Fishbein: Be Orange in a Sea of Grey

by Dan Fishbein | 5/12/16 5:30pm

I am not a huge fan of the color orange. As someone who prefers my clothes to fit in rather than stand out, orange screams much too loudly for my everyday style. Heather grey, sure; check my top drawer and you’ll find plenty of that. Popsicle orange? No thanks. You’ll find just one flashy item, a t-shirt given to me as a member of Divest Dartmouth.

I put on my orange shirt a few Saturdays ago, before heading over to Gold Coast lawn to participate in the Big Green Rally, supposedly the largest climate change rally in New Hampshire history. I definitely would not have worn that color on my own accord, but I felt the need to show my solidarity and support for an organization that sees climate change as the crisis that it is.

On my walk over to the rally, I passed a group of my friends, members of one of the few campus organizations which had not co-sponsored the Divest rally. They immediately knew where I was headed because of my shirt. Despite not saying anything I felt that my involvement in Divest Dartmouth had raised questions for them. “What can a bunch of students accomplish by yelling about the atmosphere and running around with cardboard signs? Why would gargantuan fossil fuel companies care about losing a small, insignificant investment from one college?”

Such criticisms are valid. As a single institution with a very small percentage of its endowment invested into only a handful fossil fuel companies, Dartmouth could not change the fossil fuel industry. A Dartmouth divestment, for all intents and purposes, would only serve as a symbolic gesture against climate change.

But the symbolism of divestment should not be downplayed. Like the bright orange t-shirts and the passionate speeches against climate change delivered on College President Phil Hanlon’s doorstep during the rally, divestment is intended to stand out, to make a statement. If American colleges and universities reside in a world of heather grey, divestment would paint Dartmouth orange.

In its mission statement, Dartmouth claims to foster “responsible leadership” in its students. Now, Divest wants Dartmouth to take its own advice, and be that responsible leader. Divestment from fossil fuel companies would provide a way to do this, and deliver a message that we must act now before our planet goes beyond repair.

Similar messages have driven successful divestment movements from both apartheid South Africa and tobacco companies. Although they started out as symbolic in nature, these historic divestment campaigns encouraged large-scale institutions to divest on moral grounds, which in turn influenced individual consumers to do the same.

Apartheid South Africa crumbled. Cigarette smoking in the United States has declined. But we live in a day and age when Hillary Clinton, our presumptive liberal option for president, has accepted over $6.9 million in campaign donations from fossil fuel companies. Divestment seeks to portray fossil fuel companies in the same negative light as tobacco companies, and change their revenues from acceptable donations to dirty money.

The College taking its money out of fossil fuel companies is a necessary first step to an environmentally sustainable future. Although Dartmouth divesting would not directly change the fossil fuel market, it would send individual consumers a message they need to hear: that fossil fuel companies are dirty and destroy the planet we all cherish. A study by the Financial Times found that “ethical consumerism” or the moral consequences of one’s purchases motivates consumers now more than ever. These consumers could pressure their politicians to reject donations from fossil fuel companies, enabling those in our government to take steps to regulate a dangerous industry.

Again, Divest Dartmouth’s Big Green Rally is symbolic, and not immediately consequential. The hope is that Dartmouth would be that orange, and stand out as the first Ivy League school to divest. By doing so, we would pave the way in ensuring a sustainable future and showcase the responsible leadership that the College claims to promote among students.