Divest, Bates

Cam Anderson, Contributing Writer

At the core of Bates culture is our commitment to sustainability. We’re one of seven schools nationwide to have gone carbon neutral, we’re ranked the fifth greenest college by the Princeton Review and our sustainability vision stated ambitiously that “environmentally responsible behavior must now be an imperative rather than an option.” But despite all of this, our college’s administration still chooses to invest 3% of our endowment in fossil fuel stocks. 

In 2013, the Bates Environmental Action Movement, or BEAM (now our Environmental Coalition), mounted a campaign to stop these investments. At the core of their appeal was this blatant hypocrisy: how can we invest in millions of dollars worth of fossil fuel companies when we call ourselves a leader in sustainability? Although Bates students adamantly supported this campaign — they held protests, trustee meetings and even candlelight vigils — the college administration decided to keep their fossil fuel investments.

In a letter responding to BEAM’s campaign, Bates President Clayton Spencer wrote that the college wouldn’t divest chiefly because the “social and environmental priorities of the broader Bates community” didn’t outweigh the “financial objectives of the Endowment.”

But as of late, it has become increasingly clear that fossil fuel companies aren’t actually good investments. In 2021, BlackRock, the investment house that owns $9.5 trillion in assets, found that in “divestment actions by hundreds of funds worldwide,” portfolios “experienced no negative financial impacts from divesting from fossil fuels. In fact, they found evidence of modest improvement in fund return.” So the main reason the college wanted to keep our investments is no longer true. 

Drawing on reasoning from former Harvard President Drew Faust, whose university has since begun to divest, President Spencer also wrote in her letter that “instrumentalizing an endowment for political ends distorts its function as a core resource for our academic mission.” But our investments are inherently a political choice. Our endowment is invested in companies that make their shareholders money by harming others. In the case of fossil fuel companies, the harm — climate change — affects everyone.

Although divestment might seem like the sudden politicization of our endowment, it’s actually the acknowledgement that investment for pure profit is actually, measurably, unethical. If we want to fully practice this “responsible stewardship,” starting to make ethical investments would 

be a good step for the college to take. 

The value of fossil fuel companies is largely based on the world’s collective response to climate change. If we continue with business as usual, the value of fossil fuel companies will continue to grow. If we sufficiently address climate change, though, their value should plummet. So if we continue to invest in fossil fuels, we should ask ourselves a question: do we want to profit off the world’s destruction, or do we want to lose money?

Although there are a growing number of colleges that have stopped investing in fossil fuels, more, including ours, should have done so by now. When considering the vast scale of action needed to fight the climate crisis, it’s alarming that colleges like ours — institutions that wield massive endowments — have not divested. If our privileged corner of the world doesn’t do what it can very easily do to address the issue, what can we expect from the rest of the world?

Among all of these colleges, we claim to be a place that, as outlined in our mission statement, is “preparing leaders sustained by a love of learning and a commitment to responsible stewardship of the wider world.” If we want to live up to this, divestment is an indispensable step.