The Poverty of Divestment

My alma mater will vote tomorrow in a referendum on whether the university should divest from the so-called “fossil fuel industry.” I say “so-called” because a better sense of the term is energy industry, which happens to be heavily concentrated in coal, oil, and natural gas. Some interesting philosophical commentary has focused on the motives and tensions within the anti-divestment movement:

“For it is entirely question-begging of the contra-campaigner to assert that long-term financial stability is at odds with concerns about the environment and its future.  It is also plain wrong. The divestment campaigners present a stark fact and draw a straightforward consequence from it: we are either to be complicit in the burning of fossil fuels to an extent that tips the biosphere into a social, ecological, economic, and security disaster; or we are to take whatever stand we can to oppose it.

But built into their views about economic reality are, I think we can discern, some assumptions also about authority.  These can be teased out by considering the motivation for their resistance, which seems, in fact, to involve two different sorts of thought that stand in some tension with one another.  On the one hand, they articulate concerns of the form “Suppose everyone did as you wish…” in which eventuality, it is suggested, the lights would go off and the economy would be at risk of collapse.  On the other hand, there is the worry that the financial flourishing of our institutions would be compromised if we allow information about the ecological basis of their operations to be factored into our decision making.  This looks like double think: it is claimed that the people seeking divestment don’t give enough thought to the wider future socio-economic implications of their proposal; it is also claimed we must not allow thoughts about wider future socio-ecological implications to influence our decisions.  Or is there perhaps just not enough thinking – about how the ultimate destiny of our economy lies in the same world as our ecology?  Why is it thought that the campaigners for divestment can do real harm whereas business as usual generates a presumptive balance of benefits over costs?”

The alleged tension among the anti-divestment movement, then, is its stated emphasis on the long-term financial stability of the university while ignoring the long-term threats that climate change poses to the university’s finances. The anti-divestment movement criticizes the long-term effects of divestment on the university’s finances, while at the same time ignoring the long-term ecological effects of climate change on the university. This “double-think” is irrational, the author continues, because climate change poses a threat to the long-term financial health of the university and is thus problem on the anti-divestment movement’s own terms.

It’s worth observing what the author’s argument assumes: it’s certain that ecological catastrophe will result from the continued burning of fossil fuels, and only choice facing the university is whether to be complicit in the disaster. If on the other hand you deny that catastrophe is coming (which is a pretty weak claim), you might think that the harms from divestment on university finances are more certain than the harms from climate change.

Pro-divestment campaigners are at pains to emphasize that the financial impact of their proposed change is likely to be small. However, they also emphasize that their campaign is part of a concerted political campaign to delegitimate the fossil fuel industry by shaming these companies, creating uncertainty about their finances, and ultimately turning fossil fuels into a class of “stranded assets.” It’s therefore a mistake to think of a vote for divestment as merely “symbolic” when the end goal of the divestment campaign is nothing short of destabilizing an entire industry.

At this point, the divestment movement is likely to call out a tension in my argument–I seem to have admitted that socio-political considerations matter when it comes to the health of industry, but denied such considerations matter in the case of the environment. Actually, though, the contexts are different–one involves a deliberate political plan to reshape the energy industry, while the outcome in the other context is uncertain and contains some opportunity for adaptation.

The divestment campaigners are clear about what their plan entails–forcing universities to “take a side” in the climate change debate and committing the university to a particular set of political objectives. This fundamental feature of the divestment campaign is also the most pernicious. It is a radical attack on the principles of scholarship and academic freedom and threatens open debate in higher education. What would a commitment to divestment do campus debates about how governments should respond to climate change? Would it create a chilling effect on controversial and unpopular research and speech? Would it enhance or obstruct academic freedom? Harvard’s president Drew Faust put it well:

“We should, moreover, be very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution.  Conceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the University into the political process or as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise.  The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”

I hope Yale students emphatically reject divestment and the politicization of their institution.


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