Divest UMaine pushes ahead, strives for more student involvement

Curtis Willard, an undeclared sophomore and a first-time visitor at the Divest UMaine meetings, holds two jars of re jelly beans that Divest  student leaders used at their Thursday meeting in Gorham to symbolize fossil fuel emissions.
Patrick Higgins
Curtis Willard, an undeclared sophomore and a first-time visitor at the Divest UMaine meetings, holds two jars of re jelly beans that Divest student leaders used at their Thursday meeting in Gorham to symbolize fossil fuel emissions.

Posted on September 16, 2013 in Community, News
By USM Free Press

Despite a less than enthusiastic reception from students this fall, the USM branch of the student organization Divest UMaine plans to continue with its efforts this year to pressure USM’s community and administration to support a system move to divest its fossil fuels.

Divest UMaine, is a group of students, staff, faculty and alumni whose mission is to push for the university system to take a tangible move to show its support of the issue. USM, on its website, claims that it “supports sustainable development [and] environmental stewardship.” Since the group formed in December 2012, they have been endorsed by the Student Senate and have gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition to the University of Maine System board of trustees that eventually helped to open up the conversation between system administrators in a trustees meeting last spring.

Divest UMaine held two meetings last week to gather student interest and to discuss goals for the upcoming year. Their main goals are to persuade the Board of Trustees to immediately stop investing in new fossil fuel companies and to raise student awareness about USM’s involvement with the fossil fuel industry.

They are asking that USM, “Immediately stop investing in any new fossil fuel companies, and divest what they currently do have invested in fossil fuels,” said Shaun Carland, a junior math and computer science major, and the president of the students for environmental awareness and sustainability.

        “Divestment is the opposite of investment. It means getting rid of stocks, bonds or investment funds that are unethical,” according to gofossilfree.org, a website dedicated to the divestment from fossil fuels.

        It is Divest UMaine’s firm belief that the continued use of fossil fuels will lead to irreparable damages to our atmosphere within a few centuries. They believe that climate change will ultimately make Earth a place where earthly forms will not be able to exist.

        According to the group, the continued use of fossil fuels at its current levels will fundamentally disrupt or completely arrest the naturally-occurring self regulation of ecosystems, such as water circulation, climate and the polar ice caps.

        “We’re changing the chemical composition of our atmosphere,” said Carland.

        Divest UMaine’s priority for this year is to educate students about the potential dangers of fossil fuels. “[We’re] trying to help everyone realize that this affects them personally,” said Meaghan LaSala, a junior women and gender studies major. It’s about, “the survivability of the human species,” she explained.

        They are reaching out to the University of Maine at Orono and the University of Maine at Farmington to collaborate on building a more system-wide awareness on the issue. They are also working with other student groups at USM to co-sponsor events about the environment and raise awareness to start a social movement.

        They are attempting to join the two other Maine colleges who have already divested, the College of the Atlantic and Unity College. that have already divested from fossil fuels. Divest UMaine is reaching out to the board of trustees to see if USM will follow their lead.

        “The University of Maine System determines how funds are invested for USM.  As a result, any decision to divest would be made by the University of Maine System Board of Trustees,” said Dick Campbell.

        At a board of trustees meeting in February, trustees discussed the proposal to divest the UMS and to weigh any potential benefits or problems that decision might yield. Tracy Elliott, director of finance and controller stated that, “there are many ways that an organization demonstrates its environmental stewardship and the system will continue to focus on energy reduction, yielding both cost savings and carbon avoidance.”

        The board of trustees acknowledged the importance of the issue and agreed to reconsider investment opportunities in the future as the research on fossil fuels becomes more developed.

        When asked about the possibility of USM divesting from fossil fuels, LaSala said that she believes all universities will inevitability divest because of the hazards of fossil fuels and because of the determination of the groups involved. “I think that this is a really powerful grassroots movement that isn’t going anywhere,” she said.

However, student support of the idea at USM so far has only been patchy, starting off at their first meeting of the year in Portland last Wednesday with only three attendees. In response to these uncertain circumstances, Carland maintained that he believed the issue will gain student support. “It’s hard to get anyone at USM to really care about something, they can be kind of apathetic.” However, Carland said that he wasn’t disappointed with Wednesday’s turnout.  “I don’t look at quantity, I look at quality,” he said. Carland explained that he’s more concerned about engaging a dedicated core of students involved in the movement for now, but he admitted that so far, working to publicize the issue at USM and elsewhere has been a learning experience, and he said that he plans to do more to get the word out about Divest UMaine events in advance for future events.

Despite the difficulties the student group has faced in bolstering student support at USM, Carland is confident that it is an issue that will eventually garner more attention at the university, in the community and at other branches of the University of Maine System.

“It’s going to be the defining issue of our generation,” he said.

This piece was contributed by Free Press staff writer, Skyla Gordon.