My liberal arts education at Bates College has taught me a lot about the urgent issues facing our environment and our communal well-being: The Earth’s climate is warming; species are going extinct at an unprecedented rate; and known toxins pollute the environment.

Those problems are caused by a human society that values obscene profits and luxury over a healthy environment and stable climate.

While most of us care deeply about the environment and take strides to lessen our impact on the natural world, acting on the individual level can only do so much. For example, while we can simply boycott a company engaged in environmentally destructive behavior through refusing to buy that company’s products, what happens if that company doesn’t directly sell to ordinary consumers, as in the case of oil refiners such as Exxon, Shell and BP?

Typically, the gas stations with the BP logo are not directly owned by BP, rather they are franchised out to other individuals. Therefore, applying pressure on oil companies by boycotting them does little to influence the decisions made by those companies.

However, many companies are owned publicly and many private institutions invest in those companies such as not-for-profits, hospitals, and colleges and universities. Those institutions do fund raising to grow their endowment — a sum that is invested in publicly traded corporations to potentially receive a positive return on investment.

What baffles me is that many of those private institutions, when deciding how they want to invest their money, do not consider the fact that those corporations may pollute groundwater, cause asthma, explode mountains, and send species to the brink of extinction.


Bates College is no different, of course. Its endowment is in the range of $300 million, a small amount compared to its NESCAC peers, but still a very respectable amount of money. It can almost be guaranteed that a portion of that money is invested in companies with records of environmental degradation. But information regarding the specific companies in which the college is invested is unavailable to the Bates’ community.

Looking into Bates’ history as a school founded by abolitionists and described as “a school for coming times,” it is only logical to think that Bates would take a strong stand on the most pertinent issue of the time — the move toward sustainability and environmental responsibility.

Bates College is already a leader in the field of institutional sustainability. Its new buildings achieve LEED Silver equivalency at a minimum; 80 percent of the food waste is recycled, and it has pledged to achieve climate neutrality by the year 2020 by installing a biomass co-generation system (that is, heat and electricity), just to name a few of the outstanding achievements in sustainability.

Bates has demonstrated a strong commitment to sustainability and has fostered a strong environmental ethic; however, we do not know how the environmental impacts of the endowment have been addressed.

Members of the student club BEAM have embarked on a project focused on issues regarding the college investment practices. We have joined an active and growing national campaign run by the Sierra Club, focusing on fossil fuel divestment.

Bates College stands to be the first school in the country to divest from fossil fuel companies if our project succeeds. This would not harm the college’s endowment performance and would send a statement to the world that Bates is a leader in sustainability — from transportation to dining to the endowment. That money could be reinvested in a renewable energy company.


Doesn’t that show more “stewardship for the wider world” as the college mission statement reads?

Apartheid divestments of the 1970s, in which billions of dollars were taken out of the South African economy, were a key factor in ending the brutal and racist practices because institutions felt they couldn’t support corporations which went against their morals and values.

We now find ourselves in a similar situation, where government is too paralyzed to act against environmental injustice.

The college endowment is something out of sight to students and alumni, but its effects spread to every corner of the globe. The time to act is now.

Benjamin Breger of Amherst, Mass., is in his junior year as a biology major at Bates College. He belongs to the Bates Energy Action Movement, a student club dedicated to tackling anthropogenic climate change.

Editor’s note: According to a spokesman for Bates College, “Bates does not invest directly in companies but instead invests through external fund managers who select companies as part of a portfolio with a specific investment strategy. Bates notifies these managers of our Policy on Social Investment” containing clear guidelines on ethical business behavior and that are “consistent with, or in support of, the valuing of individual worth, safety, and a just community.” More information about this Bates’ investment strategy is available to Bates community members upon request.

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