Hundreds of Cornellians and millions of young people worldwide walked out of school or work on Friday, Sept. 20 to protest government inaction toward climate change and demand divestment from fossil fuels. The case for divestment has never been stronger: The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded last year that a radical transition away from fossil fuels in just over a decade is necessary in order to avoid irreversible disaster. Yet inaction is precisely the strategy of Cornell’s Board of Trustees and President Martha Pollack, defying the wishes of the Student Assembly, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and the Faculty Senate.
The Board of Trustees states that it will divest only in the case of “morally reprehensible” activity in which “the company in question contributes to harm so grave that it would be inconsistent with the goals and principles of the University,” as if an existential threat to human civilization in the near future is not morally reprehensible. But even if you leave the climate aside, the “morally reprehensible” standard is still met. Look no further than the history of massive human rights violations the oil and gas industry have committed in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria for the past several decades.
Consider the case of the Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron corporations, both of which have significant corporate partnerships with Cornell. In 1990, Shell asked a Nigerian paramilitary unit for assistance in response to a nonviolent demonstration at one of its facilities in the Ogoniland region of the Niger Delta. Soldiers responded by killing at least 80 people, raping women and burning down a village. From this point on, Shell and other oil and gas corporations clearly knew what would happen when they asked the Nigerian military to quell protests. Despite this, they continued to not just request assistance, but to collaborate with Nigeria’s military dictatorship in its campaign in the Niger Delta. The Nigerian military would kill hundreds of Ogoni people over the next decade.
The Shell, Chevron and Eni corporations’ crimes finally fell under the global spotlight in November 1995 when internationally acclaimed playwright and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others from the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People were executed by the Nigerian military. The crackdown and subsequent executions were carried out shortly after a request by Shell executives to dictator Sani Abacha that the Ogoni and Saro-Wiwa be dealt with by the military. Saro-Wiwa won the 1995 Goldman Environmental Prize for his leadership in the nonviolent campaign against devastating pollution in the Niger Delta, and his activism had turned the indigenous leader into an icon of the international environmental justice movement. But the threat of nonviolent resistance was too great for Shell and Abacha, and consequently, he was silenced forever at the age of 54. 14 years later and days before a trial was to begin in New York over Shell’s complicity in Saro-Wiwa’s execution, the company settled with the Ogoni community to the tune of $15.5 million.
While Shell and Chevron have not plotted the murder of Nigerian environmental activists in more recent years, they continue to pollute the Niger Delta with impunity, destroying the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on fishing, agriculture and water from the Niger River. Shortly before Saro-Wiwa’s execution, Bopp van Dessell, Shell’s leader of environmental studies in Nigeria, resigned from the position because, in his words, “It was clear to me that Shell was devastating the area.” And Shell continues to this day to devastate the area and engage in a systematic campaign of deception in order to avoid responsibility.
By its own records, Shell has dumped nine Olympic swimming pools worth of oil in the Niger Delta since 2011, although the real numbers are likely much higher than what Shell admits. Response times to the spills are slow, in violation of Nigerian law and clean-ups rarely even scratch the surface of the damage done. Shell and Eni are also involved in a major corruption scandal in Nigeria and are accused of exceeding legal limits for ethylene dioxide emissions in the country. Far from bringing wealth and prosperity, Shell, Chevron and Eni have poisoned the drinking water, soil and food supplies of millions of people, and have likely contributed to appalling infant mortality rates near spill sites as well.
It is difficult to imagine President Pollack arguing that collaborating with a dictator to murder activists or actively destroying the environment of a region of 31 million people is consistent with Cornell University’s values. I find it equally unlikely that she or any board member could claim that such activity is not “morally reprehensible” with a straight face.
The Board of Trustees’ true argument against divestment is therefore revealed: A powerful industry such as fossil fuels should never be divested from. If said industry wants to spend millions on misleading the public for decades about its role in the impending destruction of entire ecosystems and organized human society itself, so be it. That these same companies are involved in widespread human rights violations in an impoverished country might be concerning — but not concerning enough to accept the student body and faculty’s utopian pipe dream that our university should follow some elementary guidelines for moral and social responsibility.
Jacob Brown is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mapping Utopia runs every other Tuesday this semester.