Social Justice Doesn’t Just Apply to Students:

The Campaign for USF’s Divestment From Fossil Fuels

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The crowning jewel of USF’s sustainability initiatives is the successful diversion of much of our landfill-bound waste to recycling and composting facilities. Yet some environmentally conscious students aren’t just concerned about where our waste products are going — they’re taking a closer look at where the university’s money is going.

This semester, seven USF students initiated a campaign to convince the university to freeze investments in the fossil fuel industry and to divest from fossil fuels entirely within five years. The USF Divestment Campaign, also called Fossil Free USF, is part of a global organization called 350.org, which aims to build a grassroots movement combating climate change. Divestment, the opposite of investment, simply means to get rid of stocks or bonds for financial, ethical or political reasons.

The fossil fuel industry, while very lucrative, can be viewed as unethical due to its great contribution to climate change through the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The entire process of extracting and using fossil fuels, meaning petroleum, coal and natural gas, causes the release of these gases, along with other environmental hazards. These gases are the main human cause of climate change – the rising global temperature that dramatically changes weather patterns, creates superstorms and causes an ominous rise in the sea level.

“Fossil fuels are pretty much causing the climate crisis. Especially our generation, we’re going to be faced with what could be insurmountable challenges, but if we address them properly and address them now, and swiftly, they won’t be insurmountable. That’s the motivation for this [campaign],” senior campaign member member Ashlyn Ruga said.

The students of Fossil Free USF requested information from the financial office on the whereabouts of the university’s endowment and received a document detailing the investments. From that, campaign member senior Steven Liberman determined that USF is indeed invested in the fossil fuels industry. Continued research will hopefully reveal just how much money USF has invested in these companies.

“We don’t know how much each school [with a divestment campaign] has invested in the fossil fuels industry, but this, like other divestment campaigns, brings awareness to the issue. People start asking ‘Why would we divest?’” Ruga explained.

The campaign promotes the idea that it is wrong to cause harm to the environment, and it also wrong to profit from the destruction. The Fossil Free Campaign questions the ethics of investing in fossil fuels, an industry that contributes hugely to the climate crisis through emissions and has been known to cause environmental harm to communities near extraction sites.

Stemming from the “Do the Math” tour, which is a collaboration of 350.org and environmentalist/author Bill McKibben on the numbers of climate change, the campaign to divest from fossil fuesl has spread to universities all over the continent. Five different campaigns have successfully convinced their universities to divest. USF’s campaign is allied with Divest the West, a network connecting all of the West Coast schools working toward the same goal.

Ruga and six other students formed USF’s core group earlier this semester, and have been gathering petition signatures for the past month. They are working on a proposal for the USF Board of Trustees, and have connected with the incoming ASUSF vice president of sustainability in order to work toward passing a resolution through Senate. They have contacted President Stephen Privett, S.J. and the Chief Financial Officer Charlie Cross about the issue directly.

“We are still trying to build support for it, but I think in the month that we’ve been working on it, we’ve made substantial progress,” Ruga said. “They [the administrators] haven’t indicated that they are just going to squash it.”

Privett addressed the divestment issue in the most recent issue of USFtv’s Ask the President. “My immediate response was…I don’t think this is going to get a lot of traction,” he said. Privett went on to explain that it is difficult to know how much and what kind of impact divesting in a company will make, particularly when companies have such a vast array of different outlets with varying degrees of moral integrity. “It’s hard to isolate a single enterprise. If you are investing in a large company, how do you differentiate amongst its multiple outlets?”

The Fossil Free USF students are passionate about the issue for clear environmental reasons, but see the fossil fuel dependence as a social justice concern as well. “It’s a very moral issue. The fossil fuel process…disproportionately affects marginalized communities throughout the world. So the preferential option for the poor that the Jesuits adhere to is that you have to help the poor and marginalized communities. It’s extra important that because that is our mission [at USF], we pay attention to this cause,” Ruga said.

Privett also put the issue into a social justice context, but came to a rather different conclusion. “Often times these enterprises are jobs for local people, and local people should have more of a voice of what happens,” he said. “If we divest from a company, are we going to put 500 people out of a job? What are the consequences?”

The group’s goal by the end of the semester is to deliver the petition to Privett and Cross, and to have the issue under consideration. With the campaign only a month old, getting approval by early May might be overly idealistic. The campaign has had one event, a photo petition when the Board of Trustees met on campus where students stopped by to learn about the issue and take a photo with a sign showing their support. “People were really excited about it. We put it on Facebook and got a lot of ‘likes’ — people were really buzzed,” Ruga said.

More activity will occur from the group on May 2, a Day of Action when the Divest the West schools are going to gather and welcome their guest, environmentalist Bill McKibben, who has written on the effects of global warming.

Before the big Day of Action, Fossil Free USF will be meeting with an organizer from 350.org for a workshop on Friday, April 25 from 1:45-4:30 in McLaren. The workshop is open to any student who wants to help determine the direction of the divestment campaign. “There is very little activism on campus, if any, especially not with something this big,” Ruga said.

While USF’s campaign will likely go unresolved this semester, the push for divestment could be seen growing over the next year. The current campaigners hope to find students to fill their roles. As more universities are pressured into divestment, it becomes likely that USF will be forced to address their student’s growing concern over the ethicality of where our endowment money is allocated.

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