Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I have been uneasy about the case for divestment from fossil fuels, but I’ve also been reluctant to express that discomfort anywhere besides my own weblog.
If I’m reluctant, that is because it feels like a thankless task to dissent from a view that has anointed itself the expression of the unified will of the faculty and student body. Divestment advocates sometimes make one of the mistakes that has often hobbled progressive and left political movements, namely, mistaking an argument about tactics for an argument about core values. That in turn leads to treating those who disagree about tactics as if they are enemies on questions about values. I’d rather not be regarded in that way.
That confusion is more likely if the case for divestment is made as my colleague Mark Wallace recently made it in the Daily Gazette. Wallace argues that the college ought to divest from fossil fuel companies because those companies are morally repugnant institutions, that we must have a “moral compass” that guides our investments, or otherwise see our salaries and benefits and services tainted. To argue against the case for divestment, argues Wallace, is necessarily to endorse “unfettered” destruction of the environment.
Wallace sets this point up via a loaded question: surely, he writes, the college doesn’t invest in “child labor, blood diamonds, or sex tourism”? Hence, he reasons, we must have an existing moral screen and can readily expand upon it — or we must be willing to invest in anything, no matter how immoral. This leaves a respondent like Swarthmore Vice-President for Finance and Administration Gregory Brown no answers, as it is intended to do. This is roughly like boasting about highly effective tiger repellant. The respondent says, “There are no tigers around here!” Answer: “Exactly!” No investor has to screen out activities illegal under U.S. law, or activities that no publicly-traded company admits to undertaking.
But companies in the college’s portfolio (and the retirement investments of faculty and staff) almost certainly do directly employ or indirectly benefit from highly exploited laborers, including in extractive industries. Amazon and Apple, for example. Companies in those portfolios do make money from pornographic media: pay-per-view on Time-Warner, Verizon, and Comcast cable. The banking industry nearly destroyed the global economy single-handed a mere six years ago and continues many of the activities that endangered billions. Many major corporations produce weaponry and equipment used by the U.S. military and other militaries around the world to kill and wound both civilians and combatants. Even just on fossil fuels, it seems hard to see how to stop at a mere handful of extractive companies. Other companies such as airlines depend at the absolute core of their business on the use of fossil fuels. Countries such as Russia extract a massive amount of fossil fuels though government-owned companies. Not all ties we might have to destructive or immoral activities are through our direct investments.
If the goal is moral purity—a college without dependence upon destructive, exploitative, unethical businesses or institutions—it is hard to imagine the investment screen that could accomplish that to general satisfaction. Moral purity is hard enough to pursue for an individual, and this kind of purity—a severing of ties with that which is impure, a desire to create a strict distance between the ethical and the unethical—is generally only possible through a sequestration from the world. Individuals can go into caves and monasteries, institutions and communities cannot.
There’s a better argument for divestment from fossil fuels, and it is the argument that many of its advocates have been making since the inception of the campaign. I don’t think this argument ultimately holds up either, but the college community, including the Board of Managers, should take it seriously. Bill McKibben and other activists have argued that fossil fuel companies only appear to be a good investment because of a massive infrastructure of governmental subsidies and assistance and because they’re permitted to treat their huge contribution to anthropogenic climate change as an externality, charging it to the global public. If the U.S. government and others like it were willing to withdraw some or all of those subsidies and support some form of carbon taxation, alternative energy sources would instantly be competitive in the market, and fossil fuel production would be exposed as a risky, destructive investment.
This is a strategic argument about how to impede the environmentally destructive production of fossil fuels. It’s a strategic argument with a moral dimension in that the ultimate reason for seeking that end is to slow down and eventually halt anthropogenic climate change and thus to alleviate the suffering it has already caused and will cause in the future. However, the thinking here is intrinsically focused on fossil fuels rather than on general, sweeping ideas about how to achieve sufficient symbolic distance from immorality.
This strategic idea has yielded a tactical proposition: that current governments can only be pushed to dismantle extensive support for fossil fuel production through popular political pressure, and that this in turn can only be secured through changing popular perceptions of the fossil fuel industry. This in turn led to the suggestion that one way to change that perception would be for major institutional investors to publicly disavow owning shares in the major fossil fuel corporations.
Most divestment advocates have stuck to this line of thinking in making the case for action. Many activists understand, for example, that selling off shares of those companies has no direct impact on their bottom line and will produce no immediate pressure on the companies themselves as a result. Moreover, many advocates properly refuse to set achievable goals for the companies themselves (a major difference between this campaign and the South African divestment movement) as the objective isn’t to alter the practices of those companies directly. It is to deprive them of the political infrastructure they require to appear more economically viable than they actually are.
My problem with this argument is largely with the self-flattering and insular version of it that has manifested on college campuses, and the degree to which its most ardent advocates have been unwilling to acknowledge the debatable aspects of such a campaign, and charge that anyone with doubts is effectively endorsing fossil fuel production.
Changing popular perceptions or attitudes is a frequent aspiration in progressive (and indeed, conservative) politics. It is not a hopeless ambition: there are striking successes to point to in the last fifty years of American politics. The decline of tobacco consumption and the rising approval for same-sex marriage (or same-sex identity generally) are two important examples, and there are others. What most of the success stories make clear, however, is that such campaigns succeed when they are truly multi-sited, when they come from civic institutions, from within households, from education, from popular culture, from personal experience and everyday life. They also are almost invariably time-consuming: it usually takes many years to move general opinion towards a new view of a familiar subject.
Divestment advocates within higher education have tended thus far to focus their energies narrowly on their own campuses and to treat the decision to divest as the key difference between failure and success in the overall strategy of moving public opinion. But higher education is at best a trivial contributor to this particular overall project of cultural change, and at worst may actually retard its progress.
The analogy to divestment from South Africa is frequently cited by current divestment campaigners, often with little historical understanding of that campaign. Divestment by higher education and civic institutions came at the end of more than two decades of concerted international activity aimed at turning the apartheid state into a global pariah. Even among the symbolic gestures intended to isolate South Africa from the world, divestment was a relatively unimportant factor. The sports boycott made a much larger psychological impact on South African whites, while the momentous decision of banks to refuse to rollover existing loans to the South African government was largely taken because of a pragmatic judgment that the apartheid state was a poor credit risk. (Though this is where the proposition that fossil fuel companies could be factually revealed as poor investments bears some resemblance.)
Perhaps more crucially, that campaign was undertaken in a different era of civil society and electoral politics within the United States, and in a cultural moment where universities still commanded broad respect among middle-class Americans. The anti-apartheid coalition moved outward from progressive activism to a wider political base, and was largely careful to attend to the conditions that would facilitate that movement. It used the university as one stepping-stone because the university was part of a constellation of respected civic institutions that included churches, community groups, local municipal governments, and mainstream journalism.
That cluster of institutions was already beginning to fragment in the 1980s, and is now almost wholly dispersed. You cannot keep running the same plays if the game itself has fundamentally changed.
It’s not just that universities and other markers of middle-class civic identity have either dispersed or lost their commanding authority within the culture. University endowments are no longer relatively modest funds kept as a security against disaster, they are often far more substantial in real dollar values in private institutions and provide much of the annual operating budget for institutions that offer a much wider range of services (and have a much wider exposure to compliance regimes) than they did in the early 1980s. On the flip side, colleges and universities without substantial endowments are now exposed to serious financial risks and can ill afford to use what small endowments they have to participate in public activism that is not immediately connected to their missions.
In the world outside of academia, corporations are no longer particularly interested in providing evidence of their careful stewardship of their medium-term value to potential investors. Both companies and investors are unperturbed by the charge that a present business strategy is doomed to medium-term failure. Moreover, the influence of big money in American politics is now wholly unchecked, with a serious impact on how—or whether—a campaign to change public perception can succeed.
The proposition that a campaign to change the cultural image of fossil fuel producers, leading to political pressure on their sources of government support, begins with or even centrally involves colleges and universities disdaining to invest in those companies is almost wholly disengaged from the real conditions that such a campaign faces. It’s not all clear that institutions widely derided as elitist, culturally exotic and politically marginalized do the wider campaign any favors by making it one of their signature commitments. They certainly aren’t the right institutions to be the vanguard of such a campaign. Higher education can’t even win political battles closely related to its core mission in many U.S. states.
The appeal of divestment within higher education is thus either a sign of disinterest in thinking through the prevailing social and cultural formations that a campaign to change the image of fossil fuels must confront, or a sign of settling for what is close at hand and at least potentially responsive to demands from students and faculty: administrations and trustees. It is also, I think, a sign of the four-year cycling of students through institutions, which often leads to a focus on what they might concretely achieve in their time as a student rather than on an incremental contribution to a longer-term institutional or political project. Divestment seems possible in that time frame, changing the wider culture not so much.
Many divestment advocates in higher education are eager not to be taken in by alternative projects or pathways within their own institutions, regarding most of them as cynical attempts at “greenwashing.” But to cite the South African case, divestment campaigns followed on a decade of higher education in the U.S. and U.K. doing what it arguably does best, which was to focus scholarly and intellectual attention on apartheid. Divestment was paralleled by numerous other institutional and civic initiatives, some of them preferred by people who had doubts about divestment itself, and many of those made a more meaningful impact on the apartheid state than divestment by higher education did.
In the current environment, it might be that universities can most affect the image of fossil fuel producers by focusing intense curricular and analytic attention upon them. The one thing that national surveys in the U.S. show is still broadly respected about academia is the scholarly knowledge of faculty. At the very least, if divestment advocates hope to harness the reputation capital of universities and college, it would behoove them not to otherwise disparage those institutions or to dismiss curricular initiatives as distracting forms of greenwashing.
It might also be that there are other forms of symbolic or cultural action by academic institutions that would have far more impact than disinvestment. For example, academic administrations could join in coalitions intended to aggressively delegitimize efforts by fossil fuel producers to endow faculty positions intended to provide the industry with subservient “experts.” And efforts to change consumption of fossil fuels within academic institutions are very likely to be more potent even just as a symbolic source of persuasive legitimacy for wider publics than changes in investment policy. If students, faculty, and staff agreed, for example, to forgo 20% of their previous travel by air during an academic year, that might demonstrate to wider publics a more expansive and determined form of community will than tinkering with the strictures on a $1.5 billion endowment, an affordance which almost seems to underscore a kind of decadent distance between academia and its publics. Even with investment itself, it’s entirely plausible that taking $20 million from Swarthmore’s endowment and designating it as a fund for direct investment in alternative energy firms or other sustainability-oriented start-ups might be a more powerful persuasive gesture in terms of altering how the American public sees the fossil fuel industry. That’s direct skin in the game, and attempt to build something up at the same time that it tries to tear something down.
Faculty and student supporters of divestment need to go forth more humbly into the culture as it exists rather than to expect the wider culture to automatically defer to and respect the actions we take with our own resources. If the image of fossil fuel producers is going to change sufficiently to provoke widespread pressure on our political leaders, that changed perspective is going to come from within households and communities that are persuaded to their views by a much more diffuse array of sources than they once were, households which live within a different civic infrastructure than what prevailed in the last quarter of the 20th Century. Moreover, those households and communities often live with a different real relationship to fossil fuel companies than what commonly prevails in academic institutions, a relationship that has to be understood, acknowledged and discussed without overwrought moralizing.
If we want to secure our own moral self-satisfaction, divestment might make sense, but only as a sort of appetizer before a main course of desperate purging of other stains and contaminants. As an act of public persuasion, making a show of one’s own moral purity rarely attracts a wide base of admirers and supporters. Instead, it frequently inspires either cynical amusement from those who figure that the sins which remain outweigh those which have been disavowed, or resentment from those who do not feel themselves capable of such purity.
If the campaign is instead about changing the image of fossil fuel producers, then its supporters may want to consider what role academia is best suited to perform. Flattering as it is to cast oneself in the leading role, and convenient as it is to just happen to find an important tool right at hand, it may be better to approach such a campaign with more humility and more willingness to think open-mindedly about what might work in achieving it.
The above piece was written by Professor Timothy Burke, Professor and Chair of the Department of History