Divest, with care

Sunrise has recently been advocating for a referendum on Swarthmore’s investment policy. The group has called for a vote on whether or not the college’s board should revoke the ban on investing ethically, put in place immediately after the school divested from South African associated funds in 1990. More power to them; students should advocate for the direction they want the college to take. But for the referendum to be in any way meaningful, it has to be representative, and the application of any investment decision has to be extremely limited.
There is nothing wrong in principle with ethical investing, obviously. I don’t think anyone serious believed that divesting from the Apartheid state was a bad idea. The morality of fossil fuel consumption is more blurry than Apartheid South Africa; owning or working on an oil rig is indisputably different from using political and violent means to deny basic human rights to an entire class of human beings, based on a vicious racial ideology. To try and create a clear line between right and wrong in this is a fool’s errand. Developing countries are going to have to balance the economic merits of fossil fuels with environmental questions, and to say the choice between long-term risk and certain short-term poverty is clear is wrongheaded. Even though these considerations are less of an issue in America, pretending that we don’t have to make constant compromises about our use of energy is extremely misleading. I mean, I’m writing this piece on a computer powered by fossil fuel energy. And no one is advocating for pulling a Wendell Berry and preferring a typewriter to a computer because of environmental concerns.
But, the danger of climate change is anything but blurry. Divestment is of limited value, as I’ve written in an earlier column, but there is something to it. It’s certainly better than getting medical doctors to inform their patients about the dangers of climate change, which was oddly suggested in my Biology lecture. Fairly moderate in its costs and its impact, divestment also has few direct effects on the college. If a legitimate majority of students supported it, Swarthmore should choose to divest. A community has the right to balance the ability to determine its own direction with its ability to decide what issues are up for debate. But this referendum is not forcing every professor to drive a hybrid to work, or demanding every student vote for politicians who focus on climate issues. It’s a limited step toward solving an agreed-upon issue.
I do worry about the larger implications of “banning the ban,” as Sunrise likes to put it. In the current political climate nationally and on campus, the danger is for the school to be constantly embattled about who exactly to divest from. You could easily envision a slippery slope going from companies that are irresponsible in the use of fossil fuels to… well, hummus. Taking a limited action to attack a limited and very specific problem is what divesting from fossil fuels would be. Broadly condemning an entire society and anyone who supports that society, on an issue that is much more debatable than the threat of climate change, is extremely problematic. Activists should be very careful in what issues they choose to address with school divestment.
Another concern is that a referendum would not be representative of the whole student body. The vote could potentially suffer from extreme selection bias, with only students who care or even know about the referendum attending. Of course, Sunrise cannot compel people to vote, but they could take other precautions. Setting a target number for participation and reholding the referendum if it is not met would be one good idea. Or, holding it over a fairly long period of time like several weeks could help increase participation levels.
And of course, putting the college’s investments up for debate means that they should be up for debate. An attempt to make Swarthmore yet another monolithic institution would be disappointing. Making moral stands should also mean being open to the possibility that you are wrong, and that other people can be right or possess part of the truth. That’s the point of the liberal arts: to be truly liberal in education and life, to work across disciplines and ways of seeing the world. But if “ban the ban” opens a floodgate that leads to the campus community taking increasingly doctrinaire and moralizing stands on each and every political issue, giving no quarter or compromise on any grounds, then Swarthmore could slowly shift into the progressive version of a fundamentalist college. The conclusions are already reached and our only job is to learn how to get to them.

1 Comment

  1. It’s unfortunate that this author transitions from attempting a reasoned argument to referencing hummus. Obviously, with climate change we are confronting un unprecedented existential crisis for humanity, and to the extent that the enormously powerful fossil-fuel industry is determined to persist with business practices which will accelerate our rapid progress toward worsening global catastrophe, there cannot be hope for maintaining survivable habitats for humanity in many places. The insistence on pursuing profits over human wellbeing should be condemned.
    This is all the more so the case considering that a number of the largest companies already knew full well what the consequences of their products’ usage would be decades ago. The only effective constraint on these businesses will be governmental actions, and for those to happen, there needs to be much additional enlightenment of our citizenries. No efforts have been more effective in accomplishing that than the extended debates and publicity associated with divestment campaigns and commitments.
    Here are some more detailed summaries of divestment’s rationales, from a few years ago:

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