Divesting for the Future

If you care about the future of our environment, good news! A big name is on our side: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who was brought to our campus as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series on Monday, March 13. RFK is a staunch environmentalist, head of the National Resource Defense Council and dubbed one of the “Heroes for the Planet.” His lecture, which revolved around the transition to a renewable energy grid and fossil fuel divestment, came at quite a strategic time.

 “Divestment” means getting rid of stocks, bonds and other funds invested in the fossil fuel industry. The New Paltz Foundation was the main sponsor of the RFK event, but ironically, the Foundation continues to invest funds in the fossil fuel industry.  

 In the Fall semester of 2016, a SUNY New Paltz Divestment Committee was formed as a collective resistance to businesses that deal with fossil fuels; a dirty and dying industry.

The committee drafted a resolution to request full divestment by May of 2017 which passed through student and faculty senate. The response from the President was supportive, but contained an ambiguous timeline and with no definite voting approval by the Board.

Director of environmental studies and sociology professor Brian Obach heads the divestment committee and agrees that “the college should be clear about where they stand on divestment and when it’s going to happen.”

Getting the Foundation to divest is just part of the problem. We also need re-investment in clean energies to facilitate broad change. Divestment isn’t primarily an economic strategy, but a moral and political one; it is immoral to fund climate change. On the flip side, divestment also starts to build momentum for moving money into clean energy, community development and other sustainable investments.

When RFK spoke to students, faculty, community members and SUNY New Paltz Foundation Board members sitting in the front row, his opinion on fossil fuels was direct: it’s a dirty and addictive form of energy. He mentioned how fossil fuel subsidies by the government and big banks are the driving force behind their continued existence, when the practical need for them has been long diminished. He also noted the economic prosperity that lies in investing in renewable energies: “Ford (company) reduced the price of Model T’s in 13 years by 62 percent. Solar cut costs in five years by 80 percent.” – If that’s not a logical economic argument to switch our energy grids outright – then I don’t know what is.

I was very pleasantly surprised by how uninhibited Mr. Kennedy was about our nation’s deep addiction to fossil fuels. He mentioned the insane influence that mega corporations such as the Koch Industries have on presidential elections as well as governmental business, stating: “Puppets for the Koch Brothers have been put into office to lock us into a petro state” and on the dying yet artificially lasting coal industry: “30 years after the economic rational has left for coal, we will still be addicted to it because they have to continue pumping it out to benefit investors.”

Motivated by RFK’s brazen perspectives, I wondered if the connection was made in the minds of the very people who assign whose hands the school’s money goes to, that if we divested, we would be one less strand in the rope keeping the fossil fuel industry alive.

The time was ripe to mention SUNY New Paltz divestment at the end of Mr. Kennedy’s talk and get a direct message sent to the investors of our institution. By some unknown powers, as the mic went to one of our student divestment committee members, a foundation official redirected the mic to a different student.  Perhaps this was a misunderstanding, but it could also be that the Foundation didn’t want to be embarrassed by the fact that they are invested in the industry that their speaker strongly opposes.  Regardless of any attempts to suppress this issue or student opinions, the fight will continue.

The future of the environment and our health depends on the actions we take today.  Student support for divestment is overwhelming. The last piece we need is institutional support to make it happen.

If you wish to learn more or become part of the Divestment Committee, contact Billie Golan at golanb1@hawkmail.newpaltz.edu.