The Common Good
December 2013

Your Turn, Harvard

by Bill McKibben | December 2013

This kind of neutrality is like defending the right of poor and rich alike to sleep beneath bridges.

IF YOU WANT to understand why the climate movement missed Tim DeChristopher when he was in jail for two years, you should read the letter he sent recently to the president of Harvard.

Drew Faust—Harvard’s first female president—had just spoken for the establishment (really, the establishment establishment) by publishing a weary, soulless letter explaining that Harvard would not divest from fossil fuels despite the request of 80 percent of its student body. DeChristopher—who was imprisoned for two years after an inspired act of civil disobedience to block a drilling lease auction in his home state of Utah—had just arrived in Cambridge to start at Harvard Divinity School.

“Drew Faust seeks a position of neutrality in a struggle where the powerful only ask that people like her remain neutral,” DeChristopher wrote. “She says that Harvard’s endowment shouldn’t take a political position, and yet it invests in an industry that spends countless millions on corrupting our political system. In a world of corporate personhood, if she doesn’t want that money to be political, she should put it under her mattress. She has clearly forgotten the words of Paolo Freire: ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and powerless means to side with the powerful, not to remain neutral.’ Or as Howard Zinn put [it] succinctly, ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train.’”

DeChristopher is exactly right. Just as a tie goes to the runner, so “neutrality” goes to the status quo. And given that we’re in a full-on climate emergency—the Arctic melted last summer, for crying out loud—this kind of neutrality is no more admirable than defending the right of poor and rich alike to sleep beneath bridges.

President Faust’s position is not unexpected—it took Harvard a decade to even partially divest its stock in apartheid South Africa. And it will doubtless take the same kind of inspired campaign to force the issue this time too, at Harvard and the 300-odd other institutions where divestment is now an active fight.

But religious institutions can help enormously: by providing a powerful moral witness; by doing the right thing, even if their endowments are slightly smaller than Harvard’s $32.7 billion. Right across Massachusetts Avenue from Faust’s office you’ll find the historic First Parish Unitarian of Cambridge. And on its spire you’ll find a banner that says, “We divested from fossil fuels! Your turn, Harvard!”

First Parish’s pastor, Fred Small, is one of the true stalwarts of the fight against climate change in this country. He’s gone to jail, he’s written songs, and he’s preached and preached and preached. Here’s how he explained to his congregation that the time for divestment had come: “We must work with love for love: to build a love-centered, Earth-centered, justice-centered world to take the place of the one that is crumbling around us. This work is political, but it is also spiritual.”

He’s right. And over the next few years he and many like him will carry the day. Harvard—the establishment—imagines it is all powerful. But not as powerful as physics, and not as powerful as, well, Veritas

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and founder of 350.org.

Image: Truth, Radka1 / Shutterstock.com

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