In 2014 Dr. David Loy returned to his alma mater, Carleton College, for the first time in 45 years, to receive an honorary doctorate degree. On Friday, two years later, Loy returned to the campus for the second time in over four decades to return it.
The action is to support a student, staff and fellow alumni protest to the college’s Board of Trustees, which decided to refuse a recommendation to divest from fossil fuels last November. In doing so, the board ensured the college would continue to use its endowment to invest in fossil fuel-producing organizations.
“To continue to profit from the sale and promotion of fossil fuels is to remain complicit with the damage they are inflicting on the earth’s ecosystems, and on the consequences of that destruction for the future of all its inhabitants,” wrote Loy in an open letter to the Board of Trustees.
For Loy, it’s an issue that ties hand in hand with the line of thinking that earned him his honorary degree to start. For 30 years, he lived in Singapore and Japan, earning his Ph.D. and teaching the philosophy of Buddhism. He continues to lecture around the world, mostly to Buddhists about what the teachings of the religion mean.
“In Zen Buddhism, which is what I practice, there is a lot of emphasis on compassion,” Loy said. “Not only for human beings, but for all living beings, for the earth.”
Loy, who graduated from Carleton in 1969, said the college helped him learn how to think and to come out of his shell. He noted that the college is likely toward the front of the pack, in terms of work to reduce its own carbon footprint. However, he feels it’s not doing enough if it continues to support fossil fuels on an institutional level.
“It’s a huge mistake financially, as well as morally, in the long run,” he said.
When the Board of Trustees made its decision not to divest in November, members said the college should not “seek to define, promote or enforce morality.” According to Loy, they also justified the decision by referring to the school’s financial responsibilities.
Representatives of Carleton College administration issued a statement in response to Loy’s honorary degree return:
“The college is sorry that Dr. Loy has chosen to return his honorary degree, but it respects and understands the rationale behind his decision.”
In the grander scope of the issue, Loy is merely lending one more voice, albeit a loud one, in a larger effort to push Carleton College away from fossil fuels investment.
A website, www.divestcarleton.wordpress.com, was created by Carleton alumni in 2013, as part of a fossil fuel divestment campaign. According to a letter from Divest Carleton Students posted on the site in January, nearly 40 percent of current students, over 500 alumni, the Carleton Student Association Senate and the Carleton Responsible Investment Committee (CRIC) have all called for divestment.
“Reducing Carleton’s carbon footprint and aiming for carbon neutrality do not relieve Carleton of its duty to align its investments with its values,” the letter reads. “As long as reasonable opportunities to fight climate change remain within our means, it is both prudent and necessary to take them.”
The campaign at Carleton is not a singular movement. People across the nation and the entire world are pushing institutions and churches to divest from fossil fuels.
Students with Divest UMass at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst took part in a sit-in that resulted in the arrests of 34 students in the first five days. Similar protests are taking place across the United States, organized by sites like www.350.org, which features “climate-focused campaigns, projects and actions led from the bottom-up by people in 188 countries.”
Loy believes the rescinding of support from colleges and other institutions toward fossil fuels is vital in the fight against the potential negative consequences of climate change.
“I’ve lived and traveled a lot of places and seen the devastation to the environment around the world,” he said. “It’s a moral issue. If we’re going to avoid catastrophic impacts to the earth, we need to reduce our fossil fuel consumption as quickly as we can.”
Loy said if the college chooses to reverse its decision on fossil fuel investment, and in turn, offers him back his honorary degree, he would gladly take it. For now, though, he anticipates a long battle to push for divestment, and he can’t, in good conscience, hold onto his degree until it’s over.
“I’m just politely saying I’m very grateful for it, but I must return it, because I’m in protest of your decision,” he said.