Divest Dickinson: An Introduction, Part One of Two – What is Divestment?

Erik Smith '22, Guest Writer

By now, you’ve probably seen the signs, chalk, or banners around campus or heard of Divest Dickinson. If you’re new to Dickinson this year, welcome to our community, and we invite you to read on and get involved in one of the coolest student groups on—and off—campus! Past our colorful marketing, there’s a lot to unpack in our name. What is divestment, and what does it have to do with our college?

Essentially, divestment is a financial operation and the opposite of investment. Through investment, people give companies more money to grow their business with and receive stocks (partial ownership of the company) in return. Eventually, if the business succeeds, investors receive some money back, known as dividends, and their stocks become more valuable, meaning they can be sold at a profit. If you invest in the right companies at the right times, it’s a way to get others to make your money for you, but it’s also risky. If the companies you invest in fail to grow, your stocks lose value, so you lose money.

This is the typical time to divest; sell those stocks and move on, reinvesting that money in another area that has more growth potential. It would be even more ideal to divest from a particular stock when it is at its peak in value, but it’s difficult to predict when a company will start to go downhill. It’s even harder when it’s not just a company but an entire industry, like with the real estate bubble that led to the 2008 financial crisis. Knowing when to divest is essentially a practice of predicting the future and making money if you’re right.

After 2020, the future seems just about impossible to predict. However, if there is one thing we Dickinsonians can largely agree on, I hope it’s that the changing climate has caused and will increasingly cause mass displacement, hunger, and resource shortages worldwide as sea levels rise and natural disasters become more common. Globally, it will take both adaptation to this new climate and mitigation of further damage to protect humanity, especially Indigenous communities, people of color, the Global South, and other groups put in disproportionate danger by climate change due to historical and systemic discrimination and oppression. Climate action, in the form of adaptation and mitigation, is not just a tree-hugging environmentalist’s ideal but a necessity for justice and equity worldwide.

So what does this have to do with the future of the stock market? And what does any of it have to do with Dickinson College?

Companies and industries need capital (money, mostly from investment) to operate. Aside from the massive government subsidies they receive to keep gas prices low, fossil fuel companies get this capital from selling stocks. These are the same fossil fuel companies that have helped contribute to the current climate crisis and injustice by building a world reliant on greenhouse gas-emitting, nonrenewable energy sources. If we are to mitigate the effects of climate change, where do these companies fit in?

According to Dickinson College, they fit in the future. Our future. They will continue to grow in influence and wealth, and should be encouraged and enabled to do so through financial investment. What else could our “sustainable” school be saying by choosing not to divest from this industry? 2020 showed us just how strange and unpredictable the future really is, especially for the fossil fuel market. In these times, we need structures that we can depend on. Fossil fuel companies’ willingness to put profits above human lives and manipulate information and policy for their own benefit show that they are anything but dependable.

Of course, our financial involvement is a little more complicated than the school holding stock in a few companies. If you want to learn more, keep an eye on The Dickinsonian for my next submission, which will go into deeper detail on how we are entangled with this dangerous industry. You can also always find us on Instagram at @divestdickinson for a point of contact and more resources. Join us in telling our beloved school that there is no place in our future for the fossil fuel industry.