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The Human Cost of Stuff

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One Thing College Alumni Can Do about Climate Change Right Now

I've respectfully informed my alma mater that, until it divests its holdings in the fossil fuel industry—coal, oil, tar sands, and fracked natural gas—I will not donate another cent.

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I sent my annual donation off to my college alma mater the other day. It was not a lot, but I wanted to help keep our class donor percentage up. I gave more last year, our fiftieth reunion. But when I slipped the envelope into the mailbox, the light dawned. This would be my last contribution for a while.

While the financial impact of certain divestment campaigns may be debated, they undeniably make a powerful statement.

It is no longer a matter of serious debate that global warming is real and happening right now. The scientific evidence that we must stop loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide is clear. The tsunami of manmade climate change is headed our way. But the fossil fuel industry, committed to extract enough oil and gas to overheat the planet several times over, lobbies to continue extracting and burning despite overwhelming proof that doing so will mean the end of life on Earth as we know it.

Inspired and energized by 350.org's "Do the Math" tour, committed young people are demanding that colleges and universities across the country get rid of their investments in the fossil fuel industry. While the financial impact of such South Africa-style divestment campaigns may be debated, they undeniably make a powerful statement, raise awareness, and demonstrate that there is an alternative.

Not surprisingly, small colleges with progressive values and limited portfolios have been the first to divest—Hampshire, Green Mountain, College of the Atlantic—and the movement is rapidly gaining momentum at Williams, Harvard, Stanford, and other prestigious institutions. But why should students be left to make their case alone?

I have grandchildren. They have every right to a secure and hopeful future. Isn't it the responsibility of every generation to care for the next? Yet it is brutally clear that, unless we act very soon, the health, hope, and lives of our children and grandchildren will be significantly diminished. We owe them our love and our protection. We are obliged to "pay it forward."

So I've respectfully informed my alma mater that, until it divests its holdings in the fossil fuel industry—coal, oil, tar sands, and fracked natural gas—I will not donate another cent.

The intellectual communities of colleges should be expected to grasp the implications of climate change, but how any of us respond is ultimately a moral challenge.

This may sound naive. After all, most college endowments are made up of large gifts from wealthy donors. What difference will ordinary folk like me make? But in fact, colleges care a great deal about the percentage of their alumni who give—their public ratings rest, in part, on that criterion. Moreover, a recent report in The Wall Street Journal noted that the cost of renewable energy like wind and solar is plummeting and that the oil-dependent utilities are growing anxious. And a careful Stanford study has demonstrated how New York state could be completely sustainable by 2030 by relying on wind and solar energy. It is quite possible that moving to a more sustainable portfolio now would be wise.

The intellectual communities of colleges should be expected to grasp the implications of climate change, but how any of us respond is ultimately a moral challenge.

In the end, what message do we choose to give the next generation? What will we say to them as the storms grow fiercer, the droughts longer, the waters higher? That "we just didn't know?" Or that we woke up too late? We know what to do right now. There are many actions we can take to make a difference. This is one. Take it now. Tell your alumni organization, your development director, and your college president that you will resume giving when they divest of all holdings in fossil fuel extraction and production.


Laurent A. Parks DalozLaurent A. Parks Daloz wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. He is an alumnus of Williams College '62, Harvard '63 and '72, and is a grandfather of three. He is a senior fellow at the Whidbey Institute, a principal of Leadership for the New Commons, and co-author of Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World.

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