Op-ed: Fossil fuels undermine the core value of Wash. U.

Eddie Ives | Fossil Free WashU

To the administration of Washington University,

Fossil Free WashU recently visited a community in southern Illinois to see the direct effects that fossil fuel extraction has had there. Our experience deepened our understanding of the issue and confirmed what we already knew: that the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels is a morally reprehensible process.

We went into our trip expecting to see the environmental destruction caused by strip mining operations and hear the stories of indigenous people, whose lives have been interrupted by extraction operations. Our expectations were exceeded. The shameless exploitation that we witnessed has no place in our society, much less the investment portfolio of our prestigious university. Lines of black diesel fuel flowed unfiltered from mining sites into nearby streams. Massive explosions of toxic chemicals created dust clouds that filled the air. Pools of waste water rich in heavy metals polluted the air, burned our throats and made us nauseous.

As much as these activities devastated the local environment, the effects on community members were even more perturbing. Due to the toxic environment, the cancer rate in the community is “10 times the national average,” according to activist and community organizer Georgia De La Garza. Trucks rushing to and from the mining sites have come around curves and run other cars off the road, killing their passengers. Mines are established near residential areas, devaluing properties and forcing residents to choose between selling for cheap or living unsafely. We stood at a Native American cemetery, specifically chosen for its location overlooking the beautiful rolling hills of southern Illinois, but all we saw was a huge pit full of mining equipment under a cloud of dust from a recent explosion.

Barney Bush, a famed poet and native of the land, spoke with us regarding the destruction that had occurred to his homeland. The heartbreak was palpable as he recounted the shameless and routine disrespect toward such holy lands. It was clear that these communities were targeted because they didn’t have the economic or political means to stop these activities, a pattern seen worldwide. They were preyed upon because they were seen as weak.

Who does profit? It certainly isn’t these local communities. It can’t be the millions of people whose livelihoods are threatened by the climate change that these mining operations expedite. And without a doubt, the reputation and community of Washington University reaps no profit from directly associating with these atrocities.

The mission statement of Wash. U. holds that we intend to “judge ourselves by the most exacting standards.” Choosing to invest in something simply because of a short-term economic benefit is a weak standard. The University claims that their investments will not be shaped by any political agenda, but takes sides on divisive issues when it is politically expedient. Following President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement, Chancellor Mark Wrighton, on behalf of the University, publicly committed to “continue to invest in…renewable energy to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions.” This investment in renewable energy is shaped by the same “political agenda” cited by the chancellor in his reasons for not divesting. It exemplifies the discontinuity between the University’s public statements and private decisions. Any talk of “reducing carbon dioxide emissions” while investing hundreds of millions of dollars in companies whose financial successes are linked to emitting carbon dioxide is paradoxical.

Ignorance is no excuse. We urge anyone who is unsure or doubtful that investment in the fossil-fuel industry is amoral to visit these sites and speak to the people whose lives are disrupted by fossil-fuel extraction. After witnessing these activities and their direct effects, it is unimaginable that any member of our community would want to support the environmental, cultural and personal destruction perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry. As Barney Bush warned us, “the only way to have any effect is through the money, to cut off the sources…they’re not going to [stop] because they have [no] conscience.” As an institution dedicated to the betterment of its students, faculty, and greater community, it runs contrary to the very essence of our mission to continue to support this widespread destruction. It’s time to have a conscience.

It’s time to divest.