Bill McKibben likes activism with a healthy dose of ambition -- something that should be abundantly clear after his planet-scale art projects and sit-ins outside the White House. Now the founder has started "Do the Math", a campaign in the same audacious vein that aims to get colleges and universities divested from major fossil fuel companies. After a widely publicized lecture tour, the campaign has spread like wildfire to campuses nation-wide.

"Do the Math" is a longshot. Divestment campaigns, which spring up fairly often on college campuses, have a very high failure rate. Colleges hate purging their portfolios. A typical financial administrator has a battery of defenses against the "d-word":

"To divest, we would have to rebuild our investment portfolio."

Our administrator is talking about something specific here: the co-mingled fund. These funds mix stocks, bonds, and other assets into one lucrative financial package.

While lucrative, they also stop divestment in its tracks. Dropping shares held outside of a fund is easy, but when shares are tied up within a fund, then you face an all-or-nothing decision: Divest from the entire fund -- not just stock in the rotten apple, but everything else too -- or suck it up and stay invested. Colleges can't cherry-pick, and since they are so heavily invested in these financial smorgasbords, parting with them would entail restructuring their whole portfolio -- and that, unsurprisingly, is a non-starter.

"We need to think about the future generations of [college name]."

This statement touches on two different ideas: institutional legacy and intergenerational equity.

Colleges abide by their legacies. They care only so much if a cause looks good today -- more important is if it will look good tomorrow. Even if a cause is solid, the strategy of divestment gets called into question: Would it look embarrassing if divestment from the fossil fuel industry flops?

"Intergenerational equity" basically means that it's only fair for tomorrow's students to enjoy the same resources as today's. When a college divests, it technically loses money it would have made in the future, from the returns that compound over time. Therefore, our administrator might say, social responsibility today comes at too high a cost for students tomorrow.

"We can promote change by staying invested."

Colleges vote on shareholder resolutions at annual meetings, and in theory, they could change an irresponsible company's behavior through these votes. They can also take direct action, by writing letters directly to the company. (Emphasis on "in theory." Shareholder resolutions are pretty toothless in practice, and let's not even start with letter-writing.)

"We have a fiduciary responsibility."

Translation: "Making money for an institution always comes first, and acting like a socially responsible investor always second -- if at all."

And that's the bottom line. Today, only 18 percent of all post-secondary institutions in the United States apply any criteria of social responsibility to their investments -- down from 21 percent in 2009. And for those 18 percent, the strides they take towards social responsibility are miniscule.

That's why we need a movement even bolder than Do the Math -- one that will aim not to divest, but to change institutional values. Colleges must give social responsibility equal footing with fiduciary responsibility. Groups like the Responsible Endowment Coalition promote such a balance, helping schools strategically transition away from co-mingled funds in Fortune 500 companies, and towards high-yielding investments in communities and green energy.

Colleges must come around to the view that the real intergenerational equity won't be the cost of a lost return -- it will be the cost of the damaged planet future students will inherit if they don't act soon.

Erik Lorenzsonn is an editorial intern at The Progressive.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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