Divestment: A Symbolic, and Significant, Act

We must divest. That demand also functions as a symbol of
hope. Hope that the Pomona College Board of Trustees will move quickly to
divest from the fossil-fuel economy. Hope that it will understand that doing so
will finally bring its investment strategies into line with the college’s most
enduring values.

Let’s start by owning that divestment is symbolic. That does not mean it is meaningless, without merit or
magnitude. Symbols, in fact, are the only way that humans make sense of the
world. They are the root of all language, imagination and behavior. They are the
means by which we name and address injustice, identify and repair inequity. Divestment
is then a highly charged symbol. It’s also a mark of our humanity.

Consider this symbolic act two years ago: A large contingent
of Claremont students went to UCLA to be trained in the tactics of the emerging
divestment movement.

It was a symbolic act that led them to press the consortium’s
various boards of trustees to divest their institutions’ endowments. It was a
symbolic act when the Pitzer board took up that challenge and, in collaboration
with students, staff and faculty, decided to quit carbon. It was a symbolic act
that brought Brinda Sarathy and Don Gould to speak at Pomona’s divestment rally
to affirm the possibility that this college could also pull the plug on fossil
fuel—and act in accordance with its most cherished ideals.

What are those ideals?

For the past century, they have been embodied in two
ritualistic moments in every Sagehen’s life. All first-years march south down
College Avenue to pass through the campus gates and read the sober words chiseled
into the north face of one of its columns:

“Let Only the Eager, Thoughtful, and Reverent Enter Here.”

Each generation of students is symbolically stepping on to
sacred ground, each will be transformed, galvanized.

What are they eager for? Knowledge.

What is knowledge? Power.

Power to do what? Change the world.

We know that this last imperative is their charge because
when they are seniors they reverse this rite of passage, heading north through
the gates before figuratively moving out into the wider community. Their route takes
them by another article of faith we hold dear:

“They only are loyal to this college who, departing,
bear their added riches in trust for mankind.”

The alumni’s loyalty is thus defined by their use of what they
learned here to make society a better place.

The same obligation holds for those current students,
faculty and staff who recognize that this College in a Garden—call it Eden—is
not yet perfect. It is not because the college’s leaders are caught in a
conundrum of their own making.

Here is the conundrum: Pomona has poured an amazing amount
of time, energy and fiscal resources to shrink its carbon footprint; the
Sustainability Integration Office is the most robust and effective in the consortium. But the money directed at this vital enterprise comes in part from
the college’s extensive investments in fossil-fuel corporations whose actions
are swelling the global carbon footprint.

Divestment will help resolve this troubling cognitive
dissonance. It can narrow the gap between what we say and what we do, between what
we affirm and how we act. The essential, and symbolic, first step is clear: We
must divest.

Editor’s Note: The text of this article was first presented as a speech at the Divestment Campaign’s Birthday Celebration event Dec. 3. 

Char Miller is the W. M. Keck
Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College.

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