Mountain Justice: Mailbox Money Letters, An Explanation and a Call for Discussion

It’s not every day that you get free money in your mailbox.The ‘gift’ in your mailbox, as well as the letter from the bogus ‘Committee on Investment Profitability’ may have been confusing at first, but hopefully they were also entertaining.This week’s ‘gift giving’ was organized and executed by Swarthmore Mountain Justice (MJ), a student group formed last year dedicated to stopping mountaintop removal coal mining as well as other forms of environmental harm.

For MJ, environmental work should operate under principles of coalition-based environmental justice. We understand that environmental harm not only destroys the physical ecosystem, but it also impacts communities and people’s way of life. We realize also that environmental issues affect people disproportionately. MJ is dedicated to privileging the voices and agendas of affected ‘frontline’ communities, or those more severely affected by environmental harm, often due to factors such as race, class, and geographic location.

We recently posed the question amongst ourselves: What is Swarthmore’s role in helping thwart environmental injustice? It made us think: what keeps the global warming machine churning?

What are the other factors aside from the obvious attributions such as personal and collective behavior, consumer choice, personal energy use, buildings’ carbon footprints, and where we get our energy? We wanted to delve even deeper.

We realized that climate change is also exceedingly ‘fueled’ by massive economic investments needed to finance projects of extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

This made us think about Swarthmore’s investments… We decided to follow the money. Last semester, we inquired about where Swarthmore invests its money, and we’d like to share that information with you.

It turns out that Swarthmore is currently investing in eight fossil fuel companies, including Canadian Natural Resources, Cloud Peak Energy, Concho Resources, Devon Energy, EOG Resources, ExxonMobil, Northern Oil and Gas, and Occidental Petroleum Group.

These companies commit such injustices as illegally dumping waste in both the U.S. and most recently in South America, evading taxes by keeping them in a tax shelter in overseas accounts, and being responsible for deadly natural gas explosions in addition to contributing to climate change.

Science on global warming indicate that fossil fuels need to stay in the ground, starting yesterday. However, fossil fuel commodities are supposed to remain economically competitive for a while in comparison to cleaner alternatives. How are Swarthmore’s investments part of this story?

By sending the letters in the mailboxes, MJ hopes to start a campus dialogue about the role of the political dimension of our investments. By investing in fossil fuel companies, isn’t our community enabling destructive extraction projects and climate change? And how does this jive with our purported values? We claim to be an institution dedicated to environmental sustainability and social justice. In her inaugural address, President Rebecca Chopp said, “[C]an there be any doubt that we must do all we can to sustain the beauty of this good earth; together, in this collection, can there be any question that we must care for one another and, equally important, for those who live without our resources?”

We have some wonderful initiatives on campus to realize those values, but are our values in line with what our investments support off campus?

We, as students, feel we have not fully realized the potential for investor responsibility and this is an avenue we aim to explore. Our efforts to be more ‘green’ are completely negated by the stocks that make up our portfolio. Changing the light bulbs in Sharples is a wonderful initiative, and one that Swarthmore should accomplish, but it does not motivate real change on a broader scale.

Perhaps a look at our investments will present an opportunity for the College to break ground as an institution of higher learning, and further realize our goals of achieving environmental and social justice.

We hope you enjoyed your gift, and we invite the entire campus to join us in this discussion about our investments. If you would like to learn more about MJ, contact the group at SwarthmoreMJ@gmail.com, or to look at research on climate change, mountaintop removal, and other extraction practices, please check out our website.


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23 comments

  1. 0
    NUFC Forum says:

    I applaud you for making this connection! There is precedent for this as well, as Swarthmore (like many other institutions) divested from businesses doing business in South Africa under Apartheid.

  2. 0
    Danielle C. ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Lexicon–you are right. These companies are not “evading” taxes. I HUGELY support reforming the tax code, but what is actually happening right now is that these companies make use of special deductions written into the tax code for manufacturers. Oil companies are not the “good kid” of manufacturers, so progressives often call the policy “tax breaks” for oil. But you can hardly argue that oil companies don’t meet the definition of a manufacturing firm. That’s disingenuous.

    A good example of this duplicity are the manufacturing breaks that the stimulus bill wrote into our already maze-like tax code. This summer Obama slammed corporate jet companies. But those companies were benefiting of a code Obama himself had promoted.

  3. 0
    Sam Sussman ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Clever analogy, xxi, mainly because you’re technically right that Swarthmore could have a net positive good by shutting down.

    Here’s the flaw in the argument: If all similarly situated institutions shut down, this would create a net bad (you’re example relies on Swatties being able to attain a similar quality education elsewhere). Conversely, if all similarly situated institutions divested from the oil and gas industry, there would be a net positive good (in both environmental and political terms).

    I’m glad MJ started this discussion. It could really help move the dialogue forward if it acquired data (hopefully available) on the rate of return of oil and gas investments as opposed to other investments in the Swarthmore portfolio. If the fact is that other investments are equally profitable, it seems a relatively uncontroversial decision to simply swap the oil stocks for other identically profitable investments. Anybody disagree?

  4. 0
    90s-alum says:

    When Swarthmore divested from South Africa, it maintained a fictional portfolio of investments it would have made if the divestment hadn’t happened. The idea was to evaluate the financial cost of doing the right thing. When South Africa democratized and Swarthmore reinvested, my memory (which may well be faulty!) is that the non-divested portfolio actually did worse than the actual portfolio. This was discussed in the Phoenix in the 1993 or 1994 range.

  5. 0
    Lexicon says:

    The article refers to “evading” taxes.

    Tax “evasion” is illegal. Therefore, this reference accuses these companies of criminal acts.

    Minimizing taxes by utilizing legal tax deductions (often pejoratively termed “loopholes” or “tax sheltors” if conveying disapproval of their underlying policy, or “tax incentives”, if conveying approval, as in the case of massive credits for otherwise uneconomic green investments, resulting in GE paying zero taxes on billions in revenue) is not illegal.

    Word choice matters and I hope the author’s inference was unintentional – due to ignorance rather than design – if these companies are not engaging on criminal tax evasion.

    But the reference is reminiscent of the “Bush lied” characterization intended to ascribe evil motives to policymakers, rather than debate the merits of a policy decision.

  6. 0
    xxxi says:

    Swarthmore should just permanently shut down and donate its entire endowment and sell off its assets for charity. It costs (whether through tuition, financial aid, or contributions from the endowment) $100k per year to educate each and every student. That’s ridiculous – you can support 5 families in America off that money. What a waste when many respectable schools can educate for far less. Then we are sitting on an endowment with a net worth of $1 billion – not to mention the hundreds of millions in the form of facilities and campus grounds that this school runs on. Students are concerned about issues of human welfare, and so is the school as a whole, as per its mission. Let’s stop pussyfooting and get it over with: shutting this place down could drastically improve the lives of many, almost uncountably many, people. And it would do so at only marginal detriment to the lives of each one of us. This is totally in line with our Quaker values, why haven’t we done it yet?

    1. 0
      zeta says:

      Enough with the straw men. Snark aside, nobody is proposing that the College shut down, or do anything that would substantially harm the college’s endowment. There are environmentally and socially screened mutual funds that consistently match or even outperform stock market indexes.

      Furthermore, as dirtycommie notes, fossil fuels are the definition of a short-term investment. The endowment exists to maintain the college into perpetuity, yet we know that fossil fuels are finite, and these companies will be in serious trouble when (1) reserves run out, or (2) the government finally gets its act together and passes comprehensive energy legislation. Investing in these companies is a long-term liability for the sake of marginally higher (at best) short-term returns.

      1. 0
        xxxi says:

        zeta, it’s not a straw man, it’s my own idea, and frankly I’m surprised I’m the first to propose it.

        I just think my plan is the one most consistent with Quaker values and all the other sentiments of “this is what Swarthmore is about” that groups such as the above always seem to be advocating for and promoting and demanding we fall in line with.

        So, tell me, are you saying we SHOULDN’T shut down the school for the immediate benefit of untold thousands and thousands of real people, whose very lives are literally at stake? Why the hell not?

        1. 0
          Mr. X says:

          In order to help a homeless bum you do not give him a hundred dollars. That may make you feel good about yourself for the week and he may eat for a while, but you haven’t fixed his issue. Find him a job. Breaking up Swarthmore does not solve this problem for people who are going hungry right now. You need to fix the underlying issue of WHY they are without food/home/whatever. Besides, society is better served when its young generation is educated, especially at institutions like Swarthmore.

          1. 0
            Mr. X says:

            Hey if you want to go around lambasting the ills of getting an education at this school, go ahead, it’s a free country. Stop being a patronizing, condescending douche about it. No, my getting an education is not worth $2 billion to the world, but generation after generation of Swarthmore student certainly is. And speak for yourself; you have no idea what I am capable of, and I find it ignorant of you to try and speak to the abilities of other Swarthmore students. If you’re so upset about what it costs to go to Swat, blame the system not the school; it’s the nature of the game nowadays and Swarthmore is no exception. So you’re saying I’m elitist because I believe Swarthmore offers a unique educational experience? Fine, don’t go here, I’m certainly not asking you to be here. If you’re so worried about it, why are you here, supporting it? Put your money where your mouth is and get out. I’m not losing any sleep being at this school, busting my ass so I can do something with my life; I just count myself blessed and hope to somehow pay it back in the future. But aside from the fact that your being a douche about just about everything, your arguments don’t hold weight. A school that educates people to become free-thinking, proactive, smart, productive members of society is better than a one-time transfer payment of$2 billion any day of the week. This isn’t even being an idealist, it’s being a realist. Go ahead and disagree, I don’t care. Just get off your high horse; if you really want to protest our lavish wastes on education here at Swarthmore, why don’t you transfer over to Delaware Community.

          2. 0
            xxxi says:

            Please tell me you’re not so arrogant as to think getting a Swarthmore education is going to contribute anywhere near $2 billion of benefit to the world. How long is it going to take you just to “pay back” the $400k that is the cost of your being here for four years? Think about that for a second before implying again that having seminars on social justice and giving some kids the opportunity to be proto-community organizers is the best thing to do with $2 billion in terms of benefiting other people. I really have no idea the kind of insular and self-impressed thinking that would lead one to believe this. I’ll just go ahead and call it a laughable assertion and that you’re dead wrong. It doesn’t matter what your plan is to help people, whether it’s short term or long term or whatever you want to call it, I’m pretty sure there are more effective ways of going about it than running this school. Oh no, what will the world do without us brilliant students studying in one idyllic little place? Will alternative theories of capitalism ever even be taught at all?!?!?

            No one said Swarthmore is not a top school. No one said Swatties don’t contribute to the world. No one said education isn’t important. You’re forgetting one important thing, and it’s that we were all smart, motivated, and fairly socially charitable people before we came to Swarthmore, and we largely would be the people we are today if we had gone somewhere else, even if it is, oh no, somewhere cheaper. You are being horribly elitist if you think the thousands of other colleges in the US can’t even hold a candle to providing an education like Swarthmore’s, and you are being horribly delusional if you think a Swarthmore education is creating real positive change that is ANYWHERE on the level of what $2 billion can do. I know you’re well-intentioned and will likely be a positive force in the future, but cut the crap man.

          3. 0
            Mr. X says:

            At what point did I imply that those people don’t exist? I clearly stated that it would be better if we fixed the problem in the long term, than did something rash in the long term. Are you honestly saying that Swarthmore students don’t make a difference in this world? Congratulations, you’ve saved one group of people from poverty, but what about the next? And the one after that? The “give a bum free food” crap makes sense, whether you want it to or not because in order to really help somebody you must help them help themselves. Yes, there are thousands of Americans who do not have enough to eat and I, like many other Swatties, feel for those people. But I am getting an excellent education here; I plan to do something with this education, something that will affect the lives of as many people as I possibly can reach out to. I know for a fact many other Swatties feel the same way. Are you seriously arguing that Swarthmore is not a top-tier institution? Because many ratings place Swarthmore within the upper echelon of American education. Are you seriously arguing that an educated public is not necessary for the prosperity of a people or nation? Because I would argue the exact opposite. As would many economists and political theoreticians throughout history, worldwide. Selfishness has nothing to do with it.

          4. 0
            xxxi says:

            Mr. X, I expected better. Are you implying there do not exist thousands, perhaps millions of people, including young children, in the world but also in America, who could be saved from DEATH, either in the short term or within a few years, by the infusion of ~$2 billion capital in the form of aid programs, development programs, community initiatives, WHATEVER? Cut the “give a bum free food” crap.

            So what shall it be? Given our stated values as a community, I can’t see good reason to perpetuate our decadent student lifestyle (academic decadence is still decadence) when so many lives are literally at stake. As far as I’m concerned, “keeping the young educated” and “especially at institutions like Swarthmore” are just empty platitudes. No substance points.

            Come on guys, I’m just trying to figure out, are we all selfish assholes or are we not?Y’all can’t have it both ways.

  7. 0
    Vija says:

    It would be nice to know exactly what percentage of the school’s investments these companies reflect.

    (This isn’t necessarily to say that a lower percentage means we should be less concerned, but I feel that it’s definitely an important part of this conversation.)

  8. 0
    xxdirtycommiehippy69xx says:

    Danielle and 1, receiving financial aid, or even believing that generous financial aid should exist, doesn’t exclude someone from criticizing its sources. As someone who can only attend Swarthmore because of their generous aid package, it’s disempowering to hear that I should just “accept what’s given to me.” The “beggars can’t be choosers” argument is one that’s been waged (unsuccessfully) against a variety of social movements for a long time. Generous financial aid and a socially responsible investment aren’t mutually exclusive. We’re quickly approaching a point where investing in fossil fuels will become (financially) unprofitable–resources ARE limited and are destroying communities. One way or another, these companies will stop being profitable in the not-too-distant future. Socially responsible investment CAN work, and is ultimately what’s going to produce good, economically and environmentally sustainable returns in the future. The question is whether we want to make the switch now or when it presents an even more serious financial liability for the College.

  9. 0
    mr. jones says:

    As with many DG comments, it would help if you thoroughly read the article before posting.

    Based on the article, it looks like this is more than just an environmental issue. Exxon and many of the other companies listed on MJ’s website have terrible human rights records–they destroy human communities across the globe in their search for the cheapest oil, coal or gas. Right here in Pennsylvania, fracking has resulted in the contamination of groundwater and rivers in many human communities. Human lives are certainly at stake here.

  10. 0
    Hope says:

    Environmental issues ARE human issues. You can be the one to explain to kids why Swarthmore is supporting a company that’s giving them cancer.

    1. 0
      Red Rhodes says:

      Hope, the electricity that made your melodramatic little comment possible came from either coal or oil. You’re a user, darling, so cut the self-righteous, hypocritical drivel and admit it. It’s people like you and your insatiable thirst for power that are giving people cancer. I’ve never understood why folks can’t draw the line from ExxonMobil to themselves. And yes, Hope, I’m a user too. The difference, darling, is that I get it.

  11. 0
    Danielle C. ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    Presumably we invest in profitable companies to get a good return. I’m sure many members of Mountain Justice appreciate Swat’s generous financial aid–or wish aid was more generous. We can invest the College’s endowment elsewhere, but then don’t complain about tuition.

  12. 0
    Jonah says:

    1, just because these investments are “good” ones (i.e. they make money) doesn’t mean that they are the only “good” ones. There have to be other options.

    Also, every environmental issue is a human issue. We live on the earth, off of the earth. But we are destroying it. Global warming is messing everything up, and thats being caused by the destructive processes involved with oil and coal energies, among other things. Whats the point of taking care of people if the world that they live in is going to shit? Not only are we not making an effort to make the world greener (on a larger scale), we are funding its destruction.

  13. 0
    90s-alum says:

    I applaud you for making this connection! There is precedent for this as well, as Swarthmore (like many other institutions) divested from businesses doing business in South Africa under Apartheid.

  14. 0
    houseguest says:

    Kudos to MJ for creatively drawing this issue to my attention! Where Swarthmore invests its endowment is a matter of concern, especially when considering the atrocities committed by some of these companies. This seems like a good area for the college to expand its commitment to social justice.

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