At first glance, Trent University seems concerned about environmental sustainability. The administration tweets about its awards, its clean technology research, its abundant nature areas and thriving School of the Environment. But if you peel back that window dressing, beneath it all you will find that Trent does not ‘bleed green’.
On October 27th, 2021, the University of Toronto announced that it would be divesting its 4-billion-dollar endowment fund from fossil fuel companies effective immediately. After years of activism, U of T is joining Laval University, the University of British Columbia, Lakehead University, the University of Waterloo, and the University of Guelph as a Canadian university fully divested from fossil fuels. And they’re keeping good company internationally, with well-respected schools like Harvard, Cornell, Brown, Columbia, the University of California system, Cambridge, and Oxford.
The dominoes are falling. Institutions around the world are recognizing the fossil fuel industry’s deteriorating social license to operate. Universities, the site of innovation and new ideas, are finally starting to wake up and stop funding an industry that harms people and the planet.
Trent, for all it purports to be a ‘green school’, is conspicuously absent from that list.
It’s not for lack of effort on our part, by the way. The first fossil fuel divestment campaign at Trent dates all the way back to 2012. 50 faculty and staff members signed a petition supporting divestment, and 76% of students voted in favour of divestment during a student referendum held during the 2013 TCSA spring general election. Fossil Free Trent, then a sub-team of Sustainable Trent, presented a report arguing for full divestment to the Board of Governors in 2014. Ultimately, the Board of Governors voted against divestment. The support was there, the facts and evidence were there, the opportunity to live up to Trent’s reputation for sustainability was there- what wasn’t there was the votes from a handful of officials more worried about the university’s future than ours.
I chose to attend Trent because it seemed to align most with my values. It has a reputation for environmental excellence and respecting and honouring Indigenous knowledges. Imagine my shock when I learned they’d toyed with divestment-and swept the notion aside with the ease of the Otonabee River after the locks open. Their continued investment in fossil fuels is a betrayal of this reputation, of the entire Trent community, of the Michi Saagig Anishinaabeg land the school sits on, and of those who will come after us.
Frankly, it is embarrassing that Trent has not yet divested. What are we waiting for? The environmental case for divestment is crystal-clear. If a situation is to get better, the logical first step is to cease making it worse. As the ever-growing list of universities divesting from fossil fuels makes evident, it is unethical to profit off something which is rapidly fuelling climate breakdown. It is socially irresponsible to support an industry contributing to a humanitarian crisis that disproportionately hurts the people and areas least responsible for historical and contemporary greenhouse gas emissions. And it doesn’t even make financial sense unless Trent wants to keep risky investments that will quickly become stranded assets. The International Energy Agency, an organization with a long history of supporting the fossil fuel industry, now asserts that no new fossil fuel projects should be built if the world wants to achieve its net-zero by 2050 goal (a goal which many climate scientists consider inadequate in the first place).
The climate is changing, in more than one sense of the word. If tiny Trent University thought it could slip past in relative obscurity while giant institutions like U of T, Harvard and Oxford divest, it thought wrong. The clean energy transition is coming, whether you like it or not. Personally, if I had to choose between reaping the benefits or gracelessly sticking with Big Oil to the bitter end, I know which one I’d choose. And if this school wants a shred of hope of repairing its tarnished reputation in the eyes of those who’ve removed their green-tinted glasses, so should Trent.
If Trent continues exacerbating the climate crisis and funding extractive industrial projects that violate Indigenous rights and sovereignty, it cannot call itself a leader in climate action or reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. For as long as this institution refuses swift, full divestment from fossil fuels and does not reinvest that money in projects that support a livable future for all, it does not and will not ever ‘bleed green’.
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