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Divestment speech — We Will Not Rest Until the College Divests

Here’s the text of my remarks at the Middlebury College pro-divestment climate rally on May 10, 2013:

I’m a proud alumnus of Middlebury College. I’m here today because I want the college I love to dOld_chapel_photoo the morally right thing and divest out of all fossil fuel companies.

As we stand here today, I look up the hill to Mead Chapel and I draw inspiration from words on the front of that building. It says there, “The strength of the hills are his also.” For me, that means the strength of the hills is OURS also.

Divestment may not seem the easiest thing for the college to do. But with the strength of the hills and in the best Middlebury tradition, I’m confident we will find divestment is the right thing to do.

One key message to the college Board of Trustees today: Time is short, it’s time to act, and we will not rest until Middlebury divests.

Even the few who doubt divestment acknowledge that climate change is upon us in these Vermont hills and many other places – Hurricane Irene, the superstorm that devastated New York, massive flooding in southern Asia, melting ice caps and rising sea level, historic droughts and wildly fluctuating weather.

But why should the college focus on divestment, given everything else facing the college administration and the Board of Trustees?

There are many good reasons, but for me, it boils down to three things.

First of all, divestment is the morally right thing to do.

Second, it’s beginning to look like a better and better investment strategy.

Third – as we learned with apartheid South Africa — divestment is an enormously powerful tactic to send the right message and get things done.

On the moral issue, I look to the college’s history, from abolition and women’s equality, right up to today.

When slavery was the great question facing this nation, it was a Middlebury College graduate, Cornwall native William Slade, who made the first anti-slavery speech in the US Congress. Slade later led efforts to expand women’s access to education – an endeavor where the college has excelled since the 19th century. We see the fruits of that effort in the women students who lead the pro-divestment campaign here at the college.

When civil rights were the pressing issue in the late 1950s, it was a Middlebury fraternity, Sig Ep, that admitted the first African-American brother — a man named Ron Brown who later went on to serve in Pres. Bill Clinton’s cabinet as Secretary of Commerce. For its moral courage, the fraternity was kicked out of the national organization – and it was rightly proud of it.

When I was a student here in the 1970s, we worked long and hard to help end the war in Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia. We succeeded, because ending that war was the right thing and moral thing to do.

And when it became clear that climate change was the pressing issue of the 21st century, Bill McKibben and a savvy group of Middlebury students stepped up and founded 350.org. Now 350 is the world’s leading climate change organization — founded right here on this campus

Turning to why divestment makes more financial sense –

We’re hearing a new phrase these days. It’s called “unburnable carbon.” As even some conservative economists say, if we burn all the carbon that’s in the ground in the form of oil, coal and natural gas reserves, we will heat the planet so hot that we won’t be able to sustain a livable civilization.

And so a growing number of experts are beginning to wonder how valuable those carbon reserves are, if they can’t be burned. Suddenly fossil fuel companies don’t look like such a good investment after all.

Let me be clear, too, that this campaign is not anti-profit. I’ve run my own business for more than 20 years. I believe in making a fair profit. And as many students have said, we’d all be happy to see oil companies find a way to transform themselves into profitable green-energy companies.

Now the third argument – why divestment is such a powerful tactic for doing the right thing. We learned in the South Africa divestment campaign nearly 30 years ago that if colleges and cities and pension funds and religious organizations pull their investments out of companies because of a compelling moral issue, things change — and they change in a big way. As Nelson Mandela made very clear, divestment was instrumental in ending apartheid.

At one point in the 1980s, fully 10% of the college portfolio – three times more than is in now fossil fuels – was invested in apartheid South Africa.

Did that stop us? No. Eventually, after an eight-year campaign, Middlebury did the right thing. We drew strength from these hills and we divested out of South Africa.

We were told at the time that would be a huge financial sacrifice. But did divestment hurt the college financially? Of course not. Since then, the college endowment has grown enormously, because who we are matters more. Because doing the right thing can also be the financially smart thing.

A couple of other thoughts for the Board of Trustees to consider.

I respect the board’s concerns about protecting the college endowment. And I would suggest that divestment isn’t a risky course but a tremendous opportunity for the college. National leadership on THE issue of our time will enhance the college’s reputation. It will draw even better students, and it will improve our ability to attract financial support for our mission.

Middlebury is widely known for educating and providing leadership on environmental and international issues. We cannot afford to be seen as an institution that profits from investing in companies whose business it is to sell carbon pollution without limit.

Another message for the Trustees:

All elements of the college support divestment. I live in this community, and I have been talking for nearly a year now with faculty and staff and students and community members about divestment. The Board of Trustees should make no mistake about this:

A huge majority of the college community – students, faculty and staff – supports divestment.

I’ll close with a couple more thoughts on the moral issue.

Experts are now estimating that hundreds of thousands of people have become homeless refugees or have died as a result of climate change — and that many more will suffer and die because of climate change.

If we know that we are profiting from companies whose business plan is at the root of climate change – whose everyday activities promote the endless burning of lethal carbon pollution – do we really want to continue to support those companies?

Or do we want to turn decisively – as the college has already begun to do – toward a more sustainable future?

Certainly Pres. Ron Leibowitz and his team have shown admirable leadership on this. They’ve engaged the campus in extensive discussions about divestment, in the best traditions of Middlebury.

Now it’s time for the Board of Trustees to step up. It’s not enough just to talk about these issues. It’s time to do the right thing.

And I’ll say again. The strength of these hills is ours. Drawing upon that strength, Middlebury can and should do the right thing and divest out of fossil fuels.

Until that happens, we will not rest until the college divests. Thank you.

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