Lauren R. Stevens: Williams must make the moral decision

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WILLIAMSTOWN — In 2015, Williams College trustees decided not to divest the college's portfolio from fossil fuels, as many students, faculty and alumni advocated; rather to "address the urgent issue of global climate change by reducing the college's greenhouse gas emissions even further, achieving carbon neutrality, and investing significantly in sustainable-energy and carbon-reduction projects and the enhancement of the college's educational efforts related to the environment."

One of the latter alternatives has been a series of speakers this fall. A funny thing has happened.

Small moral decisions

The Sept. 17 Convocation speaker was Maxine Burkett, class of '98, professor of law at the University of Hawaii and an advocate for climate justice, especially for island nations. She related the stresses a woman of color, daughter of Jamaican immigrants, faced adjusting to Williams.

She spoke eloquently of how she overcame those obstacles until she "cemented" her place in the "Williams ecosystem" — and how that acculturation had buoyed her as she dealt with climate change. She described the "small moral decisions" individuals needed to make and urged students to consider always "who suffers."

Then she added, with friendly respect, that Williams needed to divest, as "all tools" should be applied to the issue of climate change. She urged students to continue to advocate, "lovingly," for that action.

Van Jones spoke at Williams on Sept. 28. CNN commentator Jones was the primary advocate for the Green Jobs Act, signed by George W. Bush and enlarged by President Barack Obama. His books include "The Green Collar Economy" and "Rebuild the Dream." The title of his talk: "Green Jobs Not Jails." He deliberately and thoughtfully engaged with students at the end of his remarks, urging them to continue to push the college toward divestment.

Mark Tercek, class of '79, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy and the most recent appointee to the Williams Board of Trustees, spoke on Oct. 13. He eloquently defended Williams' program of investing, such as the 1.9 megawatt solar array at the Williamstown landfill and the proposed green energy collaboration with Connecticut valley colleges to achieve energy independence. And yet he noted that The Nature Conservancy had divested and, if not urged, at least commended the students for their drive.

More than symbolic

Indeed, how could any serious speaker on global climate change not point out that Williams' positive actions are laudable, even unique — and the perfect companion to a program of divesting from companies that are contributing to the problem? Williams' portfolio, at over $2 billion, is not trivial. Divestment would not be merely symbolic. Furthermore Williams' action would likely inspire other educational institutions to do the same. That's what's known as leadership.

The nations of the world are coming together in Marrakech, bearing their self-imposed mitigation strategies. Recognition of the effects of climate change is nearly universal, and deeply embedded with social justice issues. It is time for Williams to consider, in Burkett's words, "who suffers." And to bring forward its self-imposed action of invest, together with the moral decision to divest.

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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