Divest Dickinson: Investing in Our Future

Erik Smith '22, Guest Writer

Money is a lot of things. It’s a unit of account, a means of exchange, and a nominal store of value. Depending on who you ask, it’s also the root of all evil, what makes the world go ‘round, or maybe even both.

I believe money is one more thing: Power. The more money you have, the more choices are available to you in every aspect, and your ability to escape repercussions for those choices increases. Money can’t buy everything, sure, because it’s not the only form of power in the world, but it certainly is a significant one. Some people have the power to buy a new car, or to take a few weeks off from work, or to park where they shouldn’t, while others simply do not have this choice available to them because they cannot survive the monetary loss from such a choice.

So money is power. Who cares? Well, we’ve all heard that with great power comes great responsibility. Dickinson College has the power to divest from the fossil fuel industry and is neglecting its responsibility to do so. It is important to understand how and why this responsibility compels us with the strength it does.

What is responsibility? Essentially, an obligation to action towards some end. Inaction is not sufficient in this case. For example, suppose you are a babysitter, burdened with the responsibility to ensure a particular child does not toddle into the street to be met by oncoming traffic. You would not be fulfilling your responsibility by writing a paper all night, trusting that the youngster will have the common sense to fend for themself. You certainly could do this, but even if all went according to plan, the family would certainly not hire you again upon learning of your inaction. Instead, even when the kid is not gazing wistfully out of an open front door, you are expected to be vigilant and know their whereabouts during your tenure as their sitter. 

Likewise, a government that has pledged to protect the safety of its people is in neglect of its responsibilities if it fails to maintain an army when surrounded by militaristic neighbors. Or when it fails to make any reasonable effort to monitor and contain a pandemic disease, especially after seeing the pathogen’s effects in several countries before it. But I digress.

It is also noteworthy that power and responsibility are proportional – to fit the proverb, both must be great. When we’re talking about money as power, it is not irresponsible of you to keep some money in savings to ensure that you will be clothed, fed, and sheltered for the foreseeable future. Likewise, an institution with an endowment clearly is not in the wrong to maintain that endowment to see it through lean financial times. But in both cases, there comes a threshold where this responsibility is being ignored, and you have enough money that your responsibility clearly extends beyond yourself. For an institution of Dickinson’s size, which generally only accesses the interest accrued on its endowment from year to year anyways, I’d say that threshold is well below the $491.5 million reported in Dickinson’s 2019 Endowment Report.

So, when we go past self-preservation, where does this responsibility lie? Most people would suggest the welfare of other human beings, among other things. Dickinson, therefore, has an obligation to use what it reasonably can of its endowment – one manifestation of its power – to protect others. By continuing to divest in the destructive fossil fuel industry, we are failing to protect the planet Earth and the lives of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of human beings.

I have yet to see clear evidence that divestment from fossil fuels would hurt Dickinson’s endowment. In some cases, such as at Smith College, where successful activists have offered guidance to Dickinson’s growing movement, this choice has actually helped the endowment grow faster than otherwise. The massive downturn in oil prices thanks to the recent pandemic has demonstrated the industry’s fragility. The stock market is a tricky and unpredictable beast, so I cannot claim to be any more sure of its future behavior than anyone else, but the fossil fuel industry’s track record has certainly been spotty. Still, even if divestment did slightly harm the school’s portfolio, this is not a valid reason not to do it. We have a responsibility, and this means that there is no excuse for inaction.

This is not to say that Dickinson has not been active in the fight against climate change, only that in terms of financial power, it has not risen to meet its great responsibility. The fossil fuel industry helped to create the climate crisis and must be considered in any attempt to solve it.

We have the financial means to divest from fossil fuels. With this money comes power, and with this power comes responsibility to action. We do not carry it alone, and we owe it to the rest of humanity, with whom we share the burden, to carry our share.

To ignore the need for divestment is to ignore our responsibility. It’s time to take responsibility. Divest, Dickinson!

Divest Dickinson is a student organization and Tree Club affiliate that advocates for the full divestment of the college’s endowment from fossil fuels. To get involved, follow us on Instagram at @divestdickinson and join Tree Club on EngageD!