Do you hate the environment? The answer is probably “no.”
Of course, a select few may respond affirmatively, just as different minorities may confess their ardent passion for Mother Earth. Considering that our admissions office strives each year to assemble the most diverse, balanced incoming class from the highly competitive pool of aspiring applicants, we probably have a solid representation of both extremes at Penn. But for the rest of us that align ourselves somewhere in between, our relationship with the environment is one of vaguely positive, ambivalent apathy.
We recycle. We turn off the lights. We go along with eco-friendliness as long as it doesn’t disrupt our normal lives, but we don’t often go out of our way to advocate sustainability.
Currently, the voting period for a referendum to divest Penn’s endowment from fossil fuels and to reinvest at least a portion of that money into clean energy is underway. Although voting is open until 5 p.m. on Friday, most people who care enough about the issue to go out of their ways to vote probably have already done so.
It is time for the vast majority of Penn that remains inactive to vote on divestment as well.
While most will agree to the moral good of caring for our environment, some may question whether divestment is even effective. Penn’s investment in the top 200 fossil fuel companies is valued at around $315 million — a seemingly sizeable sum, but in reality a mere four percent of Penn’s total endowment, which reached $9.6 billion in 2014. Thus, divesting from fossil fuels will have minimal impact on our finances, and even less on those of the companies from which we divest. In terms of money alone, divestment is not going to make much of a difference on either end.
The true importance of the divestment movement, aside from its moral good, is therefore symbolic. Divestment from fossil fuels by high-profile, prestigious institutions such as Penn sends a strong public message that we do not condone the environmental destruction being wreaked by fossil fuel extraction and consumption.
If enough institutions join in divesting, this will eventually build up enough social stigma against fossil fuels that it will pressure the rest of the world to move away from non-renewable energy.
The method has been proven to work before — a prime example would be the worldwide shunning that ultimately brought an end to the apartheid regime in South Africa.
But times like these often require an institution with a reputation and clout like Penn’s to stand up and take the lead.
Penn’s reputation is not just academic. Our University has a lesser-known reputation to uphold as the leading college institute in green energy investment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ranks Penn as the number one university in green power usage as part of its Green Campus Partnership, with an annual consumption of 2,183,000 kWh of wind power, which makes up about 51 percent of our total energy use. Among national organizations and corporations, Penn clocks in at 29th.
All this is in addition to the various efforts undertaken by the University to keep our campus environmentally sustainable as part of Penn’s Climate Action Plan enacted in 2009, which includes such programs as the Green Acorn Certification Program, the student-run green entrepreneurship PennOrb and the currently ongoing Power Down Challenge.
For an institution with such a tradition in sustainability, divestment from fossil fuels is a logical next step.
If you remain unconvinced about your need to vote, here’s another motivator, one which doesn’t necessarily even tie into the issue of divestment: This referendum is an exceedingly rare opportunity for the mass student voice to actually be heard by the University administration. The last such referendum at Penn was six years ago. While divestment winning the vote guarantees nothing more than a discussion of the issue by the trustees, it is still a worthy chance of showing the administration, which frequently seems inattentive to student opinion, that we do in fact have voices and are eager to use them en masse.
Simply put, all of Penn’s undergraduates should turn out to vote on divestment, whether it be for yea or nay. After all, it’s both responsible and easy to do. So why not?
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