Why We Fast With Divest Harvard

On October 20th, Harvard students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members will begin a week of fasting and reflection to call on our university to divest its $36.4 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry. We believe that we have no other choice than to make the most urgent and personal plea for action that we can. Before we begin our fast, we wanted to explain why we chose this tactic and how we are approaching our action as Harvard students.

Divest Harvard began campaigning in August 2012 for Harvard University to divest its endowment -- the largest in the world -- from the fossil fuel industry. For over a year, we have asked for a sustained and open dialogue between administration and students to begin the process of institutional change towards divestment. President Drew Faust and the Harvard administration, however, have ignored our requests for dialogue. Instead, they have presented their own arguments against divestment that misunderstand its purpose and misrepresent the reality of the fossil fuel industry.

In response, students have built our own movement, forging connections between other students and alumni, faculty, and community members--a group that today includes around 70,000 people supporting Divest Harvard. Last spring, as we met an attitude of disengagement from the university, we sat outside President Faust's door and remained there for two days, asking yet again for an open dialogue about divestment, until one student was arrested for his presence.

Universities and colleges, including Harvard, have divested from morally reprehensible corporations in the past: during the time of South African apartheid or in the era of powerful tobacco companies. Today, the fossil fuel industry is primarily responsible for accelerating climate change that is impacting communities and countries around the world today. The industry uses its incredible wealth -- wealth derived from an unjust and untenable economic system -- to propagate climate denial and to block political solutions.

It is increasingly clear that traditional avenues of political reform and shareholder engagement are not succeeding. Individual reforms cannot by themselves successfully transform a deeply flawed system, and our investments continue to signal our compliance in a morally bankrupt industry. So what will divestment do in the face of the power of the fossil fuel industries? It will certainly not impact the finances of the companies themselves, and it won't even create concrete change on its own. Instead, an announcement of divestment from an institution like Harvard will add to a growing chorus of alarm. Our collective outcry, demonstrated by a diverse wave of words and art and protests and marches, might finally send a strong signal to political leaders that it is morally, politically, and economically untenable to back policies and industries that destroy our earth.

Some communities and countries are being impacted by the harmful actions of the fossil fuel industry now: not in the distant abstraction of an economist's cost-benefit analysis, but here and now. Yet the voices of the status quo, which Harvard echoes, are powerful. So we are fasting for divestment for fossil fuels in the hopes that we will one day see a more just and sustainable planet.

Fasting is also a call to reflect, to be present in the current moment, and then to act. Fasting will force us to literally slow down, making us acutely aware of ourselves, of each other, and of the world we inhabit. It will bring together students, faculty, alumni, and the greater community in an environment of open, respectful, and critical dialogue about the urgency of climate change and the role that Harvard plays in addressing it. We fast not to disturb our bodies but to bring attention to the moral urgency of the call for divestment.

We approach this fast from a position of privilege. After a brief few days of fasting, during which we will also have access to high-quality medical care, we at Harvard will return to dining halls stocked with a dizzying array of nutritional value. As students lucky enough to attend a university with an incomparable financial aid program, we come from many different socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet we also share a common privilege: being part of the community that is Harvard, one of the wealthiest and most powerful institutions in the world. We will never know what life is like for the billion people on this planet for whom pervasive hunger is a chronic, devastatingly disruptive, and life-threatening condition. So our fast does not enable us to empathize with the truly hungry. We do not pretend to be able to relate to the hungry, or to begin to understand their experience. In fact, our fast is contextualized by the knowledge of the very real and very unavoidable conditions of our fellow humans' lives -- and our abrupt stint of deprivation will only force us to be even more cognizant of these brutal facts.

Yet the very privilege that allows us to simply stop eating is exactly what we can use to draw attention to the injustices of Harvard's investments in fossil fuels. Harvard also has privilege: the moral and intellectual authority to find its place among the growing social movement fighting for the compassionate sustainability of life. Therefore, we ask those who see the same threats that we do -- the threat of disruptive climate chaos that hits first and hardest at already marginalized communities and the threat of a corporate-controlled democracy -- to fast with us.

Join us for one, two, or three days, Monday through Friday, October 20 to 24, as we fast for fossil fuel divestment. If you cannot fast, your support is still valuable. Join us as we call on Harvard to be a bold leader for a better world. Join us in the most urgent demand we can make of our university: do what is right, and do it now.

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