Fueling the Fire
“If a student’s college’s endowment portfolio has fossil-fuel stock,” says Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and a leader in environmental conservation, “then their educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won’t have much of a planet on which to make use of their degree.”
So then, why is Ithaca College—a supposedly “green” institution—supporting more than 16 of the most destructive fossil fuel industries in the country? Is it a push to lower tuition prices to meet IC 20/20 goals? Perhaps it’s simply the most convenient energy source, whereas sustainability requires more immediate effort.
The burning of fossil fuels as a source of energy is said to be the cause of the paralyzing threat of global warming. Fossil fuels are sources like coal, natural gas and oil that were formed from the remains of organisms. Because they are fossilized—a process that takes millions of years––their supply is limited, and there is no method of replenishment.
Thus the dependence on foreign oil. Thus the rise in gas prices. And finally, thus the need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuel, and onto something more lasting.
Not only does our unhealthy obsession with fossil fuel damage our future, it also damages the future of the entire planet—our environment and the people, animals and plants living in it. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accelerating the “greenhouse effect.” This effect is normally natural, keeping the earth warm enough for habitation, but when accelerated it traps too much heat in the atmosphere.
The city of Ithaca is surrounded by a plethora of natural beauty. It is because of this, as well as the diverse, caring community of people living in the area that Ithaca is a powerhouse of environmentally friendly efforts. From sustainable communities to whole-foods grocery stores, Ithaca is supportive of the conservation movement.
A reflection of that effort is IC Natural Lands, an organic garden and a strong environmental studies program. So why has the use of fossil fuels been overlooked?
“We are demanding that the school stand behind its principles of environmental sustainability and social responsibility,” say frustrated members of a recently established group at Ithaca called DivestIC.
DivestIC, a branch of a larger movement of over 100 universities across the country, is pushing for total divestment from the use of fossil fuels. The movement began with Bill McKibben’s Do The Math campaign, which was a means to help spread the word of the real, immediate danger of global warming.
“Basically divestment, at the most basic level, means trying to get our school’s money out of directly or indirectly funding the fossil fuel industry,” says Rebecca Billings, junior politics major and member of DivestIC.
Ithaca College has a fund of endowments—a pot of over 200 million dollars—that they invest in certain companies that will yield a large return. They then use those returns to pay for school needs and salaries. DivestIC’s goal is to shift the investment from fossil fuel companies to sustainable energy companies. Unfortunately, the sustainable energy industry is very expensive.
“The reason it’s so expensive is because no one is using it,” says Billings. “It needs people to invest in it. It needs institutions to invest in it.
Ithaca College has access to a lot of money, and that’s what drives things in this country. We’re trying to enact a shift in values to what is going to benefit us long-term.”
Michelle Jones, energy manager for Ithaca College, agrees. She understands the implications of having fossil fuels as our source of electricity on campus. She is an environmentally conscious person, and she has also fought the battle against fossil fuels.
She takes a different approach, though.
“We believe the lower our energy use is, the lower our carbon footprint is,” says Jones.
While she pushes to lower our dependence on fossil fuels, it is clear that natural gas is the easiest energy to turn on and off, and the cheapest of the cleaner fossil fuels. So she puts effort into updating equipment in order to save energy.
“Because student tuition pays for the utility bill,” Jones says, “we are careful to say how much our portfolio can afford renewable energy. It’s expensive. It would not be the best utilization of the energy budget at this point to purchase entirely renewable energy.
“We’re working towards that in a fairly long-term goal.”
But DivestIC is hoping for more immediate results. The goal stated as part of their petition is that they are pushing for total divestment by 2015. The petition has already acquired 300 signatures.
“Because we have such a liberal target demographic as a school, we frame ourselves as being really environmentally friendly,” says Ryan Bince, a senior communication studies major. “We do that with those nice buildings that we have with the plants on the roof.
“It’s kind of like greenwashing.”
So, as with many things, it comes down to money. Where do you want your money to go? How much are you willing to spend on your future? On the future of the Earth?
Is there any excuse that’s good enough to risk that?