Swarthmore Faculty Fasting for Fossil Fuel Divestment

Starting April 23, 2018, six faculty members began undertaking week-long fasts without food in support of students calling on the Board of Managers to divest from fossil fuels. A Student Government Organization referendum in the spring semester calls on the Board to drop its blanket policy banning socially and environmentally responsible investing. Swarthmore benefits from a $2 billion endowment.

The fossil fuel divestment movement began at Swarthmore College in 2010. To follow the campaign at the College, visit http://bit.ly/swatdiveststory

During the launches of successive fasts on Mondays, faculty spoke about why they fasted.

Professor Betsy Bolton, English Literature and Environmental Studies

Professor Bolton fasted while serving as a Fulbright Scholar at Yonphula Centenary College in Bhutan.


Under the weight of concern

As I begin this fast in Bhutan, ten hours ahead of Swarthmore’s time zone, I am acutely aware of my caffeine-withdrawal headache. Joining this fast at the last minute left me little time to wean myself from my coffee addiction. For years, I have drunk coffee to give me the energy I need in order to accomplish the goals I have set myself. I have told myself I need the coffee, I can’t do without it. But is that true? I’m about to find out.

As Americans, we tell ourselves that we need energy—copious amounts of energy—to
accomplish our goals. Our fossil fuel addiction leads us as a nation to deny or ignore the science showing the disastrous effects of our current emissions. Until renewables can meet our insatiable energy demands, we will just have to keep burning fossil fuels—so we seem to say—and as long as our society remains addicted to carbon, fossil fuels will remain a profitable business.

Why shouldn’t Swarthmore college siphon off some of those profits and apply them to more ethical ends? Shouldn’t we use stockholder engagement to change fossil fuel companies for the better? How can we afford to invest in access and inclusion without those profits from fossil fuels? How can we afford to reduce our own carbon emissions without those profits? Isn’t it hypocrisy to refuse investment profits while we are still purchasing fossil fuels to power the campus? Shouldn’t we be working on fossil fuel reform through legislation instead?

These are the kinds of questions I have heard posed in response to the ongoing call for divestment.1 Let me tackle these questions one or two at a time.

Why shouldn’t Swarthmore college siphon off some of those profits and apply them to more ethical ends? The problem with this approach is that the harms and benefits of fossil fuel profits are vastly incommensurate. The benefits Swarthmore can produce through its use of these profits may be intensely important on an individual level, but they are primarily local. We aim to change the world by changing individuals—but the world is changing faster than we can keep up with. The harms produced by ongoing development of fossil fuels are global and devastating. Already, millions of people have been displaced from their homes by the effects of climate change; extreme weather events are destroying lives and livelihoods; across the globe, we face looming food crises and internal migration on a scale our cities cannot hope to manage. The benefits
Swarthmore can create through ethical use of fossil fuel profits are drastically overmatched by the harms created in the production of those profits.

Shouldn’t we use stockholder engagement to change fossil fuel companies for the better? A recent report on the ExxonMobil 2016 Annual General Meeting noted that fund managers who say they support engagement over divestment often do not support stockholder resolutions for better reporting of emissions. Sadly, fund managers’ self-reported support for engagement is not a reliable measure for improving the behavior of fossil fuel companies.2 Nearly two decades of stockholder resolutions have produced few positive outcomes. Some people see divestment as a purely symbolic gesture, distracting from “real action” on climate change. As an English professor, I work with symbols for a living: altering investment patterns for six trillion dollars exceeds my definition of “symbolic” by a long shot. In fact, it seems much more like “real action” than the actual history of stockholder engagement.

How can we afford to invest in access and inclusion without those profits from fossil fuels? How can we afford to reduce our own carbon emissions without those profits? The board of managers has effectively responded to calls for divestment both by emphasizing investment in carbon reductions on campus and by stressing the endowment’s support for the college’s commitment to access and inclusion. How to pay for our core campaign to increase access and inclusion and our own urgent reduction of carbon emissions—these are difficult and essential questions—but I believe they are questions that should be de-coupled from divestment. It seems to me a bitter irony to suggest that we must invest in further economic damages to vulnerable communities in order to pay for greater educational access for a handful of members from that community. Similarly, to depend upon profits created through massive GHG emissions (in the production of fossil fuels) in order to reduce our relatively small GHG emissions seems to me to reflect a misunderstanding of the crisis we face.

We should not attempt to balance the college budget with a choice between access and inclusion and emissions reductions on the one hand and divestment on the other. Instead, the college community as a whole must come together to make difficult decisions and deepen our common commitment to core values. I believe inclusive sustainability is and must be a core value of the college.

As individuals and as a society, we must learn to make healthier investments—and we need to learn quickly. As our students have led in the global divestment movement, our board could lead in modeling a more rational understanding of fiduciary responsibility—one that engages the entire community in reforming our energy expectations, trimming our unnecessary energy expenditures, and finding more creative ways to accomplish our goals. Our college carbon charge and Greg Brown’s budget seminar are wonderful early steps in this kind of community engagement: I invite the board to engage more fully with this kind of work at the college. We need new models of engagement for a challenging new era of human existence.

Isn’t it hypocrisy to refuse fossil fuel investment profits while we are still purchasing fossil fuels to power the campus? Is it hypocritical to be imperfect? This argument puts the onus for change squarely on the individual: until each individual institution or community member discovers ways to live without fossil fuels, we cannot ask for a broader re-orientation of our communal investments. Living for a year “far from the market” in eastern Bhutan has emphasized for me the extent to which my choices are shaped by the markets I can access. In order to enable individual change, we must also push for market changes. Even as our facilities managers and our office of sustainability work to find energy alternatives to reduce our carbon emissions, we need to work to persuade larger market forces to begin reducing emissions rapidly and on many fronts simultaneously.

Shouldn’t we be working on fossil fuel reform through legislation instead? Not instead but also: we should all absolutely be working for legislative change. I’m proud that Swarthmore has been a campus leader in the Put a Price on It campaign, and that Mountain Justice has joined the Sunrise Movement to work for electoral and legislative change.

In 1991, in an essay entitled “What is Education for?” David Orr noted that

Students hear about global responsibility while being educated in institutions that often invest their financial weight in the most irresponsible things. The lessons being taught are those of hypocrisy and ultimately despair. Students learn, without anyone ever saying it, that they are helpless to overcome the frightening gap between ideals and reality.

Swarthmore cannot afford to teach helplessness in the face of climate change. In fact, by launching the divestment campaign back in 2011, beginning a movement that has now moved six trillion dollars in investment away from fossil fuel companies, Swarthmore students have demonstrated their ability to change lives and change the world. Working for change is a messy and imperfect process. I support and applaud our students’ efforts, while also acknowledging that we are all learning on the job—the biggest job of our lives. Please join us in learning and working for a more resilient and inclusive future.

“Swarthmore cannot afford to teach helplessness in the face of climate change.”

Today, as I struggle to work through my withdrawal headache, I keep thinking that weaning our society off our addiction to fossil fuel will also have painful side effects. At this particular moment, for instance, divestment is a major headache for Swarthmore’s board of managers. I sympathize as only a fellow-sufferer can. We should not understate the short-term pain involved in resisting addiction, in turning away from unhealthy consumption patterns. Nor should we underestimate the short-term pain involved in changing community norms maintained for over twenty-five years. But avoidance of even intense short-term pain is not a good reason for maintaining an addiction or a dysfunctional pattern—especially not when other people suffer the consequences
of that addiction.

Will you join us in this fast? You need not give up food, if that poses too big a challenge this week. As a few of us fast under the weight of this concern, you can help to carry the burden by holding the weight of that concern in other ways. Write your legislators in favor of putting a price on carbon. Support a political campaign that promotes climate-rational policies. Write to the board of managers with suggestions about ways to move forward in maintaining core policies of access and inclusion and reducing emissions without relying on profits from fossil fuels. Create a list of unnecessary carbon-intensive luxuries you could forego, now or in the future. Turn your lawn into a food garden. Refuse plastics. Carpool or walk. Do at least one thing each day, whether you support or oppose divestment. We can create a thriving human future, but only if we begin—together—today.

Assistant Professor Liz Nichols, Biology and Environmental Studies

Prof Nichols also fasted while away from campus in Washington, D.C.


At this moment, the global movement to decarbonize our economy walks a tightrope – anchored between the need for low-carbon leadership, and the necessity for fiscal responsibility. It will do the world no good if our climate visionaries and practitioners fail in their mission because they run into the red.

That said, because of their smart fiscal management and supportive, generous alumni, some institutions are in the privileged position to take greater risks in the decarbonization effort. I believe Swarthmore is one of them.
Of course, with privilege comes responsibility, especially for an institution built on the core value of social justice.

Global decarbonization has four pillars: improved energy efficiency, a zero emissions electricity supply, transitioning land from a source of carbon emissions to a sink, and transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables.
Elevating the social risk of investment portfolios with exposure to fossil fuels is concrete action towards this transition. When done by an institution with high visibility, it is an act both concrete and symbolic.

“Elevating the social risk of investment portfolios with exposure to fossil fuels is concrete action towards this transition. When done by an institution with high visibility, it is an act both concrete and symbolic.” 

Another act both concrete and symbolic, is the support of our students. On this campus, with this degree of overwhelming and clear-headed student desire for a change in policy and strategy, I see divestment and reinvestment as an act that says, 
“We understand that the impacts of non-action are yours to bears, not mine. 
We listen to the science that says business-as-usual investment strategies have measurable and negative impacts on your future, measured in terms of livelihood, economy, social stability, biological diversity, and national security. We know, that these costs are disproportionately borne by the most vulnerable communities, in Delaware County, across the United States and around the world. We have agency here, and we choose to use it. Divestment and reinvestment carries risk to our institution. We will work to manage that risk, for the greater good.”
As a faculty member, I am proud to have come to an institution that values social justice, and that is working to become a leader in quantifying our on-campus carbon use. As a scientist, I understand that we have an estimated 15 years to decarbonize the global economy before we commit subsequent generations to living conditions not experienced over the arch of the Holocene. This is the world’s next “mega development project”, and it is all of our grandest challenge. The trillions of dollars that will be committed to this effort globally will create the economy in which our students will work and live. If we are committed to supporting them, it starts here.
I hope that Swarthmore will divest and reinvest. 


Associate Professor Lee Smithey, Peace and Conflict Studies

LS fast launch

Thank you all for coming out today, and special thanks to Mark and Christy for courageously leading the way.

This is our third week of beginning fasts, and those of us who have been fasting have taken this opportunity each week to share why we are fasting. I suppose there are many reasons, but I will share just a few.

We hear stories from around the world about people, sometimes our own students, struggling at interfaces with the fossil fuel industry. Last year, the World Bank estimated that there are 16,000 flares worldwide that produce around 350 million tons of CO2 each year and contribute to acid rain and respiratory issues in communities in places like Nigeria. Last semester, Professor Wallace and I took our classes to Lancaster County, where residents are resisting the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline that is being forced through residential areas to carry fracked gas from the Marcellus Shale region. Even closer to home, the Mariner East 2 pipeline is coming through nearby Media. We’ve all read about the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines that have endangered Native American people, their lands, and their sovereignty.

It turns out that I live at an interface as well, a very different one, a privileged one. I work (and practically live) at an institution with a $2 billion endowment. According to the faculty white paper on fossil fuel divestment published in 2015, that means about $40 million exposure to fossil fuels. Those are investments that help fund pollution that impacts marginalized communities that live closest to fossil fuel infrastructure. Those are investments that help sustain greenhouse gas emissions. Those are investments that help fund lobbying efforts to slow our transition to a clean energy future. This is the interface that I live at, and it is one for which we must take responsibility.

“Our investments in fossil fuels buttress business plans for a dangerously slow transition to a clean energy economy. With those investments, the Board literally bets against sustainability efforts on campus.”

Our investments in fossil fuels buttress business plans for a dangerously slow transition to a clean energy economy. With those investments, the Board literally bets against sustainability efforts on campus. Those who seek to profit off of the sales of fossil fuels can’t want us to be TOO successful in our efforts to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. And that is especially problematic when we only have two years to confirm the permanent global decline of greenhouse gas emissions that might allow us to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of global warming. We need sustainable technologies and lifestyles so that we can live into our future, but only if we can avoid crossing too many tipping points in the process of global warming that can lead to runaway climate change. We need leaders in civil society to model leadership in this critical moment.

I fast as an educator. The Board of Managers’ 1991 blanket policy prioritizing short term financial gain over social responsibility and environmental sustainability undermines the College’s educational mission. That policy says that the Board will only consider one metric when making decisions about investments: financial return.  How many of you can imagine registering for a class here at the College and finding that the Professor welcomes you to the class by saying, “We are going to cover some difficult and complicated issues this semester.  However, I want to let you know up front that we will only use one metric in assessing these issues. Can you imagine that? The 1991 ban could never pass as sufficiently rigorous at Swarthmore College. The student referendum this semester reflects that contradiction and makes me proud to be a professor and fellow learner with you.

Finally, I fast as a father. My kids are younger than all of you, but I think of them as part of your generation. The stakes are higher for you and for my kids. And so, I stand with you as you advocate for your own future. I get that you are the ones you’ve been waiting for to address this problem, and I’m sorry my generation handed it to you.

I do hope that there will be opportunities to engage with Board members as they come to campus this week. Current students, faculty, and alumni have again and again demonstrated that we understand the need for divestment as one important action we can take to shift the political landscape and make greater regulation and reform possible. I feel certain that there are also Swatties on the Board who feel the same way and see the contradictions in the Board’s current position. I sincerely hope they will find the inspiration to advocate for dropping the 1991 policy and divesting from fossil fuel companies as Sunrise students have requested. The campus community is here, and we are ready to stand with them and support them.

I will end by saying what a privilege it is to fast alongside Betsy Bolton and Liz Nichols.  Betsy was a primary author of the faculty white paper on divestment and is a visionary where environmental sustainability is concerned. Liz has also been inspiring me with her commitment and the important perspective she brings as a biologist and in her work studying the world’s six multilateral environmental agreements.


Associate Professor Christy Schuetze, Anthropology and Environmental Studies

Prof. Schuetze began fasting on April 30, 2018

Christy fast launchSince first joining Swarthmore college, I have been inspired by and proud of the central place of social justice in Swarthmore’s guiding values. I arrived at the college feeling that I was in the right place—that I had been fortunate to find an institution whose guiding mission, as I understood it, aligned with my own core beliefs and motivations as a teacher/scholar.  The college’s Quaker roots and the resulting centrality of social justice in the college identity and values, seemed to me to link together both student and faculty orientation to scholarship and engagement in the world made Swarthmore feel to me the most perfect “home.” I also was proud to join the faculty at an institution which I had understood had a great deal of faculty involvement in governance.

I am fasting this week in part to draw attention to what I feel is a policy that stands in opposition to these central aspects of what I understand to be our institution’s core guiding principles. The 1991 ban on investment decisions in relation to any “social objectives” and the blanket policy to manage the endowment only to yield the “best long term financial results” is at odds with the centrality of social justice in the college’s self-professed identity.

However, searching around on the college website to see where the language of social justice appears, … I had a hard time finding it.  Where did I gain the sense of the centrality of social justice in our shared mission and values? Has the website changed? Maybe it is in the air? The “About” section of the college website does not contain the language of “social justice.”  And, the “history” section identifies the “core tenets” of the college as “academic excellence, thoughtful stewardship of natural resources, and educating for the common good.” So, even if we put social justice aside for the moment, these explicitly stated “core tenets” are at odds with the board’s present investment policy.

“I am fasting this week because there can be no better example of success in educating for the common good than our students’ recently passed referendum to remove the 1991 ban.”

I am fasting this week because there can be no better example of success in educating for the common good than our students’ recently passed referendum to remove the 1991 ban…  this adding on top of their previous two referenda calling on the board of managers to divest the endowment from fossil fuels. The notion of “education” on a college website implies a unidirectional kind of knowledge transfer…  but this spring, as well as previous famous “springs” at the college have demonstrated how students’ also work to educate others in the institution and beyond… linking into and sparking broader movements for social and institutional change. This is education for the common good at its best.

The board of manager’s investment policy is fixed. It is closed to the kinds of processes of growth and change inherent in something like “education.” As we slowly wake up to the current and future realities of climate change, the challenges we face are urgent and dire. This is no time for business as usual. This is an all hands on deck moment. It is not a time for delay. This is a time when institutions must change, the way we think about the world and our relationship to it and to each other must change…  our students are showing us that the education needed at this moment goes in multiple directions.

While I fast this week, I will be working on a project, and I invite anyone to join me in this effort (stop by when you are free!). I will be working to create a banner (and it may take more than one!) that highlights a timeline of the divestment decisions of institutions of higher learning. One thing that I want this to visualize is how Swarthmore students were at the forefront of what has become a global movement. Their actions in the spring of 2011 have sparked what is now a global divestment movement with approximately $6 trillion divested which includes (what my count is) 147 different educational institutions in addition to investment funds, faith-based organizations, cultural institutions, NGOs, pension funds, philanthropic foundations, healthcare institutions, and city and national governments. Doing the research to put together this timeline, I came across an article that captures another dimension of my fast… a sense of longing coupled with a sense of hope: Sterling College, which was one of the first educational institutions in the US to divest (February 2013… the first was Hampshire College in December 2011) featured an article titled “Divestment without Drama” on its website.  The article opens:

“When Sterling College President Matthew Derr asked the Board of Trustees last fall to consider divesting the College’s endowment of its fossil fuel stocks, I’m afraid our response would have made for some very bad reality television. There were no raised eyebrows, no shouting or drama, not even any bad background music. My fellow board members and I couldn’t have agreed more that this action would be a logical expression of our values, and a way to help strengthen the movement for action on climate change.”

Elsewhere on the website they state:

“By fully divesting its endowment from fossil fuel extractors, we are reaffirming our mission to educate problem solvers and the next generation of environmental stewards.”

And the president is quoted as saying:

 “Our Board of Trustees realizes that there is something inherently contradictory about relying on profits from fossil fuels to fund an institution like Sterling.”

These statements capture something of the longing I feel for our investment policy to line up with the institution’s broader professed mission and values.

Finally, in the spirit of these weeks of reflecting on and listening to people’s personal stories of how climate change and fossil fuel extraction has impacted them directly, I wanted to share one aspect of my personal reasons for involvement in this action.  As many of you know, I conduct research in Mozambique. I have lived there off and on for 7 years over a span of time beginning in 1998. It is a place where I have many deep personal relationships and commitments. It feels like a second home. The research I will be doing during my upcoming sabbatical leave will focus on the growing insecurity of land tenure around the country—particularly in the resource-rich central and northern part of the country. Structural adjustment policies put in place in 1987 (in the midst of a civil war… ) removed social safety nets and prioritized fiscal austerity and the creation of a “business friendly environment” to attract foreign direct investment as a strategy for development. Success towards “development” in this frame, is measured primarily by the rate of GDP growth. This kind of narrow metric which prioritizes fiscal returns over social equity or social transformation is hauntingly similar to the board’s investment policy.

The result of such policies in Mozambique has been the growing insecurity of livelihoods of small scale agriculturalists who have lost any support they previously had: price controls, subsidies, and protections to buffer the risk of crop failure and fluctuating market prices. People struggle to make ends meet. As GDP growth has risen, so too has the gap between the wealthy and the poor, and rates of malnutrition have risen to above levels recorded during the 16-year civil war.

Along with food insecurity these policies, imposed by foreign governments, have been a boon to extraction industries.  But they have brought with them the insecurity of land tenure. Prioritizing foreign direct investment in the economic development model for the country has led Mozambique to gain the unfortunate notoriety of being one of the most heavily targeted countries for large-scale land transfers on the African continent. Since 2006, Mozambique consistently reports among the highest rates of land transfers. Land transfer is a nice way of saying expulsion—from residence or from use of land. Who is losing their land? Small scale farmers…  Who is acquiring it?  Private companies based in Australia, Brazil, China, the US, South Africa, India and a whole host of other countries. They are setting up large scale commercial farms (a major focus on biofuels) and mining coal, heavy sands, and natural gas, and other natural resources. Since 2006, 85 trillion cubic feet of natural gas has been found in the Rovuma basin, Mozambique has become known as one of the big future players in oil and gas.  We know well, from experience that this does not bode well for many in the country—particularly for the small farmers and the families who rely on fishing to make a living.

In Mozambique . . . after having fought and won a long-war for independence people are finding themselves under siege by a growing number of foreign investors, particularly in the extractive industries. But unlike during the colonial period, there is not a single enemy to fight against. There is no head to the beast.  In the face of climate change and the injustices perpetuated by fossil fuel industries, multiple strategies are needed. The divestment movement, sparked by Swarthmore students in 2011, is just one important strategy.

What has been happening in Mozambique is a microcosm of the nature of the new global political economy, which Saskia Sassen has described as being characterized by “the emergence of new logics of expulsion.” This leads to a link between the divestment campaign and the O4S campaign happening now that goes beyond the issue of governance and accountability at the college. Kyle Whyte, indigenous scholar and climate justice activist who Giovanna Di Chiro brought to campus to speak the week before last made the connection between sexual violence and climate change clear.  He showed us how moral relations and ecological relations of societies are fused together. Sexual violence and fossil fuel extraction share in common a culture of lack of consent.

I am fasting this week to draw attention to these concerns. I am fasting, because I feel we need to act on multiple fronts, as an institution, as a society and as individuals.

I am fasting in support of the student referendum that just passed. My fasting aims to symbolically draw attention to the fact that my hunger for change in the world is much greater than a hunger for food. A hunger for change in the forces that hold sway and have the power to shape political and economic systems.  A hunger for change to our addiction to fossil fuels and to material gain that blinds us to the ways in which our lives and our lifestyles are interconnected. I am cognizant of the fact that it is a privilege to be able to choose whether or not to eat and to be able to enter into this week-long commitment willingly to draw attention to the weight of concern that attends these issues. I am fasting because there is something inherently contradictory about relying on profits from fossil fuels to fund an institution like Swarthmore.

Professor Mark Wallace, Religion and Environmental Studies

Professor of Religion, Mark Wallace, began fasting on April 23, 2018

Mark fast porchI am happy and humbled to be here today. I was touched and moved by the request that some of us, as faculty at the College, consider a small gesture like fasting as a way of expressing our frustration and displeasure with the College’s decision not to divest from fossil fuels and its now more than $2 billion endowment.

Let me clarify something. I’m not on a hunger strike. That would mean that I would continue to fast until and when the College decides to divest from fossil fuels, and well, my prospects would probably not be good. That would probably take a long time, though I hope it won’t take a long time for the College to divest. So, this isn’t a hunger strike; this is a fast. Some of you have asked about this. Many spiritual traditions, many people and communities who come out of a moral heritage, think about fasting as a way of registering their frustration with institutions like Swarthmore College that don’t do the right thing. In my case, that means that I’m just not eating food. I [could not] take water. That’s a whole other thing. I wouldn’t do that, but I’m just not taking food for this week. My thinking behind this is my decision not to eat is a small gesture to the College, to say to the college, “you’re doing the wrong thing.”

Most of you here today are students, and as students at Swarthmore College, the mission of the college is to prepare you for the future, to provide you with education and support and counsel while you are at Swarthmore and then beyond to enter the workplace and to engage work environments, your social relationships, your friends, your communities, in a way that is ethically self reflective. But, the college, in this regard, is in deep conflict with itself. Because, while its mission is to provide you with education, to enable you to go into the future, in fact, it is heavily invested in the very industry that is destroying all of our futures, that is destroying, in fact, the very life support systems that make our existence on this planet habitable and fruitful and wonderful in the first place.

I think of fossil fuels as the most ass backwards, ignorant, completely ill-informed way to conduct business. The United States was a whale blubber economy in the 19th century, and in the early stages of the industrial revolution. I was born in 1956, so I grew up in a world in the 20th century dependent on fossil fuels, and the fossil fuel industry provided the energy the United States coveted for its own mission. It’s the 21st century! We’re not a whale blubber economy anymore, and we shouldn’t be a fossil fuel economy either. We have renewables at the ready: sun, and wind, and water, and landscapes. We have renewable energy at the ready that we can tap to fuel our future without destroying the planet in the process.

I grew up in Los Angeles, but my mother’s family is from coastal Mississippi. And Hurricane Katrina, to talk about another hurricane, in 2005, swept through the Gulf Coast of the United States and killed close to 2,000 people. My mother’s family, my extended family, lost homes and livelihoods, and resources, not their lives, because they had the ability to leave the area just ahead of the hurricane, but the material conditions that supported their existence for many members of my family were wiped out.  Hurricane Katrina would have been most likely a typical hurricane churning through the gulf, as has happened over many generations. If it hadn’t been for climate change during that cyclone, that tropical disturbance would not have become a killer storm. Climate scientists say that the ambient temperature of the Gulf of Mexico has risen about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past seventy or eighty years. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but what that water does, it is the perfect environment for taking what would be a tropical disturbance, and as in the case of Katrina, convert that disturbance into a killer hurricane. Katrina made landfall in 2005, late that summer or early that fall, as a category five hurricane, and then people like members of my family did have … [ video stops] …

“How could Swarthmore College, a Quaker heritage institution, not think as critically and thoughtfully about its own moral and economic future as the Rockefellers do? I don’t understand it. It’s a contradiction of our mission, our values, and our heritage.”

…made a series of terrible decisions, and one of those decisions over the last eight years has been the refusal to divest from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, coal and oil, and gas, fuels like that have been divested, even by people like the Rockefellers, a very wealthy white family in the United States, who made their fortune on fossil fuels. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, three or four years ago, divested from fossil fuels because they realized that the very economy that they had relied on for their incredible wealth was destroying the planet. How could Swarthmore College, a Quaker heritage institution, not think as critically and thoughtfully about its own moral and economic future as the Rockefellers do? I don’t understand it. It’s a contradiction of our mission, our values, and our heritage.

So, that’s why I’m here today. I hope to be here throughout the week. I teach on Wednesdays, so I may not be here on Wednesdays, but tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday I’m here at different times. I would love to meet with some of you to talk about the College, to talk about its future and ways that we could strategize together to help the college do the right thing, to divest from fossil fuels in its endowment.

Thank you.

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Carbon charge no alternative to divestment

by Lee Smithey
This op-ed appeared in The Phoenix on Thursday 25 February 2016

This past weekend, the Board of Managers at Swarthmore College approved an internal charge on greenhouse gas emissions. We should mark what appears to be an initial step toward developing a carbon pricing model. However, while welcome, the plan is no alternative to divesting the institution’s $1.9 billion endowment of fossil fuels.

I have had the privilege of both co-authoring the white paper that underpinned the faculty resolution calling for divestment and joining the working group that developed the proposal for the new carbon charge plan. As I write this column, it is not yet clear to what extent the Board adopted the working group’s proposal, but let’s assume for now that congratulations are in order all around! The plan was designed to collect a fee from each department to begin registering the social cost of each metric ton of carbon (or its equivalent in various gases) that the college emits (limited for the moment to the physical plant, electricity use, and emissions associated with planned construction) in order to fund sustainability projects. It also calls us to bend our intellectual energies toward better understanding the social costs of carbon through our teaching, learning, and research and then apply our growing knowledge to the pricing scheme. Why is all this important? It urges us down the long road of building sustainable infrastructures that will be necessary, if we survive the climate crisis.

However, the carbon charge leaves invisible the role of investment capital in sustaining an industry that is playing a dangerous profit-fueled game with our futures, a game that we underwrite and legitimize with our investments. It leaves unexamined the strange fiction that the only appropriate metric for assessing financial investments is financial return, a position that wouldn’t bear scrutiny in most, if any, Swarthmore classrooms. Yet, it is enshrined in the Board of Managers’ 1991 guideline that the “Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” Do we really believe that our current investments have no impact on social conditions?

Alone, the carbon charge assumes that we, consumers of fossil fuels, are solely responsible for the dilemma in which we find ourselves as a species. Don’t get me wrong, we do bear responsibility, and the new initiative is a step in the right direction. However, we also know that corporations go to great lengths, through marketing and lobbying, to shape the political, social, and economic landscapes in which they operate. Rest assured that while we try to diminish our consumption, fossil fuel companies on the Carbon Underground list will be using our investments to make the task as difficult as possible.

The new carbon charge plan also assumes there is a glide path of declining consumption that can keep global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius (never mind 1.5 degrees). Sustainability initiatives funded by the carbon charge should be undertaken for the long term common good, but to address the climate crisis, they would have been more appropriate thirty years ago, when the public became aware of global warming. Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry actively suppressed climate science, we let those decades pass, and we find ourselves in a catastrophically difficult situation.

Now, robust intervention is necessary. The mitigation scenarios that could keep global temperatures within 2 degrees Celsius require carbon sequestration technologies that don’t yet exist and a global price on carbon to have been agreed in 2010 … yes, 2010! Consequently, we need direct regulation of the extraction of fossil fuels accompanied by massive support for research and development of alternative energy, humanitarian aid, and preparation for climate impacts in vulnerable areas.

Through divestment, the college can join other institutions and use its privileged status to signal to world leaders that they can and must take bold steps to regulate the extraction of fossil fuels. Millions of vulnerable people are at severe short term risk (estimated by DARA and the Climate Vulnerable Forum at 6 million per year by 2030). Even the college itself is under threat.

Our students have already done the heavy lifting by launching and building an effective global campaign. We know this because our college representatives at the COP21 summit in Paris reported back that UN President Ban Ki Moon cited the importance of the divestment campaign as part of “a rising global tide of support for a strong, universal agreement,” declaring, “All of us have a […] duty to heed those voices.” Faculty, students, many alumni, and at least six distinguished honorary degree recipients understand President Moon’s perspective, and I expect some managers on the board do as well. After all, the optional Green Fund that the board established for new donations signals that the 1991 guideline is not water tight.

For those in civil society with cultural and economic capital, divestment remains an important tool in our toolbox, and we have a responsibility to use it. As we publicly demonstrate to our political leaders how to say no to fossil fuel companies, we should press them for an ambitious global carbon price, restrictions on fossil fuel extraction, and a plan to freeze the development of new reserves.


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Constructive Conflict and Divestment at Swarthmore College

I have made a career (literally) out of studying strategic nonviolent action. Let’s face it. I am a fan. Increasingly, the best research we have shows that well-organized nonviolent action is one of the most effective tools for large-scale social and political change that humans have ever developed.

In the face of the looming climate crisis, we desperately need large-scale political change. We need sufficient regulation of fossil fuels that will keep carbon in the ground and mitigate the potentially devastating climate change that is upon us. Thankfully, at Swarthmore College where I teach peace and conflict studies as well as sociology, we can play a role in helping to generate cultural change and political will through the stigmatization of fossil fuels.

A student group named Swarthmore Mountain Justice has taken the lead over the past four years, both on our campus and nationally, by calling for Swarthmore and other colleges and universities to divest our endowments from fossil fuels. Nine days ago, Mountain Justice launched an extended sit-in outside the Finance and Investment Office on the second floor of Parrish Hall. They have called for a commitment to divest over five years from the highest emitting 200 coal, oil, and gas companies (the Carbon Underground 200), and they are working to induce the College’s Board of Managers to engage in further negotiations.

Sitin launch

Students have met with representatives of the Board many times over the past four years, but to date, the Board has insisted that its fiduciary responsibility bars it from using the endowment for political purposes and that divestment would be merely symbolic. With regard to the first point, a 1.9 billion dollar endowment cannot be inoculated from having political significance. Our investments do not only exist on spreadsheets that report risks and returns; they enable real activities in the real world that empower and impoverish real people. On the second point, politics has everything to do with symbols. Ask any political operative. By locating their sit-in at the Office of Finances, students are drawing our attention to the ways in which we are caught up in international economics, global politics, and powerful cultural silences about those relationships. Faculty have also endeavored to break some of the silence. Ninety-seven have signed a letter calling on the Board to make a public commitment to fossil fuel divestment. Last month, some of those faculty discussed divestment with Board members at a reception.


Faculty spoke with Board members during a reception in February and shared copies of the faculty letter calling for divestment from fossil fuels. Photo by Mindy Cheng

Notwithstanding my fascination with and respect for well-planned and thoughtful nonviolent action, one might say that I come from a long line of conflict avoiders. I do not take confrontation lightly. It does not come naturally for me by any stretch. As a peace studies scholar, who is deeply interested in conflict transformation and peacebuilding, I am committed to the work of building cooperative relationships across boundaries. However, as the terms “conflict transformation” and “constructive conflict” (the name of this blog) imply, conflict and peacebuilding are not mutually exclusive concepts. Sometimes nonviolent confrontation is necessary to “form and shape the soil” out of which more peaceful and just relationships can emerge, as the brilliant civil rights leader and nonviolent strategist, Rev. James Lawson, said a few days ago in California. To that end, I want to speak in support of the sit-in undertaken by our well-organized students.

Their proportional and legitimate action fits comfortably within the historical corpus of nonviolent civil resistance and offers an opportunity to integrate sustainability into our curriculum. Much as Professor Dorsey’s highly successful course, “Black Liberation 1969: Black Studies in History Theory and Praxis” produced outstanding research and an online archive about the 1969 sit-in at the College’s Admissions Office by the Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society (SASS), today’s sit-in allows us to examine in real-time another nonviolent struggle in a new and different context. Students in my “Strategy and Nonviolent Struggle” course will take a field trip next week to the site of the sit-in to compare what we have been learning about strategic nonviolent action theory with the unfolding divestment campaign on campus. (I fully expect that the current campaign will someday become one more case among the more than 1,000 cases our students have documented in the Global Nonviolent Action Database.)

Thoughtful nonviolent action sometimes disrupts business as usual and forces us to think more closely about the ways in which our daily lives are structured and intertwined with larger systems of power. The occasional emergence of this kind of peace and conflict studies lab on our campus offers opportunities to perceive the disconnects that so often go unspoken and feel the social, cultural, and economic sinews that hold us together and pull us apart.

Nonviolent struggle can also invite us to imagine new futures together. These moments can call us to practice conflict in ways that are respectful and productive, and when we do them well, we build relationships and bridges that serve us as an institution and a community in the future. Finding the balance between determination and humility will challenge us, as I think it has often done throughout the divestment campaign. However, we can still strive to be as artful as possible in our actions, intellectually curious, and open to new relationships as we work to dismantle unjust systems.

I plan to use this blog as a place to share my own teachable moments during the divestment campaign. You can also find me on Twitter at @peacesociology, and I am curating public information and social media about the campaign on Storify.


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How to restore a missing memo window in Palm Desktop ver. 6.2.2 on Windows 7

This entry is off-topic for my blog, but I’m compelled to offer a solution to a problem related to Palm Desktop ver 6.2.2 that I couldn’t find in any other Palm-related threads online.

I’m one of those old-school PDA folks who began building an electronic address book and reams of memos a couple of decades ago. For years, I used Palm devices until I eventually had to migrate to an Android device. (How to manage that move is whole other story.)

As it turns out, you can still use Palm Desktop to sync with other devices. I use CompanionLink to sync my address book and memos. Palm Desktop has been a sturdy no-frills platform, and I expect I’ll keep using it as long as I can.


However, I’ve run into a recurring, pernicious, and mysterious problem. Every once in a while, I try to edit a memo in Palm Desktop, the editing window does not appear. It seems as if the software locks up. When I try to click on another memo or do anything in the main Desktop window, I get an error beep.

I realized a while back that the software has NOT locked up. The problem is that the memo editing window HAS opened, but it is somewhere off-screen. If one hits the Esc key, the missing edit window is closed and the main Palm software is accessible again (no error beeps).

When a window is missing, many folks suggest right-clicking on the clock/date display in the task-bar in Windows 7 and selecting “Cascade windows”. This can be helpful in other lost-window situations, but for some reason it does not seem to work for a missing Palm window.

BUT, I just discovered a solution at techspot.com that does work for Palm Desktop. They write:

“Bring the troubled window to focus by clicking on it in the taskbar (or Alt+Tab) [ = make Palm Desktop active]. Now you can simply hold the Windows key on your keyboard and tap the arrow keys. With any luck, your missing window will snap back into view.”

I hope this post may help others who come across the same annoying problem.  It is MUCH easier than uninstalling and re-installing, which is often advised.


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Gun violence and data for public health

Last year, the “Peace Studies and Action” class I teach at Swarthmore College adopted gun violence prevention as the semester’s topic for study. It seemed appropriate to learn more about a problem of violence that is prominent in our region. In 2012, 284 out of 331 homicides in Philadelphia were committed with guns.

Police examining shooting scene

Photograph for the Gun Crisis Reporting Project by Joseph Kaczmarek.

I was inspired to pursue the topic by my former colleague at Swarthmore, the Pulitzer prize winning photojournalist, Jim MacMillan, who founded guncrisis.org to bring the tools of professional journalists to bear on the gun violence epidemic in Philadelphia.

My students this semester are writing weekly blog posts on our internal class website. I hope to join them (as often as I can) and also place my posts here on my public blog.

This week we are reading David Hemenway’s Private Guns, Public Health, which summarizes the public health approach to gun injuries and deaths. As Hemenway explains, “[P]ublic health focuses directly on prevention–eliminating the problem before something bad happens” (p. 9).

That includes careful data collection in the service of figuring out how to make environments more safe.

Philadelphia County has made crime data publicly available, and a Weapons Related Incident Survey System (WRISS) was established in 2002 to compile data about all shooting incidents in the county.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has established its own online interactive mapped database that featured in an informational video developed by Jim MacMillan.

guncrisis.org has recently used its own reporting to track gun deaths in January 2014.

The service project we are undertaking as a class this semester follows a public health approach as we are seeking to build a simple database like the Philadelphia Inquirer’s database for Delaware County. (I anticipate that our attempts to find the data may be as educational as any other dimension of the course.)

We hope a database will help inform a wide range of efforts, both governmental and non- governmental because, as I also learned this week, public health is not just about the science but about organizing stakeholders for change.

Follow our class hashtag #swatgvp on Twitter or via Storify where our tweets will be bundled.


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A moment for nonviolent empowerment in Northern Ireland

In this piece by Sean Brennan, he proposes that the recent flag protests and the violent disturbances at Woodvale / Ardoyne in Belfast potentially mark a turning point for loyalism.  If these events can indeed be used to illustrate the futility of violence (subsequent demonstrations have been better organized), and if Brennan is right that a “Socially motivated ‘grassroots’ Loyalism” with “a new inclusive non-violent community action element” is emerging, then we might well anticipate a new lease on the prospect of thoroughgoing conflict transformation. 

I would like to highlight Brennan’s mention of “non-violent community action.” I still believe that an important dimension of conflict transformation is the nonviolent empowerment of all parties, through political engagement, and when necessary, nonviolent civil resistance.  Unfortunately, there has not been a historical tradition of strategic nonviolent action within PUL communities.  Now would be a wonderfully appropriate time for influential local leaders to become familiar with the extensive knowledge that has been developed about effective nonviolent action.  

Those who are interested might visit the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, the Albert Einstein Institution, and the Global Nonviolent Action Database.   

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How to Start a Revolution

There are two local opportunities this week to screen and discuss the documentary “How to Start a Revolution” about Gene Sharp’s long career and groundbreaking work in developing the theory of nonviolent strategic action.

Pendle Hill will show the film on July 1, 7:30-9:00 p.m. as part of its First Mondays series.  I will have the privilege of facilitating a discussion about the film. Download a flyer.

Envision Peace Museum will show the film on July 3, 6:30-9:00 p.m. with a panel discussion afterwards including Arzu Geybulla in Turkey, Stephanie Ambar in Brazil, and myself Download a flyer.

Swarthmore College is privileged to be the home of the papers of the Albert Einstein Institution.

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Identity Formation in Nonviolent Struggles

book cover

I’m happy to share that I had the opportunity to contribute a chapter on “Identity Formation in Nonviolent Struggle” to a new book edited by Maciej BartkowskiRecovering Nonviolent History: Civil Resistance in Liberation Struggles. (Lynne Rienner Publishers)

My chapter serves as a theoretical primer on the social movement literature on collective identities and the under-explored connections with strategic action.  My fellow contributors cover a range of global, and often forgotten, cases of nonviolent liberation struggles where national identities have played important roles.  Here is what I’ve written about my chapter:

As other chapters in this volume illustrate, nonviolent resistance has often played an important role in nationalist movements for independence. These cases offer important opportunities to study the power potentials of strategic nonviolent action, and the prominence of nationalism in them compels us to ask how identity and tactical choice influence one another. This chapter draws on the sociological study of social movements to theorize ways of thinking about relationships between the nonviolent tactics that many nationalist movements have employed in conflict and their collective national identities. The relationships are probably much closer and more important than either sociologists or scholars of nonviolent resistance have realized. Identities can be publicly displayed for strategic ends. Tactical repertoires, including nonviolent ones, reflect collective identities or resisters’ cultural predispositions. Conversely, choosing certain tactics can influence the construction of collective identities as people adapt their national identity to incorporate new tactical rationales and justifications.

Here is the book description:

This unique book brings to light the little-known, but powerful roles that civil resistance has played in national liberation struggles throughout history. Ranging from the American Revolution to Kosovo in the 1990s, from Egypt under colonial rule to present-day West Papua and Palestine, the authors of Recovering Nonviolent History consider several key questions: What kinds of civilian-based nonviolent strategy and tactics have been used in liberation struggles? What accounts for their successes and failures? Not least, how did nonviolent resistance influence national identities and socioeconomic and political institutions both prior to and after liberation, and why has this history been so often ignored? The story that emerges is a compelling one of the agency of thousands and even millions of ordinary people as they used nonviolent force in the course of struggles against foreign subjugation.

For those interested in exploring the intersection of nationalism and nonviolence further, you might be interested in exploring Manfred Steger’s book, Gandhi’s Dilemma: Nonviolent Principles and Nationalist Power in which Steger examines the tension between Gandhi’s deployment of Indian nationalism and his universal philosophy of nonviolence.

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First maps for the Mural Mapping Project

I’m pleased to announce that we are beginning to generate the first maps from the Mural Mapping Project. Josh Satre ’13, a Swarthmore College student, has given the project a boost by using results from the second survey (2009-2010) in developing a class project this semester.  We will build on this preliminary work in developing a first conference paper that we hope to submit for presentation in the coming months. Stay tuned!

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What sociology fancies

I’m working on some comments for the beginning of the course I am co-teaching titled “Exemplary Studies in Sociology and Anthropology.” Here’s a quick word cloud from wordle.net that depicts the words in the names of the sections of the American Sociological Association.

Wordle: Sections of the American Sociological Association

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