through the daily production (and for the most part burning) of 90 million barrels of oil (which itself only amounts to 36% of industrial carbon dioxide production) is something some of the professors study now and then. Or maybe only people like David Roberts discuss said world with the sort of direct simplicity required by activists. What really matters if you have financial power, even if such power is affiliated with a college, are financial calculations.

As regards those nagging climate catastrophes, perhaps the wealthy will buy Priuses, imagining that this will solve the problems of global warming and peak oil, and wonder why this tactic shouldn’t work.

Even from a financial perspective Pomona College’s position doesn’t make sense. The Pomona College trustees apparently think divesting from fossil fuel interests is “too risky,” but planetary ecosystem destruction through climate change is a risk they’re willing to take. Do they think that climate change will have no effect upon their college endowments?

Somehow the trustees of Pitzer College broke through the spell of financial calculation and decided upon a position that was something more than the response the student activists are getting from Pomona. Maybe this is because Pitzer’s endowment is only about $118 million whereas Pomona is sitting on more than 1.9 billion. I don’t know.

As I said in a previous diary, there is a society of money and a society of people — the society of people is comprised of relationships between people and each other, and the society of money is comprised of relationships between people and money. Colleges with billion-dollar endowments (such as Pomona) can be suspected of belonging to the society of money. The next step for the students is to contact the moneyed alumni donors to Pomona College, then.

(also posted at DailyKos.com)


Media tactics: a thought

One of the students, Emily Hill, presented Oxtoby with two letters, one of them positive, the other negative. At the conference, she asked Oxtoby: “which one should I publish?” The letters are provided to me by permission of the author.

Here is the letter that wasn’t published:

Yesterday, # students marched into President Oxtoby’s office and asked a simple question: In light of Pitzer’s recent decision to divest its endowment of fossil fuels and lay out an ambitious plan to address climate change, will you and the Pomona Board of Trustees reconsider divestment?

The President responded that the school was considering divestment. Coming from the administration that gave a decisive “no” last September, this was encouraging progress.

We are encouraged that inclusive decision-making has taken precedence over an innaccurate price estimate and a Board of Trustee decision that was made behind closed doors. We are encouraged that the school is taking action to extend academic discussions on privilege and the U.S.’s responsibility for climate change beyond the classroom. We are encouraged that this liberal arts college, established to prepare a generation of critical, innovative thinkers, is starting to break free of the outdated mindset that climate change can be solved by changing individual consumption. We are encouraged that President Oxtoby and the Board of Trustees are seriously engaging the Pomona College community in a discussion of our values and reconsidering fossil fuel divestment.

Many members of the Pomona community may, at this point, be remembering the letter the President sent to the student body last September, which claimed that divestment would cost Pomona $485 million over 10 years. Upon reading this, my first reaction was that it would be hypocritical to continue to work towards an action that might put financial aid in jeopardy, forfeiting my ability and that of future students to attend Pomona. How could I encourage the college to throw this money away on a symbolic action when they could instead buy $485 million worth of solar panels? Up until that point, I had been a participant in the divestment campaign, but not a leader, and I resolved to stop attending divestment meetings and give the cause up entirely…but here I am now, urging you all to reconsider. So what made me change my mind? Why divestment?

1. Climate change cannot be solved solely through changing consumption levels.
For many people, myself included, environmentalism has always been about recycling bins and LEED-certified buildings. Al Gore and people with Priuses were the activists and their brand of activism was “renewable consumption.” But those sorts of individual actions are band aids on a broken leg; furthermore, they aren’t accessible to people who don’t have the money to buy a Prius, the time to volunteer for the annual beach clean-up, or the citizenship status to risk arrest at a protest.

But “individualistic action” was the mindset I was operating under when I asked, “Wouldn’t it be better to just buy solar panels with that $485 million?” What I didn’t fully appreciate was that the causes of climate change are far more systemic, and that systemic changes must accompany a shift in consumption. The problem is not just that by using fossil fuels we are consuming the wrong resources; it’s that our economy is based on a premise of infinite resource availability and that the fossil fuel industry is spending billions to keep it that way.

2. It’s time for wealthy institutions (and nations) to stand up and accept responsibility.
For too long, wealthy nations have preached about the necessity of changing our lifestyles and a smaller carbon footprint, without taking meaningful steps to address the role their own privileged consumption is playing in the climate crisis. Pomona has a chance, right now, to be a leader in a nationwide movement. There are over 300 divestment campaigns in schools, cities, and states across the United States. The power of this movement is in collective action – if after Pitzer divests, then Pomona divests, then Stanford divests, then Harvard divests…this is a powerful challenge to the social license of fossil fuel companies that has allowed them to continue with “business as usual.” With an endowment at over $1 million per student, Pomona is perfectly positioned to make a large impact in this movement.

3. Divestment is a bridge between the climate activism of today and that of the future.
The climate crisis requires systemic change. Divestment is a bridge between the environmental activism of today and the justice-based activism we’re striving to see tomorrow. It is a symbolic challenge to the “money is money” mindset of our investments, but it is also a challenge to environmentalists who remain trapped in the mindset of individual action. It asks our schools and cities and states – whose future are you providing for? It asks our leaders and presidents – if climate change is as serious as you say it is, then what are you waiting for to act? We are encouraged to see that Pomona is no longer waiting.

Here is the letter that was actually published in the student newspaper, The Student Life:

Yesterday, # students marched into President Oxtoby’s office and asked a simple question: In light of Pitzer’s recent decision to divest its endowment of fossil fuels and lay out an ambitious plan to address climate change, will you and the Pomona Board of Trustees reconsider divestment?

The President’s answer was a decisive “no.” In September, the “no” that we received came with a $485 million price tag and was cause for reevaluation, reflection, and investigation. Now, Pitzer’s low-cost divestment and research conducted by Pitzer finance analysts and members of the Claremont Colleges Divestment campaign suggests that this number is a gross overestimate. We can no longer accept “no” as the final word from Pomona.

We demand that inclusive decision-making take precedence over an innaccurate price estimate and a Board of Trustee decision that was made behind closed doors. We demand that the academic discussions on privilege and the U.S.’s responsibility for climate change extend beyond the classroom. We demand that this liberal arts college, established to prepare a generation of critical, innovative thinkers, break free of the outdated mindset that climate change can be solved by changing individual consumption. We demand that President Oxtoby and the Board of Trustees seriously engage the Pomona College community in a discussion of our values and reconsider fossil fuel divestment.

Last September, when I read that divestment would cost Pomona $485 million over 10 years, my first reaction was that it would be hypocritical to continue to work towards an action that might put financial aid in jeopardy, forfeiting my ability and that of future students to attend Pomona. How could I encourage the college to throw this money away on a symbolic action when they could instead buy $485 million worth of solar panels? Up until that point, I had been a participant in the divestment campaign, but not a leader, and I resolved to stop attending divestment meetings and give the cause up entirely…but here I am now, urging you all to reconsider. So what made me change my mind? Why divestment?

1. Climate change cannot be solved solely through changing consumption levels.
For many people, myself included, environmentalism has always been about recycling bins and LEED-certified buildings. Al Gore and people with Priuses were the activists and their brand of activism was “renewable consumption.” But those sorts of individual actions are band aids on a broken leg; furthermore, they aren’t accessible to people who don’t have the money to buy a Prius, the time to volunteer for the annual beach clean-up, or the citizenship status to risk arrest at a protest.

But “individualistic action” was the mindset I was operating under when I asked, “Wouldn’t it be better to just buy solar panels with that $485 million?” What I didn’t fully appreciate was that the causes of climate change are far more systemic, and that systemic changes must accompany a shift in consumption. The problem is not just that by using fossil fuels we are consuming the wrong resources; it’s that our economy is based on a premise of infinite resource availability and that the fossil fuel industry is spending billions to keep it that way.

2. It’s time for wealthy institutions (and nations) to stand up and accept responsibility.
For too long, wealthy nations have preached about the necessity of changing our lifestyles and a smaller carbon footprint, without taking meaningful steps to address the role their own privileged consumption is playing in the climate crisis. Pomona has a chance, right now, to be a leader in a nationwide movement. There are over 300 divestment campaigns in schools, cities, and states across the United States. The power of this movement is in collective action – if after Pitzer divests, then Pomona divests, then Stanford divests, then Harvard divests…this is a powerful challenge to the social license of fossil fuel companies that has allowed them to continue with “business as usual.” With an endowment at over $1 million per student, Pomona is perfectly positioned to make a large impact in this movement.

3. Divestment is a bridge between the climate activism of today and that of the future.
The climate crisis requires systemic change. Divestment is a bridge between the environmental activism of today and the justice-based activism we’re striving to see tomorrow. It is a symbolic challenge to the “money is money” mindset of our investments, but it is also a challenge to environmentalists who remain trapped in the mindset of individual action. It asks our schools and cities and states – whose future are you providing for? It asks our leaders and presidents – if climate change is as serious as you say it is, then what are you waiting for to act?

This “which letter should I publish?” ploy could be an effective pressure tactic if it were backed by enough media force. Imagine if a group of students confronting a college president were to tell her/ him “we have two letters. Which one should be published in the New York Times/ Washington Post/ Los Angeles Times next week?”

The society of money needs to be made aware of its own limitations; the society of people needs a chance. Here’s hoping students at other colleges copy this tactic.