Rubber Fish and Business Suits: Fossil Free’s Dilemma

What is the best approach?
What is the best approach? // Henry Ehrenberg

Last Tuesday, a group of eight students clad in a striking combination of business formal and hazmat suits poured oil on rubber fish and birds outside of Woodbridge Hall.

“We’re securing Yale’s financial future. Allocating our assets responsibly,” the students repeated. As passerby lingered near the group, they were handed “business cards” made out of paper money.

On the ground in front of the students was a black tarp spelling the words YALE STUDENTS DEMAND DIVESTMENT. Though divestment is the well-known goal of the organization Fossil Free Yale, this demonstration was not affiliated with the group.

On Friday, a much larger group of students appeared outside of Woodbridge Hall. This time, there were no hazmat suits — just business. For around an hour, they stood in a line, quietly and passively. Many people held small signs with phrases like “There’s no Planet B” and “Don’t Silence Me.” Some signs were more understated, simply reading “Divest.”

At one point, the students erupted into a chant, repeating the words “Eighty-three percent!,” a number that has become somewhat symbolic for the movement. Eighty-three percent is the proportion of Yale students who chose “yes” in an divestment referendum in November, which represents 43 percent of the total student body.

Flecks of orange moved through the crowd — the characteristic square piece of orange felt sported by members of Fossil Free Yale. But when asked about the protest, members of FFY were quick to correct the wording of the question. What happened on Friday was not a protest. It was an action.

Max Weinreich ’16, who has been involved with FFY since October his Freshman year when the group was still in its embryonic stage, explained that FFY called the event an action because “it would come off as friendlier.” The group doesn’t want to jeopardize the progress it’s already made with the administration.

“But actions speak louder than words, ironically,” he added.

And he believes that this tension speaks to how FFY has “difficult balance to tread.” On one hand, the group needs to ensure that the administration understands the urgency of the situation. Members pointed out that climate change has already begun to affect people across the world and it will not improve on its own. On the other hand, FFY needs to avoid antagonizing the very people that they have spent so much effort working with.

The protest ended up being a mix of suits and signs, but arguments about how to present the group lingered. While some had a vision of a massive crowd, chanting and yelling, others felt the action should be limited to the fossil free core group, silent and signless. Weinreich wondered what that action would have looked like. He wondered whether anyone would notice the group at all.

“It’s a very real tension, and one that fossil free has always had trouble negotiating,” Weinreich said.

The tension, and the question: How loud should Fossil Free Yale be?

 

THE FIRST TWO YEARS

Last fall, when Hannah Nesser ’16 received a text revealing the results of the Yale College Council referendum on divestment, she was euphoric.

She had first gotten involved in divestment when she arrived on campus as a freshman in 2012, when it was, according to Nesser “barely on anyone’s radar.” Over the last academic year, Fossil Free Yale toiled away on a proposal calling on companies to disclose their fossil fuel emissions. The group then successfully called for and passed a referendum, earning the support of much of the student body.

But the referendum did not lead directly to divestment. No matter how many students support divestment, the decision belongs to the administration.

Indeed, after months of debate, petitions and formal dialogue between administrators, faculty and students, the Yale Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility, the highest governing Yale’s investments, announced on April 8 that they have decided to delay their decision.

The delay was disappointing to students who had hopes that the work and effort they had put into the proposal and referendum in the past two semesters would lead to tangible gains and successes.

“It was extremely frustrating,” said Mitch Barrows ’16, outreach coordinator of Fossil Free Yale. “I felt like the were not realizing the urgency of climate change.”

The announcement also threatened FFY’s visibility. Many students supported the movement quietly and passively through the referendum, but some within the group pointed to the fact that Fossil Free only has a relatively small core group of environmentalists who are willing to devote their precious time to the cause.

And after the referendum, the group’s members began to realize that they had different visions of what the next step would be. Weinrech, who had been one of most active coordinators in canvassing around the referendum, realized that he didn’t have the same role to fulfill anymore. He stopped attending regular meetings.

“In the wake of the referendum,” said Weinrich, “it was less clear what the role would be for somebody interested in grass-roots organizing.”

 

THE ACTIVIST APPROACH

Alexandra Barlowe ’17 describes herself as the radical voice within Fossil Free Yale. She has been involved in environmental organizing since she was in middle school. This year she has helped organize trips for Yale students to environmental rallies like Power Shift in Pittsburg and XL Dissent in Washington, D.C. The XL protest put an arrest on her record, a fact she is proud of.

Barlowe started Fossil Free Fieldston, a divestment campaign at her New York City private school that had an endowment “bigger than some small colleges,” she said. She held meetings, wrote up a proposal, passed out buttons, and eventually got to meet with the school’s principal and CFO. In the end, she felt like neither of them took her campaign seriously, despite the hundreds of signatures her petition had garnered.

So when Barlowe originally saw the orange Fossil Free Yale banner at a rally her senior year, she described the possibility of a new campaign as “really exciting.” She joined the group immediately upon coming to campus, though she has experienced some of the same frustrations she felt in high school.

Barlowe said she is extremely proud of what the group has accomplished with the referendum this year, but admits that she sometimes chafes at FFY’s reluctance to engage in grass-roots action.

“I think the problem is that we’ve really been prioritizing working with the administration over working with students,” she said. “While I do think we need to put pressure on the administration, at this point we need to engage the students more– the whole point of divestment is to create a paradigm shift.”

Barlowe’s envisions a campus wide coalition of divestment supporters and allies; a group of people who are willing to show up at Salovey’s door if the administration says no. Barlowe knows that if Yale were to divest, it would make a national statement.

The most important goal, she argues, is to change students’ attitudes. A “yes” from the administration has to go hand in hand with student awareness of and pride in that “yes.”

“If students can’t go back to their communities after they see [that Yale has divested] in the New York Times and talk about why this is important, then we haven’t really achieved what we’re trying to achieve,” she said.

But Patrick Cage ’15 and Grace Steig ’15 — who planned the Tuesday protest featuring hazmat suits and rubber fish — have a different vision for how to convince the Yale administration to divest.

Steig and Cage believe that, to make a clear impact, environmentalists have to move beyond the traditional pathways. Cage characterized Yale’s way of dealing with student unrest as passively sweeping it under the rug until dissenting opinions eventually fizzle out. And the CCIR’s decision (or non-decision) is a case-in-point example of this.

“I guess there’s just a group of us that felt like the voices of the students weren’t being heard adequately, and wanted to put a little bit of pressure on the administration by working outside the internal policy framework,” said Cage.

He and Steig are also responsible for the orange spray-paint stencils on sidewalks around campus urging divestment. They ran into a bit of trouble when they realized that paint they used was more permanent than they expected.

According to Stieg, the protest came out of a sentiment that they were interested in demonstrating that as “independent students, we still find divestment an incredibly urgent concern, and something that Yale should definitely do immediately. “

Forcing the administration into a decision dilemma, seems for some the only shot. Barlowe said that, if the corporation is put under enough pressure, they will have to make a decision sooner rather than later.

And even if the corporation were to agree to divest tomorrow, the plan that FFY has proposed will take effect over a course of years. Cage, and others like him, fear that if they wait around too long, the cries will die down, and it might be too late.

 

TOO LOUD

But if FFY is going to be as loud as Barlowe, Cage and Steig want it to be, it risks forcing the corporation’s hand, and permanently separating the group from the connections they’ve made so far.

Elias Estabrook, one of the original members of FFY who today serves as project manager, said he feels like the group should escalate their action to appropriately match the corporation’s decision, whatever it may be.  Fossil Free, he said, has planted its roots strongly in the institutional relationships they have.

“We’re maintaining a certain level of legitimacy, and through that, I think, setting ourselves apart,” he said.

Indeed, in contrast to divestment movements at other universities, Fossil Free Yale has been unique its approach of working with the administration through established channels.

According to Mitch Barrows ’16, the outreach coordinator of Fossil Free Yale, there are pragmatic strengths to this approach. For one, it ensures that they can’t be accused of not trying all measures.

“It’s important that we demonstrate the willingness of Fossil Free Yale to pursue divestment to the very end,” he said. “If we do end up getting a no from the administration, we can say that we tried this path first.”

But, as Barlowe and others have stated, pragmatism can only last for so long. And members of FFY have started to sense that not everyone is satisfied with this approach.

Weinreich spoke to the difficulty of uniting the desires to pursue cooperation with the administration and to express the urgency of the matter within the group. According to him, this tension leads to a seeming lack of cohesion.

“It’s like, for every person who shows up to the protest in a polar bear suit, you might as well cut the size of the protest in half,” Weinreich said.

Hannah Nesser ’16, the Communications coordinator of Fossil Free Yale, disagreed with a portrait of FFY as deeply divided.

She believes that these diverging opinions about how to approach divestment enhance the movement instead of fracture it. It’s possible, she argued, to unite both perspectives in pursuit of one goal.

“I don’t think that this is a divide at all,” says Nesser “and it is actually damning to characterize it such.”

According to Nesser, the very strength of the organization lies in the fact that it is both administrative and grass-roots based. She says that members of Fossil Free Yale needs to be able to walk between the two worlds – of the bureaucracy and the larger student community – and bridge the gap between them.

 

LOOKING FORWARD

No matter how many perspectives there about how to approach divestment, there remains one unfortunate possibility: a no from the administration. And here, the group knows it will stand together.

“We’ll be loud,” Nesser said. “We aren’t going away.”

And while they wait,  the group is actively continuing to develop new strategies and seek new ways to achieve their goals.

In addition to organizing more activities such as the action in front of Woodbridge Hall last Friday, and ensuring that divestment continues to be at the forefront of conversation, the group has began to orchestrate an alumni engagement campaign, calling upon alumni to pledge donations if the University decides to divest.

In the event that the administration decides not to divest, the members of Fossil Free Yale remain optimistic. “Even if we get a no,” said Barrows “I will still feel like we have done something important by creating conversation.”

Although Harvard’s administration decided not to divest, just last week, they signed onto a United Nations-supported organization Principles for Responsible Investment. This decision greatly strengthened the university’s commitment to environmental sustainability and renewable energy.

The divestment movement extends beyond the Yale community. Yale has a unique model of asking for phased disclosure from fossil fuels, whereas other colleges have developed a variety of different proposals, ranging from complete divestment to divestment from the top 200 fossil fuel extracting companies.

The fact that the movement is broader than the Yale campus means that divestment groups across the nation are constantly learning from each other, feeding off each other’s successes. As Nesser argued, this means that there is always something to learn.

“Although there are things that we don’t achieve, there are also constantly new opportunities,” he said.

While Fossil Free’s future role seems nebulous given the inconclusive nature of the decision, one thing seems certain: FFY will continue to be a campus presence. No matter what decision the CCIR makes, and no matter how loud they have to be.

“Whatever happens, fossil free will still have a role,” says Chelsea Watson ’17, social media point person for FFY. “And even when we do get divestment — because I think we will!,” she said, pausing to smile, “Fossil Free will have a role.”

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