Last week, Yale launched its Sustainability Plan 2025 as the University celebrated its proposed measures to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment. While these measures are a positive step, they are insufficient. Yale should not congratulate itself yet.
Why? Scientifically, to stop short of the 2 degrees Celsius increase in global average temperature, we must keep fossil fuels in the ground. The exploring, drilling and infrastructure must stop now. We must create a more sustainable Yale. In doing so, it is important to address how Yale continues to profit from and perpetuate the fossil fuel economy. Herein lies the problem.
Yale refuses to divest its $25 billion endowment from the fossil fuel economy, a necessary step to shift toward a just, sustainable and restorative economy. The University’s investments in both the fossil fuel and private prison industries indicate Yale’s more general investment in “economic apartheid,” a term used by scholar Grace-Edward Galabuzi. Historically, the word apartheid means to “name a condition of racialized structural inequality in South Africa.” But in this case, the term describes the U.S. economy: a segregated labor market that “consigns racialized group members” to particular economic sectors and occupations by race and socio-economic status, and the resulting system that exploits along racial lines. This economic structuring extends beyond housing segregation, racialized poverty and criminalization.
The concept of apartheid is historically resonant for Yale’s endowment. When David Swensen first entered his position as Yale’s CIO in 1985, students called for total divestment from South Africa. Swensen implemented a policy of selective investment, keeping stocks until Yale divested from South Africa in the 1990s (only when broad pressure made investments unprofitable). Then, like today with fossil fuels, Yale gave social license to an abhorrent status quo for too long.
There are historical linkages between the fossil fuel and private prison industries creating our extraction-dependent economy. Just as there is a direct lineage from slavery to mass incarceration, there is a direct lineage between slavery to fossil fuels because slave labor was the fundamental energy source driving the economies of the U.S. South. With emancipation, the convict-lease system whereby prisoners were bought and sold for free industrial labor functionally substituted slavery.
Just as this post-slavery economic system disadvantaged already disadvantaged people, today’s fossil fuel industry disregards the rights of low-income communities and communities of color to a clean, healthy environment and drinking supply. Yale rationalizes fossil fuel investments despite the fact that these investments are putting people, often made the most economically vulnerable by a history of colonialism, at risk. Yale continues to underserve students of color to protect an endowment that actively reproduces conditions that make social mobility difficult. It’s no coincidence: Yale once rationalized investments in apartheid South Africa just as Yale once rationalized one of its first endowment funds made possible by slave trader Philip Livingston. Just as Yale rationalizes investing in private prisons.
When asked about ethical investing, Swensen has replied that decisions to divest are “economic,” i.e., he makes decisions to divest from companies based on whether immoral practices will damage their profitability. When Yale shifted $10 million from two fossil fuel companies last spring, it did so because they were no longer profitable because of climate risk, not because it was the right thing to do. The Sustainability Plan 2025 reiterates this commitment to assessing climate risk (to financial returns) when making investments. This economic logic is insulting and dangerous: We should not need economic justification to dissociate from an immoral industry. This would be like saying that shifting away from the slave trade was, sure, a moral thing and all that, but also necessary because profiting off of the slave trade was becoming a “vulnerable business strategy” because of industrialization and the abolitionist movement.
Through the efforts of Next Yale, we were reminded of Yale’s collusion in a political-economic system that devalues people of color — both today and also for centuries past. But the University Public Relations office co-opted efforts to make Yale racially just; photos from the March of Resilience featured in Yale brochures, framed as the product of Yale’s prestige. Rather than actualizing significant change, Yale used campus unrest to secure the endowment by both courting new students while recasting the events to secure existing alumni donations.
I fear that the Sustainability Plan 2025 will also become a profitable tidbit on a pretty brochure that does not adequately stigmatize investments in the fossil fuel and private prison industries. What photos of environmental studies majors will adorn the next brochure? What charming info graphic will donors read about Yale’s steps “toward assessing climate risk”? Although University President Peter Salovey calls the Sustainability Plan 2025 ambitious, the ambition resides only in taking steps that allow Yale to avoid engaging with its position in a broader political-economic system. Yale is not yet the bold leader that it needs to be.
Cassie Darrow is a junior in Calhoun College. She is a member of Fossil Free Yale. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .