Invest in the Future
Wednesday, September 26, 2018
Western Washington University lies in an unparalleled location—on the shores of the spectacular Salish Sea, below the Cascades, and within the traditional territory of indigenous peoples who have lived here since time immemorial. Yet we also see in heart-breaking accounts of recent deaths of resident orca whales that the sea and its denizens are seriously endangered, including by the threat of increasing oil tanker traffic. We see shrinking glaciers whenever we look to the mountains. And we look with gratitude to our Lummi neighbors for their leadership in environmental stewardship.
Why, then, is Western not among the U.S. universities that have formally committed to divesting from fossil fuels? They include Oregon State, Seattle University, Lewis and Clark, Pitzer, University of Hawaii, and the University of Maryland, among others nationwide. And how can this be, when everywhere we see evidence that worst-case climate change scenarios are coming true, and that the window for effective response is closing quickly?
Several arguments are cited for why Western is not moving more swiftly away from investments in climate-damaging endeavors. One is that fiduciary responsibility requires maximizing returns on endowment investments.
While investing in the energy sector for diversification, growth and income is standard practice, investing in harmful and inherently risky commodities exposes that endowment to unnecessary peril. Evidence from performance analyses of portfolios reveals that re-investment in responsible endeavors does not reduce returns. Public institutions especially need transparency and money managers who provide fossil free and sustainable investing options.
A second rationale is that divestment would politicize financial decisions. Yet the reality is that no investment is apolitical. Investing responsibly yields powerful possibilities to positively influence change.
So why not move in a direction that most benefits earth and life itself? Living well on earth and with each other involves intricate interweaving of social, economic, and ethical practices and principles, that ultimately are also political in nature and not to be cursorily dismissed.
Third, divestment is characterized as being grounded in stigmatization. In fact, it is aligned with rising awareness and agreement about the serious state of the world. The general public, leaders and shareholders in numerous enterprises are part of a unison of people across the country and worldwide who recognize we cannot continue business as usual. Not taking a stand is to choose the status quo.
Institutional sluggishness is not new. Universities are notoriously slow to change, particularly when more than incremental changes are needed. Western isn’t immune to these tendencies. However, today nearly 1000 institutions worldwide have divested over $6 trillion. They include universities, faith-based institutions, foundations, and even cities, states and countries, that have committed publicly to move promptly toward a sustainable model of investing called for by the need to address the climate crisis.
Universities are powerful change agents. Western’s motto, “Active Minds, Changing Lives,” affirms this. Its fundamental responsibility is to ensure that teaching, research, and outreach address the pressing issues of our time. The greatest challenge facing humanity is climate change. It is not simply one issue among many. As planet and posterity cry for action, a university’s priorities and investment decisions can and must accord with its mission and potential.
Growth, commoditization and over-consumption are forces to be challenged rather than reinforced, even implicitly. A shift in investments would further ensure Western’s reputation and role as an environmental leader, something that will in turn be reflected in Western’s attractiveness for potential students and new faculty, not to mention Sierra Club and other school rankings. It will also increase alumni and donor support for scholarships.
Students have voted overwhelming to divest from fossil fuels. More than 500 faculty and staff members have called on Western Washington University to do this as well.
Divestment means screening out fossil fuels and re-investing through instruments and money managers with abilities to bring investments into greatest harmony with one’s values. By investing in the future, Western will encourage synergies and solutions, while also emulating the advice of Martin Luther King, Jr., that “it is always the right time to do the right thing.”
James Loucky, Jill MacIntyre Witt, Peter Sakura, and Students for Renewable Energy
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