I’m one of the last to arrive, which means the full spectacle of the protest hits me at once as I come around the bend. A crowd of 150 people holding banners and signs surrounds a massive inflatable of CEO Tim Buckley on the lawn in front of the Malvern headquarters of Vanguard. The likeness steers a boat, akin to the asset manager’s ship logo, over the words “Vanguard Is Sinking Our Future.” Bishop Dwayne Royster’s resonant voice reaches past the police to me and the determined octogenarian at my side, encouraging us as we walk the final yards to the investment manager’s headquarters. She pauses to readjust a sign resting on her walker that reads “Don’t destroy my grandchildren’s future!” The sight of the crowd and 16 others lying across the driveway in an act of civil disobedience is — forgive the pun — arresting.
These are the last steps of a five-day journey organized by Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) in collaboration with local communities and in partnership with a global campaign. Our 40-mile journey took us past trash incinerators and polluters that increase rates of cancer for Chester residents; through Eastwick, a neighborhood with homes built on toxic waste that increasingly floods with poisonous water; to a Wayne branch of Chase Bank, which funds destructive new fossil fuel projects around the world; to Tim Buckley’s house, where we delivered a personal card and a letter signed by 33 organizations asking him to change course; and finally to the front lawn of the sprawling Vanguard campus, where executives make decisions affecting the lives of billions of people.
Vanguard, which manages $8.1 trillion, is one of the largest global investors in coal, oil, and gas. As such, it has tremendous power to steer our world out of fossil fuels and away from local and global environmental racism.
The UN’s most recent report states that, in order to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius in global warming, emissions will need to peak by 2025, be halved by 2030, and stop by 2050. I used to think climate activism should take a backseat to more pressing issues of poverty, homelessness, and neo-colonialism. Then I attended a lecture where I learned that on our current trajectory of fossil fuel use, Calcutta will be too hot to breathe by 2050. Climate change will exacerbate every other tragedy, and we’re on a countdown. That was over three years ago, when I began volunteering with EQAT.
In that time, as our time is running out, I’ve heard many executives claim that they are doing all they can. Vanguard leadership is no different, recently announcing that only about 5% of its total assets are on track for 2050 net zero goals and offering no proactive plan for significant change. If business as usual is actually the best that this enormous institution can offer in response to the greatest existential crisis of humanity, we’re already dead in the water.
Fortunately, activists across Philadelphia as well as organizations and individuals across the world think they’re wrong. So do many scientists, who say we need to make radical changes immediately. Our contemporary moment can feel like the climax of an epic action movie: we’re at the gates of Mordor, we’re riding toward the White Walkers, we’re in the final battle against Thanos, our world on the line. A high schooler protesting at Chase Bank brought home this tense reality with a devastating sign: “You’ll die of old age. We’ll die of climate change.” From the teenagers at the Chase Bank “protest seder” to the elders pushing walkers to Vanguard’s driveway, we know the situation is dire, and under the excitement of fighting for justice on the front lines, there’s an inner battle against despair.
But there is hope, and more Vanguard can do, so organizations and individuals worldwide are joining together under the “Vanguard S.O.S.” campaign. We have clear demands and experts across policy, finance, and business. It feels good to be a part of a coalition; we’re not out here alone. And sometimes fighting for environmental justice means a nice long walk — and meeting some interesting people along the way.