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Green Light in the Southern Appalachians: How We Became the First Institution Below the Mason Dixon Line to Divest From Fossil Fuels

02/23/2015 03:01 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

On February 20, Brevard College pledged to divest its endowment from fossil fuels by 2018. Our small college (I have been on the faculty here since 2005), located in the mountains of Western North Carolina, thus became the first institution of any kind in the American Southeast to join the fossil fuel divestment movement.

The movement to divest from fossil fuels has become the fastest divestment campaign in history. To date, over 180 institutions and cities have committed to divest, and about $50 billion has already been divested. Not surprisingly, however, at least in the US, virtually all of this divestment activity has occurred at left-leaning institutions in progressive pockets of the liberal West Coast and Northeast regions of the country.

So how did Brevard College, a relatively mainstream institution, located in a conservative area of a flamingly Red State, manage to divest? The short answer is:

1. A campus community that is serious about its mission statement: Brevard College is committed to an experiential liberal arts education that encourages personal growth and inspires artistic, intellectual, and social action.

2. Good timing: As Naomi Klein put it, referencing a recent Economist "Seize the day" cover with a figure jumping off a pyramid of oil barrels, now is the ideal time to "Kick it [the oil industry] while it's down." Moreover, as reported by Brett Fleishman, a recent "Peak Carbon before Peak Oil"article by Deutsche Bank (which has extensive investment partnerships with fossil fuel companies), concluded that the primary driver of last year' plummeting oil prices was not supply and demand, but rather "climate change consciousness and political momentum."

"It's time for us to walk the talk," Brevard College President David Joyce told me. "This is a teachable moment; we teach the students, but the students also teach us. The work they did on this divestment campaign beautifully embodies our mission statement. You see the lights come on in the students' eyes, when they realize they have the knowledge and power to make a real difference...this is why so many of us at this College went into higher education in the first place."

My colleague Jim (JR) Reynolds, a professor of geology, got the divestment ball rolling on our campus. "Back in the spring of 2013," he recalled, "a student sent me a link to a website promoting the fossil fuel divestment movement. I immediately saw this as an ideal opportunity for the College because the students were passionate about it and it was in perfect alignment with our mission statement."

JR worked tirelessly to educate our community about the divestment movement and explain both why we should do it and how it could be done. As first he got the typical response from the administration--we must protect our endowment, we can't take any unnecessary risks, etc. But he doggedly kept forwarding them articles showing that in order for us to have any chance of solving the climate change crisis, most of the world's fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground. As more governments come to understand this, the risk of these fossil fuels becoming 'stranded assets" will grow. Like many others in the divestment movement, JR thus argued that divesting from fossil fuels was the right thing to do for both moral and financial reasons.

Of course, the first group on our campus to fully embrace this argument was the students. They started a divestment petition that was eventually signed by over half of the student body, which in turn inspired a similarly successful faculty petition drive. Last fall, students and faculty presented their petitions to President Joyce and Don Moore, the Chair of the Board of Trustees, during an exceptionally friendly and well-publicized sit-in in the college's library.

"One of the keys to our success was our close relationships with the administration," observed Emily Crowley, one of the student leaders of the divestment movement on campus. "We never saw this as an 'us versus them" situation, but rather as something that we were all working towards together."

Board Chair Moore couldn't agree more. "The students were proactive and respectful," he recalled. "They dialoged with us rather than made demands. They were passionate but also highly professional; they knew what they were talking about."

Jerry Stone, Chair of the Trustee's Investment Committee, explained that the increasing pressure in the financial industry for 'green investments' has led to new tools and options that enable money managers to achieve goals like fossil fuel divestment without compromising their primary fiduciary responsibilities. "We concluded that we could divest in a safe and responsible manner," he said. "So we decided to move forward, because we felt that this isn't something that is tangential to our mission--it is our mission!"

We realize that there are many seemingly logical arguments against the wisdom of divesting from fossil fuels. However, we ultimately found the arguments for divestment to be far more credible and persuasive. (For a succinct, thoughtful analysis of the most common arguments for and against divestment, see "Why We Said Goodbye to Fossil Fuels" by Donald Gould, Chair of Pitzer College's Investment Committee.)

We are also well aware that our successful divestment campaign is only the first step down the long and difficult road that leads to fossil fuel independence. Yet this spring, we plan to take another small but critically important step down this road by installing the first solar panels on our campus.

We hope that our small steps will help inspire other institutions and individuals in general, and within conservative areas such as ours in particular, to help speed the transition from dirty, top-down fossil fuels to clean, bottom-up renewable power that works for all of us. In the end, we believe this is in fact the truly conservative approach.