Against Divestment

mountain justice

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



  1. Below is a thought I had felt afraid to write, so I thank Professor Burke for being brave & pushing me to be so as well. I REITERATE his point that we all agree about global climate change, but moralizing about one strategy to fix the problem is not the solution. We need discourse, not an asocio-historical, unclear of impact idea, where there are so many tangible ways to have an impact. I also love Burke’s idea about reinvesting money ($20m) in clean energy research, since the expected value of that gamble could be pretty good!

    I have not yet seen a commentator on divestment talk about how we build the toolbox for modern activism. Fossil Fuel Divestment has a particular modern salience because of it’s analogy to South African divestment – a successful movement from the recent past… However, I find myself wondering if fossil fuel divesting accomplishes the same goals. On both specific and vague bases, it does. But the holes in the argument make me wonder – why is our activism directed toward divestment instead of toward the energy crisis in [Massachusetts, for example]? Cape Wind, which was a great clean fuel initiative, recently fell apart due partially to a lack of an activist push. Also, right now MA faces monopolistic control of it’s main natural gas pipeline that is a great opportunity for the introduction of a push for investment in clean fuel (b/c the government will have to spend money anyway).
    So why do we have our current toolbox? Are we responding to on-the-ground realities? Or are we using a strategy that worked before in an analogous situation? I propose that the job of activists is to first identify a problem, then look for solutions to the problem by listening & learning, then look for strategies to implement those solutions, and learn about how to implement them — as opposed to eliding 1 and 3 (and thereby missing a lot of 2).

  2. Bravo! This is a very well reasoned and well written piece. Thank you for posting this.

    I particularly like this suggestion:

    “…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.”

    I hope the Board is listening.

    • There are a number of small companies researching fusion energy, notably Tri Alpha Energy. Their approach involves merging spheromaks, and while the Swarthmore Spheromak Experiment (SSX) deals more with magnetic reconnection and MHD than fusion research, perhaps a collaboration with Tri Alpha Energy would be fruitful. $20 million would go quite a ways where fusion research is concerned.

  3. Well stated . I would pile on to the “against divestment” bandwagon by reminding people there is no viable alternative to fossil fuels that will power the nation in the manner to which we have become accustomed. We can’t curse the source if in fact we are unwilling to do without the benefits that fossil fuels grace us with. We won’t topple the megalith of big oil/coal with well meaning but essentially meaningless gestures.

    The cozy bond of governments and the fossil fuel industry should be the target of outrage. The environmental and social damage in this country and around the world is caused primarily by a lack of oversight and enforcement of the extractive industry. The Keystone pipeline wouldn’t even be a cause if the Canadian government hadn’t green lighted strip mining a region of boreal forest the size of Pennsylvania and New Jersey combined. Nigeria would not be in turmoil if Royal Dutch Shell (with the collusion of that country’s plutocrats in the guise of government officials) had not poisoned the Niger delta. Mountain topping would not have destroyed vast areas of the Virginias, Kentucky and Tennessee without Environmental Protection Agency permits. I could go on.

    Attacking the money of an incredibly profitable industry is an exercise in futility. If we are to effect change we need to bang on the doors of local, state and federal officials.

    • I would just like to point out that a current viable alternative to the use of fossil fuel for electricity production is nuclear fission. While nuclear waste is a concern, one need only look to France to see that it’s very possible to implement a successful reprocessing program.

      Otherwise, I concur that we should be working to reduce the influence fossil fuel extractors wield with governments large and small.

  4. Excellent piece. I hope all sides of the divestment debate strive to reach this level of clear exposition of the arguments involved and focus on the relevant issues.

    A few thoughts:

    As many divestment advocates have noted, fossil fuel companies seem genuinely worried by divestment campaigns, whereas your model seems to suggest that they should be either ignoring them entirely or making dismissive comments about elitist, out-of-touch universities shuffling money around. Do they just overestimate the danger, or is something else going on?

    Whatever its substantial merits, the divestment movement has been extremely successful at getting people involved and excited; it is not obvious that your proposed alternatives, promising though they sound, have as much movement-building potential. Maybe it would be best to use the focus on divestment as a recruiting strategy, then expand to include more effective strategies?

    I hope divestment advocates seriously engage with the points you raise in the future (or link to places where they’ve engaged with similar arguments in the past).

    Addendum: While we’re on the topic, can anyone clearly explain the moral intuition, apparently held by most divestment supporters, that it’s immoral to place side bets on bad outcomes occurring? That’s never made sense to me.

  5. Some quick thoughts:

    1. Arguments for or against divestment should indeed not be couched in purely moral terms. The way change in society with moral implications is accomplished is through political action. The relevant point is that divestment can, indeed be one politically effective strategy.

    2. Professor Burke: “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.” Then why, seven years after it was first proposed, do we still not have the Keystone XL pipeline? Behind the Obama administration’s resistance to the pipeline is the mammoth popular resistance spearheaded by The influence of big money has not stopped a whole range of administration initiatives on climate change, from regulating coal-fired plants to the agreement with China. Public perception is clearly changing: the Republican-controlled US Senate just voted to acknowledge that climate change is real, a proposition Exxon Mobil spent millions of dollars to refute.

    [Side note: President Obama in the summer of 2013: “Invest. Divest.”]

    3. Burke: The strength of the anti-apartheid divestment movement lay in the fact that “the university was part of a constellation of respected civic institutions that included churches, community groups, local municipal governments, and mainstream journalism.” Visit for the updated list of non-academic entities that have made divestment commitments, including: the cities of Seattle, San Francisco, Portland and Providence; religious bodies including the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, and the Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting (and other Quaker meetings around Swarthmore such as Lansdowne and Haverford); the Wallace Global Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation. Read some mainstream journalism, including articles in Bloomberg News, the Telegraph, the Guardian and the New York Times. Note that the Governor of the Bank of England has told a parliamentary committee that “his officials have discussed the idea that most of the world’s proven coal, oil and gas reserves may be ‘unburnable’ if global warming is to be kept within safe limits.” The Bank’s Financial Stability Committee will monitor this issue and “the financial risks of being overly exposed to fossil fuel investments” (Financial Times, November 30, 2014).

    4. Burke: “it usually takes many years to move general opinion towards a new view of a familiar subject.” What’s “many”? The great change in laws and policies on gay rights and same sex marriage has taken about a decade and a half: “don’t ask don’t tell” was introduced in 1993 and repealed in 2010.

    It is not moralistic, but realistic, for Swarthmore to join the effort to mitigate climate change by divesting from fossil fuels.

    John F. McDiarmid ‘68

    • Just a short comment, perhaps more of a question:

      I find myself wondering what Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth – to name a few – would have to say about Timothy Burke’s statement: “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.”

      Might they argue that core values and tactics are integrally intertwined. Can one reliably separate them. It is my observation that tactics rise from deep moral conviction. This was certainly true in the Civil Rights Movement, Anti-Apartheid movement, and – from my own experience – the [Same Gender] Freedom to Marry movement. We can certainly discuss tactics, but to separate them from core values, in my opinion is not possible. Clearly the tactics of the Mountain Justice movement rise from deeply held core values. To focus only on tactics makes the discussion mostly cerebral and separates it from the heart of the matter.

  6. in sum
    1) the appetizer: divest from fossil fuel companies to put pressure on them to invest in alternative enrgy and cleaner technologies (i believe exxon spent like 1% of its budget on alternative energy, NOT nearly enough. any reasonable businessman knows that oil companies better start diversifying their portfolio.

    2) the main course: invest the money freed from divestment into alternative energy and green technology companies? what is so difficult or controversial about this? we are moving funds from a declining, intransigent sector into future, booming growth stocks amd funds–i bet the college would have much greater returns investing all those funds in Tesla rather than Exxon.

    3) the dessert: the Board says that they will use the college’s position as a stockholder of oil companies to influence/provide a voice of social activism and responsibility to the boards if said companies. IS there any evidence for this? this should have been happening.

    Professor Burke, your argument is essentially talking about the slippery slope of morality. We can get into moral relativism or moral absolutism or just realize that morals and socioeconomic utility are two sides of the same coin, realize that morals are simply societal constructs, and embrace moral nihilism.

    I digress. Yes, divesting from oil companies can be considered a morally awkward position but my point is we have to start somewhere.

    Humans are not morally pure creatures but I think most of us at least try to be “moral” people and you must accept that in many Swatties’ spectrum of morality, there lies a respect for the environment and a duty to protect it.

  7. Thank you, Dr. Burke, for your opinion.
    As a latter-day Quaker and member of the Swarthmore College class of 1965, I know what George Fox and John Woolman would think about divestment from fossil fuels. They would strongly support divestment. I think that it is morally wrong for Swarthmore College to use “Quaker heritage” in its marketing, but not in its investment policy.

  8. Re: “divestment was a relatively unimportant factor.”

    Reading this misinformed piece by the Chair of the History Department makes me feel like I never left Swarthmore in ’87. Burke would have felt right at home on the Board who scoffed at our efforts at divestment.

    I find it strange that someone who teaches history could say the “cluster of institutions was already beginning to fragment in the 1980s” when that is exactly when the divestment movement took place. Next we may learn that the Occupy Movement “didn’t work” because the wellspring of support ceased after 2010.

    But at the end of the day, Burke is simply touting the common refrain of those in power who see no need to sacrifice advantage for those they deem as ‘the other’. It was not difficult for the 100 Black students and all 5 Black professors (are there still only 5?) at Swat to see that investing in South Africa was antithetical to our freedom. It was next to impossible to get Eugene Lang to see it.

    I suggest Burke place himself within history rather than sit outside and complain about his pension possibly being effected by a moralistic stance taken by those who believe what we do with our money actually matters. (Last I checked we live in a Capitalist society, which, I think, by definition means money decides what is good.)

    Make a line in the sand? Not as long as it may cause discomfort. I kind of like what I have. Why should I voluntarily give up something just because my gluttonous life is killing our planet?

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