Barnard Columbia Divest and the Resurgence of the Left

Something exciting is happening on campus. Though students sleeping in Butler may not have noticed, Columbia’s once proud tradition of activism is starting to revive itself. Student Worker Solidarity, after helping win a new contract for the Barnard clerical workers, has been working on many new campaigns at the request of workers, both on and off campus. Before launching a massive get-out-the-vote operation in Ohio, the Columbia Democrats wrested back full access to women’s reproductive rights from the administration. A couple weeks ago, Students for Justice in Palestine and LionPAC faced off every day on Low Steps, arguing over the Israeli invasion. And even the College Republicans scrapped together their 8 members (including alumni) to argue for corporate controlled presidential elections at a recent CPU debate on Citizens United.

Given all this energy, a new student group has emerged out of the ashes of Columbia’s once vibrant environmental movement: Barnard Columbia Divest. All across the country, campus groups are organizing to get our endowment dollars out of fossil fuel corporations, whose business models are literally scheduled to destroy the world as we know it. Now, I know this whole thing may sound overblown, but eventually even skeptic conservatives scoff will have to face up to this concept that over 99% of scientists classify as “reality”.

Nearly everyone has a hazy idea of the dire situation. Those snoozer lectures in Frontiers of Science presented hundreds of slides of horrifying data, but everyone walked away more or less yawning. We received quite a wake up call after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the city, leaving countless innocent people homeless, unemployed, and shivering in the harsh winter weather.  According to a recent report, “Scientists warn that climate change is loading the dice for extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy. The Earth’s average global temperature has risen between 1.5 and 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, and the warmer temperatures mean that the atmosphere holds about 4 percent more moisture than it did in 1970, leading to greater rainfall.” Furthermore, this summer, thousands more across America suffered under terrible wildfire, drought, and heat waves. And, by the way, if you don’t care about anything except the money, Hurricane Sandy alone flooded $50 billion dollars straight down the river.

Responding to these alarming findings, a group of students, inspired by the recent conference in Manhattan, decided to form a coalition demanding Columbia practice the “environmental stewardship” it so often talks about. While it is wonderful that Columbia provides space for an environmental house, offers students summer environmental justice opportunities, and boasts some of the best sustainable development professors around, the millions (if not billions) from our 8 billion dollar endowment pouring into the fossil fuel industry stinks like the carcass of a seagull in a puddle of BP oil. One of the lead organizers, Kristina Johansson, a visiting student from Middleburry College, told me, “Columbia’s trustees claim they have a ‘fiduciary responsibility’ to maximize returns, but I believe that their very definition of fiduciary responsibility has to be challenged.” She continued, “Columbia has eight billion dollars that they’re not being transparent about. Outwardly, they’ll proudly boast about initiatives on recycling and LEED platinum buildings, but at the same time all this work is being undermined when you’re investing billions of dollars into an industry that’s destroying our planet.”

Last Wednesday, nearly fifty people packed into a small room in Hamilton determined to uncover Columbia’s shady endowment finances and send the University a clear signal that this irresponsible investment must cease immediately. The group has gotten off to a fast start, setting up a website and Facebook page, organizing into loose working committees, and planning for a detailed action plan in the next semester. As Daniela Lapidous, CC ’16, reported to me, “This started basically about one and a half weeks ago. At first it was just five or six of us. Then the next meeting it was like 20 people. And now it’s like 40 or 50.”

Freshman organizer Hannah Milnes spoke about their vision after the meeting, “We would really like to see ourselves form into a coalition of students from different organizations, different walks of life, as well as faculty members, staff, alumni, and our Morningside Heights neighbors who are all committed to divesting from the fossil fuel industry.” That vision was reflected in the first meeting itself, which attracted a healthy mix of CC & SEAS kids, a sizable contingent of NYU students, Columbia employees, Columbia faculty, a few alumni, activists, and even some interested community members. coordinator, K.C. Alvey said to me, “We’re up to over a 100 schools across the country. It’s exciting and I think we’re gonna win!”

President Bollinger seemed to hint that Columbia did have money in the oil industry; rather than simply denying Columbia's investment in environmental degradation, Bollinger  told the Spectator, “The general approach is that we will not put restrictions on investments unless there is a strong and overwhelming case that we’re assisting highly immoral and unethical activities." He went on to say that protests on moral grounds could be raised against almost any industry and that, if all complaints were taken seriously, “ pretty soon you don’t have anything to invest in.” Well PrezBo, with that attitude we won't even have a planet to invest in.