Talking Writing magazine just posted an interview I did with climate activist and environmental journalist Bill McKibben called “We Don’t Require Leaders.” I urge you to go check it out. McKibben surprised me with some of his answers. The whole climate equation and how it impacts culture and politics is not simple or predictable.
I did a lot of research for my interview. You can never get in all your questions. Nor can you make all the points you want to make in your interview introduction. I want to add a bit here, then, if that’s okay. It’s my contribution this week to what will likely otherwise be a finger snapping coverage of Earth Day by mainstream media.
First off, while it’s been underway for about two years, the climate change Divestment Movement at college and university campuses is really heating up, if you’ll pardon the pun. Bill was getting prepared for Harvard Heat Week when we were corresponding. The idea was to put pressure on Harvard University, which has an endowment of over $30 billion, to disinvest (divest) in fossil fuel related stock. You can learn more about Harvard Heat Week by going to the link at the bottom of this post.
The top ten campus endowments in the U.S. total more than $140 billion. How much of that is invested in fossil fuel industries is anyone’s guess, but clearly higher education institutions carry a significant degree of financial clout in the investment world. However, a lot of snooty know-it-alls in the finance and free market community have poo-pooed the idea of disinvestment for years. You can still find their writings and speeches online with respect to South Africa’s Apartheid system.
George Will, commentator with the Washington Post (among other things), published a column last week called “Sustainability Gone Mad on College Campuses.” It’s a weird and kind of grumpy argument against divestment, but he also claims more generally that the idea of “sustainability” has become a “fundamentalism,” and likens it to religious belief (he has described himself in the past as an “amiable, low voltage atheist” so maybe his argument makes sense to him).
George Will has been on this same “fundamentalist” track with the environmental movement for a while now. He has clearly picked up some key phrases from folks in the pro-fossil fuel lobby. Will may understand this, but he’s very good at pretending he’s smarter than everyone else. But sustainability is not a philosophy (or a religion), although people feel pretty strongly about it.
I was doing sustainability development work back in 1982. It is, simply put, a design principle. It is also a technology choice methodology for decision makers. The idea in a nutshell is to take into account the lifecycle and full, extraneous costs and benefits of technology choices, and to invest in everything from architecture and transportation systems to waste management and water conservation projects that limit pollution, environmental impacts (such as climate change), and human rights violations — among other things.
Sustainability as a design principle and decision making tool takes into account the long-term effects of development and investment as well as the short-term ones. This, of course, requires informed decision making and attention to science and data, as well as profit and other business priniciples. I think of it as actually being economically rational and concerned about taking responsibility for the world we are creating (and destroying) every day.
At the forefront of sustainability is our climate change problem. As I’ve already pointed out, this massive, bizarre, paradoxical problem is neither simple nor predictable. This amazing world we live in is, essentially, amazing because of fossil fuels — and yet those fossil fuels are altering our world in ways that are totally destructive to our comfortable human existence.
A case in point right now with this paradox is the problem with divestment. Boards of trustees around the country are right now confronted by their students and their alumni with the need to stop making money off of fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, and natural gas in particular). So far, virtually all of these boards have responded — politely — that they fully agree that climate change is a major problem, but so is funding a university. The argument is made in many different ways, but the bottom line is that fossil fuel stocks tend to be extremely lucrative. The trustees at my alma mater, Reed College, have said that they do not want to make decisions about the school’s endowment based on “politics.”
Here’s the problem with that logic: by acknowledging that climate change is a serious challenge (unless you are a denier, it is, in fact, the gravest challenge mankind has ever faced), and also pointing out that your institution makes money off of the fossil fuel industry — a lot of money — refusing to divest is a major, big-time political statement. You are saying we’d rather make short-term profits than face the uncertainty of changing our investment strategy — environmental crises and climate degradation be damned.
But the one thing lost in the divestment argument, I think, is the opportunity to redirect that money into new technologies and new energy systems that are far less likely to destroy the global ecosystem. Right now, if I had a lot of money, I’d be betting on leading edge industries like energy storage technologies, high tech electric transmission systems, large-scale water desalination, fuel cells, and commercial solar power. Back in the 1970s, Reed College hit the jackpot investing in frontier computer technologies. Yes, there’s more risk in new technologies and industries, but how bizarre to put your money on companies that are obvious obstructions to progress and development when you’re a university in business to create tomorrow’s leaders and decision makers.
So maybe we shouldn’t just see the Divestment Movement as about disinvesting. Maybe it’s also about reinvesting. While old school pundits totally lacking in creative vision try to muddle debate with false definitions and pseudo social scientific theory, reality still exists. Some of the best minds in the world are focused on concepts like personal home power systems, solar transportation, and low energy technologies (have you gone shopping for a lightbulb recently?). And the public wants these things — many of us are demanding them. Would you rather buy your electricity from your local utility and drive a gasoline powered car, or make an investment in, say, a fuel cell-powered automobile that doubles as a source of energy for your home?
In my interview with Bill McKibben, he makes very clear that the nature of the climate change conflict is tangled up in the power politics of money and fossil fuel energy. Here’s part of the interview:
TalkingWriting: Why do we only hear small peeps about a global carbon fuels tax and other policy solutions? Is it all about politics, or do ideas about how we can make changes still confuse even those in the renewable energy world?
Bill McKibben: Because at the moment, they’re politically impossible. One reason we do things like relentlessly campaign for divestment or against new pipelines is to break the political power of the fossil fuel industry so reason stands a chance. We’ve won the argument years ago, even on things like carbon taxes. There’s not an economist—left, right, or center—who will defend the status quo. But we’ve lost the fight, because fights are mostly about power.
More than anything, then, pushing for divestment in fossil fuel funding and finance is a direct attack on those who have real power over lawmakers and corporate decision makers. Divestment alone obviously won’t reduce the global mean temperature. But it is a direct course of action that will begin to force the energy world and those they’ve bought off to pay attention to the future that we as citizens and consumers are concerned about. It is one piece of a much bigger puzzle.
Here’s my Earth Day payoff to this article (besides the resources below): It’s very obvious that if institutions aren’t able to divest on their own, they’re going to face direct action situations that will require them to. This is not a threat. It is what happens in this country when committed citizens make their concerns known in a rational, logical, and passionate way, but find themselves ignored.
There are many things that make me proud to be an American, but what makes me proudest is our history of civil disobedience. I’m going to guess this is the last spring where polite and rational discussion is offered to those who think they’re in power. Next year will be different. A few years ago, we all saw the potency of civil disobedience with the Occupy Movement. The one thing about that movement was that it was addressing a somewhat fractured set of causes and interests. An Occupy-like approach to fossil fuel divestment can easily become a major game changer in the push to get higher education to put its money where its mouth is. And it will.
What would be nice, though, is if our top universities and colleges — like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Reed, Oberlin, Carlton, Swarthmore*, etc. — could take a strong leadership role before things get really wanky. There’s no reason to not act except institutional entropy and fear. Syracuse University is the first major university to get this. In March they issued a press release stating that they are “formally divesting endowment funds from coal mining and other fossil fuel companies.” That’s pretty impressive and speaks volumes for the identity of this school.
So, if you are concerned about climate change this Earth Day, and want to do something about it (besides recycling and driving a Prius), consider researching your old school’s policy on divesting its endowment funds from coal mining and other fossil fuel companies. I joined the students group at Reed that’s pushing to make this happen. I am also preparing a personal letter to the board of trustees explaining my concern.
More directly, I’ve signed on to The Multi-School Fossil Free Divestment Fund. Instead of my annual alumni contribution to Reed College, I have sent my money to divestfund.org. They are banking my dollars until my school divests its interest in coal and petroleum. The deadline is December 31, 2017. If, by then, Reed hasn’t shifted it’s official policy, my contribution will be “equally distributed to Participating Institutions.” I am absolutely fine with this arrangement.
There are 18 top schools nationally represented at the Divestment Fund. If you’re school isn’t on the list, you can ask the folks at The Divestment Fund to add them.
Let me close by saying that I was asked by several publications to write an essay for them on why I am quite cynical about Earth Day these days. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not after my research and connection with Bill McKibben. But I doubt I will attend any Earth Day celebrations, and I’m not going to donate to an environmental group this year either. I’ve made my statement in this post. And I’m using my 2015 alumni contribution to put an exclamation on that statement. We’ll see what happens next year. I’m going to guess things are going to be a lot more lively than they will be this Wednesday.
Remember the old saying: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way?” Which do you choose? It shouldn’t be very hard to figure that one out, should it?
Happy Earth Day. Be part of the solution, otherwise …
*Special Note on Swarthmore College a Day Later: Much to my joy this morning (April 21), the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article with the headline “Swarthmore sit-in ends with fossil-fuel divestment support.”
This would have been pretty important news for the nation, folks! I’m glad at least our local paper covered this occasion. I’m not sure the Swatties are all the way home, since they have faculty support but their Board of Managers (trustees) still need to vote to divest. But it’s a start — and an indicator of where things are going. Stay tuned. [Note: Swarthmore’s trustees showed their true stripes a month later and voted down the recommendations of their community. We need a new word for trustees who do not take moral responsibility for their institutions. Can’t Trust Yas?]
Do not count out Millennials. They are just beginning to feel their power.
Resources for Further Investigation
350.org – Climate Change Action Central
“Syracuse University Announces It Will Divest from Fossil Fuels,” (The Daily Orange)
Swarthmore Alumni Divestment Statement – “Divestment: It’s not a gesture – it’s an imperative”
Also published on Medium.