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Divesting from Fossil Fuels, to Invest in Students' Future - The YEARS Project

Divesting from Fossil Fuels, to Invest in Students' Future

To the outside world, Los Angeles is known for its picturesque beaches and sunny blue skies. Yet, those who grew up throughout the county know the deep juxtaposition of living in L.A. The reality is the City of Angels is being choked by a halo of fumes, its wings stained by a multitude of oil refineries. As an L.A. county native, I’ve lived next to the largest refinery on the west coast my entire life. The Los Angeles refinery, with a capacity to hold 363,000 barrels of crude oil, is the backdrop of some of my earliest childhood memories. I remember being young and stuck in traffic in the backseat of my family’s Toyota, and I would stare at the fire and smoke rising from the dark structure looming in the background. Before I had any idea I’d joke, “It looks like the monsters are having another birthday party!”

As I stared at the tiny flames flickering from the top of the building, I imagined a group of unusual giants blowing out large birthday candles. I would think that only something scary could build that. It wasn’t until I was older I realized the monster wasn’t just a spooky character, but instead an industry of oil giants

Twenty years later I am still living in the same city, but now as a college student studying environmental science. My day is filled with discussions on human environmental impact, conservation efforts, Ecology, and the effects of a changing climate. The irony? I attend all my courses in a brand-new building funded by Toyota, one of the largest automobile manufacturers in the world. And a major beneficiary of the oil industry. 

Each day I wake up and get in my gas-fueled car, drive past the oil refinery, enter the building funded by an oil-dependent automobile corporation, and take my seat in class to discuss ideas on how to preserve the planet in the face of an impending climate crisis. When I enter the building, I’m aware of exactly who funded it. In big red bright shiny letters, is the sign “TOYOTA Center for innovation.” On the first floor alone, the Toyota logo is advertised at least four times. Yet, it feels like hundreds as the vivid red sign reflects on every glass window. So I see the name TOYOTA dozens of times a day.  As the brand name flashes before me, deep down, I feel like a hypocrite. How can I call myself an environmentalist, while benefiting from the very same system that not only requires but thrives on environmental exploitation? Yet the truth is that the system works exactly as it was designed to. The inescapable ties to the fossil-fuel industry were carefully orchestrated into my life like a well-oiled machine before I could even comprehend what it was we were taking part in. In the face of these mega multi-billion dollar corporations, we never really had a chance.

You may be thinking to yourself: but Toyota is an innovator of the market, they created the Prius! A company that created the first mass-produced, widely-selling hybrid vehicle is surely environmentally conscious. At one point they even redesigned their hybrid model in ‘California style.’ Yet in 2020, Toyota shocked Californians by being one of the leading automobile companies to back the Trump administration when it came to emission standards. In a fight for clean air, California sought the ability to set its own standards for carbon pollution from the state’s automobile industry. The Trump administration argued however that California’s regulations were too rigid compared to the rest of the nation and there should be one national standard to abide by. Toyota filed a motion to intervene, openly taking the Trump administration’s side. It wasn’t until facing major public backlash that the company decided to retract its position.

Although Toyota’s P.R. represents the company as eco-minded, the California lawsuits were not the first time the corporate executives found themselves in the media for Toyota’s stance on climate regulations. Just last year, the company received a $180 million fine for a decade’s worth of violations against the nation’s Clean Air Act. In fact, a 2021 report released by Greenpeace East Asia, ranked Toyota as the worst automobile corporation for decarbonization. Furthermore, Toyota executives have been accused of quietly pushing congress to delay electric vehicle policy,  weaken climate regulations, and spread greenwashing on climate change. The company that was once famed for having the most non-polluting vehicle on the road, now finds itself far behind the competition on electric vehicle rollout.  When 499 out of every 500 cars that Toyota sells is gas-powered, their deep network within the fossil fuel industry should come as no surprise.

The Toyota Science and Innovation building on my campus was a $4 million dollar project. The main inspiration for the building, according to the Toyota Foundation’s president Mike Goss, is to tackle the future workforce head-on. Certainly, the corporation's goal to shape the youth is evident in the design of the building. In the center of the first floor lobby is a large, shiny glass box encasing 3-D printed lego cars, each model inspired by an elementary school student’s imagination. Just down the hall, you’ll find the Toyota innovation lab, equipped with rows of tiny, brand-new desks, computers, and 3-D printers. Each week a new class of elementary students are marched in to attend workshops on STEM. Seeing the children’s excited faces as I head to class brings me back to my own childhood, participating in my after school program’s science day, where Shell representatives came to teach about their work at local refineries. By targeting students as young as kindergarten all the way to college, Toyota can help to shape future thinkers. This is where it starts. 

Toyota regularly invests millions into school programs and workshops for young children. The company states they want to invest in our future, and why shouldn’t they? Our children deserve access to resources, education, brand-new technology, and forward-thinking learning experiences. Most importantly however, they deserve access to a clean, healthy, and habitable planet. 

Corporations like Toyota have a public track record of environmental degradation. Yet, universities continue to align themselves with promises of funding, innovation and advancement. Across the country, other college students frustratedly find themselves in the same predicament. Environmental students and climate activists alike are forced to watch and participate as their universities decide to invest or accept money from businesses that heavily contribute to global pollution. As environmentalists and students who will most likely witness the worst of the climate crisis, what are we to do? 

After massive student pressure, the California State University system voted to divest from the fossil fuel industry in 2021. Currently two of the state university systems' most significant financial portfolios contain $155 million in shares of fossil fuel companies, which includes $80 million worth of bonds in Chevron and ExxonMobil. The university system has stated that they will allow these ties to expire, and will consider investing in more planet-minded operations as they move forward. What they fail to accept, however, is that even aligning with indirect beneficiaries of the oil industry, also harms students' futures. The very same children that are indoctrinated into believing that these corporations support them and the planet, will one day grow up to realize that these institutions are directly involved in its decline. In the case of Toyota, building one clean energy building does not negate all of the environmental damage they’ve caused since the company's inception. Colleges across the nation must acknowledge who they’re working with as a whole, and not just what they can offer at the moment. Divestment means fully divesting. Because every day students walk to their classes and are faced with the ads of environmentally damaging corporations, we’re really telling them that the future of the planet can be bought, and students will ultimately pay the price.