Swarthmore Faculty Fast for Fossil Fuel Divestment

PC: Sophia Elan Zaia

PC: Sophia Elan Zaia

Starting on Sunday, April 22nd, a committed group of faculty and students launched the start of a three-week long effort to pressure Swarthmore College to divest from fossil fuels through fasting. Four faculty members have each committed to fast for one week as a way to heighten the urgency of the now eight year long divestment campaign alive at Swarthmore.

The decision of faculty to fast rides on the momentum created by the recent referendum circulated by SGO asking Swarthmore to repeal the 1991 Ban. The ban mandates that the “Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long term financial results, rather than to pursue social objectives.” It was put in place after Swarthmore divested from Apartheid South Africa and ensures that matters of social justice, environmental justice and ethical conduct do not have an impact on the financial decisions of the board. The effort to repeal this mandate received 87% support from students, and now faculty are adding their voice.

Mark Wallace, a professor in the Religion department for over twenty-five years, was the first to fast. He said the decision to fast was “organic,” that it arose in a “Quaker meeting sort of way.”  

Wallace, who has fasted before for spiritual and personal reasons, sees fasting as a way to be present to the pain that climate change causes to all beings. “Oddly, it is a way to be present to suffering, my suffering and the suffering of others in a manner that normal cognitive activity doesn’t allow you to do.”

He has not, however, fasted in such a public and politically engaged context before. “Fasting,” Wallace says, “is a deeply interior practice because it doesn’t make sense in a market driven consumer oriented system.”

In his work and scholarship Wallace explores the intersections of spirituality and nature. He also teaches a first year seminar called “Apocalypse” to explore what this means for the end of the world. This fast is a natural step along Wallace’s path of spiritual exploration within this subject area.

As Wallace says, “This is, and this comes out of my spiritual practice, this is an exercise in a goal-less goal or a pathless path. I am not fasting because we will or will not be successful. I think it is a good in itself. Like listening to the wood thrush. I don’t do it because I’m thinking of some goal or product or input. It is the joy of that romantic intimacy with this creature that all it does is sing.”

It is also a political action that was a long time coming. Having worked here for so long, Wallace has been witness to many instances of critical decision making at Swarthmore.  

“People are often good as individual but in the aggregate, especially when they are trying to defend the interests of institutions, they become reactionary and defensive,” Wallace said. “They develop a kind of fortress mentality. In a way that they shift focus away from their own integrity and their own value system towards a kind of armored way of thinking in order to defend the interests of an institution. And that,” he said, “Is my experience of Swarthmore.”

He notes that it is easy for upright individuals to, when working for an institution strongly tied to capitalism, lose sight of their goals and values. He notes that it is easy for them to come to believe that movements like O4S (Organizing 4 Survivors) and fossil fuel divestment are “attacking the purpose, the mission and the values of the college when these two campaigns are in fact doing the exact opposite.”

In a time when “the college has lost its way,” Wallace, in fasting, is looking to not only make a statement, but to “find a spiritual practice that has political resonance that could motivate us, the college, and others to live beautiful lives in harmony with the earth.”

The second faculty member to fast is Christy Schuetze of the Sociology and Anthropology department. She began her fast on Monday, April 30th and is currently on her 5th day.

To her, this fast is a protest with many symbolic dimensions. She talks about the need to turn the pressure up a notch with the notion of “hunger for change being greater than hunger for food.”

“Fasting,” she said, “can symbolize the sacrifice that we all need to make to really push a more rapid transition away from fossil fuels. And the sacrifice that each of us but also our institutions and our society need to be making.”

This is the first time she has fasted since high school but her commitment remains strong.

“Whenever I am feeling hungry this week I try to focus on why I am doing this, why I am committed to it, why it is important,” Schuetze said. “I have been trying to read and reflect on the real urgency of climate change that we face and what feels like this wall of inaction both at this institution and elsewhere to make really meaningful changes.”

Like Wallace, Schuetze made connections between the divest movement at Swarthmore and the work of O4S.

“There are a lot of links between this and other students actions happening this week. The core connection has to do with both aligning practices that are in place with the institutional values and challenging the fact that students and faculty aren’t really involved in decision making the way we would like to be.”

Schuetze said that on coming in to Swarthmore, she “had hoped that the college would be more of a leader in things, more willing to stand up and resist forces that are affecting schools all across the board in higher ed.”

It has been eight years since Swarthmore students founded and “sparked” into fire a global divestment movement. Since this time, 140 schools across the globe have divested from fossil fuels, withholding a total of six trillion dollars from the fossil fuel industry.

Schuetze is in the process of creating a scroll that delineates the chronology of each institution that has decided to divest their endowment from fossil fuels. She mentions her admiration for the students who sparked this world wide movement; “I think our board needs to listen to and learn from also the goal that students have.”

This movement is practical as well as symbolic. As Schuetze puts it, “It’s been effective and growing in power, the more we divest that more powerful it becomes.”

“Fossil fuel companies are exactly the opposite of social justice organizations,” said Schuetze, and thus, she point out, ”fundamentally contradict the core of Swarthmore’s values.”

Both Wallace and Schuetze noted Swarthmore’s core values as an educational institution as reasons why they so deeply believe that divestment from fossil fuels is aligned with both the college’s mission and best interests.

“If we want to educate students for the common good and to be leaders for the common good, it doesn’t make sense to finance that education with something that is opposed to the common good,” said Schuetze.

As Wallace says, directing his statement to the college itself, “You are not simply a market-based business that delivers education as a product. You are committed to the formation, the intellectual but also the ethical formation of young people.”

This coming Monday, two more faculty members will begin another week of fasts.