Williams junior Zoe Grueskin, far right, organized the rally trip and is working with others on campus to convince the college to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Williams College junior Zoe Grueskin is following in her mother's footprints and looking to reduce our own carbon footprint.
Grueskin, an environmental policy major, organized a busload of 50 people — mostly Williams and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts students — to attend last weekend's "Forward on Climate" rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
She also is one of several students working on the Williams campus to convince the college to cut its financial ties to companies that profit from fossil fuels.
The latter campaign is part of a national divestment movement that got a boost last week when tiny Sterling College in northern Vermont joined Maine's Unity College and Amherst's Hampshire College in pulling their investments out of companies in the fossil fuel industry.
If the idea of divestment — or divestiture — sounds familiar, it should.
In the 1980s, more than 300 colleges and universities nationwide responded to calls from their student bodies to divest from businesses with interests in South Africa — a move that shined a spotlight on that country's oppressive system of apartheid and is credited with accelerating the system's demise.
"My mom tells me how she participated in campouts for South African divestment," said Grueskin, whose mother attended the University of Iowa in Zoe's hometown of Iowa City.
"There was also a South African divestment campaign at Williams, which included a sit-in and hunger strike in 1980. Williams eventually divested. Williams also divested from Sudan several years ago."
She and her classmates hope the college will take the same symbolic step in regard to fossil fuels. Though Grueskin admits the two movements are not completely identical.
"In January, a friend of mine did a study on divestment for the fossil fuel movement, and as part of that did a lot of research on the South Africa movement," she said. "There are strong parallels between the campaigns as symbolics and political tactics that can raise the conversation.
"But there are important differences. The South Africa movement had a much more specific target, which made it easier. Climate change and trying to take action on climate change by targeting fossil fuel companies is a more complicated issue."
The contemporary divestment movement is being organized by Vermont environmentalist and scholar Bill McKibben through his group, 350.org, which takes its name from the acceptable level of parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The current CO2 concentration is 392 parts per million, well above the 350 level and far greater than the 275 ppm that was the norm before the Industrial Revolution, according to the group's website.
McKibben's organization and the Sierra Club organized last weekend's rally in the nation's capital.
It was the second time environmentalists from around the nation have converged on the Mall to bring attention to the issue of climate change, Grueskin said.
"In November 2011, there was a rally in Washington, D.C., specifically asking [President] Obama to reject the Keystone Pipeline permit," she said. "That brought 12,000 people. We had over 100 students from Williams go. I wasn't organizing it, but I went down. It was just when I was starting with the environmental movement."
That rally takes credit for stalling plans for the proposed 3,500-mile pipeline, but a new permit currently is being considered.
"In part this rally is to put pressure on the administration about the pipeline, but also to call for stronger action on climate change," Grueskin said.
"After climate change was ignored for most of the (2012) presidential election cycle, it's a good way to get it talked about by your average citizen and get political action as well."
The National Park Service since 1995 has had a policy of not issuing estimates for crowd sizes at National Mall rallies. McKibbin's 350 group estimates more than 40,000 people attended the Feb. 17 event; NBC News estimated between 35,000 and 50,000; the Washington Post reported "several thousand."
Fifty of that multitude came from North County. Many came from a student organization at Williams called Thursday Night Grassroots, but MCLA students were an important part of the 2011 rally and again at this month's gathering, Grueskin said.
She said TNG, as it is called, wants to make climate change part of a broader discussion of progressive causes.
"What we're focusing on at Williams is connecting students who care about climate change with students who are passionate about other social justice issues," Grueskin said. "I don't see them as disconnected issues. Progress on one will mean progress on the rest. We want to work on them together with other passionate and involved students at Williams."