By Sheba Rivera, Guest Contributor

“WLs [White Liberals] think all of the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves.”

  • Dr. Paul Farmer, American anthropologist, physician and MacArthur Foundation Genius Award recipient, in Mountains Beyond Mountains

“Have you noticed changes in weather affecting your farm?” we asked through our interpreter.

“Sure,” the farmer said, “I used to have to spray my pigs with water once or twice a day; now it is five or six times. The chickens hide out all day and come out to eat much less often…”

We hear that the dry season lasts longer. Fields flood in the wet season, rotting their crop. Dry spells punctuate the wet season, scorching seedlings. These farmers know all about climate change. Even if they are not the cause of it.

Photo Credit: CIAT/N. Palmer

The 2016 drought in Cambodia was the worst in decades. It severely weakened smallholder farmers, who were already acutely vulnerable to economic shocks. Over 40 percent of Cambodians live on less than $2 of purchasing power per day. Over 30 percent of the land is used for agriculture. This is a country of farmers. Farmers without unemployment insurance, rainy day reserves, or health savings accounts. Farmers who may need to choose between eating and a couple dollars for their children’s school supplies.

For the past four months, I have been on a New York University graduate student team investigating climate change resilience strategies for farmers in Cambodia. Our desk research hardly prepared us for the emotional investment of rural field work this January. And none of us were remotely equipped to tell farmers with generations of experience what they need.

Farmers explained that they need dryers and warehouses so they can sell rice throughout the year, not just the market is saturated. They need better irrigation and seeding equipment so their crops can withstand drought and they can launch resource conservation techniques. They need composting systems to cut down on the cost of their inputs. Even when joining together in collectives, with their crop pulling in $1,000 in a good season, saving up for a down payment on any of this expensive machinery is difficult. Losing a harvest due to climate change would be a knockout.

In the United States, we are aware that fossil fuels contribute to climate change. But that is not just when we burn them in our cars. Fossil fuel companies are some of the top air polluters, emitting mass quantities of toxic gases in their upstream activities such as refining and drilling. These companies go a step further and spend millions of dollars lobbying for looser regulations and more freedom to pollute the environment. The industry promotes labeling climate change enthusiasts as overzealous, idealist hipsters, though the greatest benefactors of policy change would not be the students. Fossil fuel company sycophants take to Twitter whenever a group of students pleads with their university to take their money out of such a heinous industry. If divestment is pointless, why do these companies spend every day monitoring Twitter to ridicule student movements?

But divestment does not need to scare fossil fuel industries for it to be a moral imperative. It just needs to be viable. Investing in companies which profit from practices that harm the poorest and most vulnerable of our world is reprehensible. The New York University Board, which is made up of hedge fund managers and real estate tycoons and chaired by an alumnus who has made billions off of predatory student loans, made this recent statement about divestment:

“The Board, however, believes that in determining the endowment’s investment strategy, its duty is to make decisions that maximize the endowment’s return in order to fund NYU’s educational mission (e.g. funding for teaching, research, financial aid, and other basic functions of the University). The Board’s investment committee examined the financial effect of divestment – both in direct holdings and through funds – and came to the conclusion that divestment would significantly limit the investment choices we may make, thereby limiting our ability to seek out the best long-term investment opportunities for the endowment.”

The Board continued that it is guided by “fiduciary responsibility” to maximize profit. Yes, the money is good. And it is soaked in tears.

In 2013 the President of NYU made $1.5 million in salary and other compensation. His second in command made nearly $700,000. Upon retiring, the last NYU President was promised $800,000 per year indefinitely. In 2013, NYU, a not-for-profit organization, boasted a surplus of over $400 million. Though the NYU endowment is not top of the heap as university endowments go — as they like to remind socially-conscious students ad nauseam — it is at a healthy $3.5 billion.

New York University is the country’s most expensive university. NYU students, whose tuition pays for school expenses and bloated salaries, know very well that profit maximization is high on NYU’s list of priorities. They do not expect divestment to reduce their tuition. They simply reject complicity with immoral activities. Taking a stand against predatory practices will never make practical sense if making money is our only inspiration. NYU students have been struggling for divestment for four years, even risking disciplinary action for the cause. Making money from a practice that perpetuates poverty and hunger just doesn’t seem like a good idea to the people who are paying the bills. The administration has a fiduciary responsibility and moral charge to listen.

Sheba Rivera is a justice advocate, organizing a coalition for ethical and sustainable management of NYU finances. Before beginning at ​NYU ​Wagner, she held positions in finance, management, real estate, and communications. After NYU Wagner, Sheba is interested in pursing projects that realize the social benefits of multi-sector partnerships.

Leave a Reply