Thursday, February 7, 2013


Bill McKibben is heard to say that he is thrilled to see the "kids" on campuses all over the country taking on the divestiture challenge.

Here is the local press reporting on Sterling College divesting as a way to avert global warming. 
Following up on my last post I want to note what isn't being said to the students who are pushing for divestiture on their respective campuses.
Let's start with the most basic understanding of what a divestment entails. You sell the stock of company X out of your portfolio to another buyer. The net number of shares, or capital position of the underlying company doesn't change. So you haven't done a thing to halt global warming. You have done the least you can do, a symbolic gesture that may feel good, but as I have contended, actually saps the energy and responsibility away from actions that might actually make a difference. 

The professional journal The Chronicle dealt with the issue from the perspective that divestment will not have a negative impact on its member institutions' portfolio performance. 
A letter from a faculty member (music department) in response speaks to the morality of divestment regardless of portfolio performance. 
This august organ says nothing about the underlying issue; what to do about the reduction of our carbon footprint?

As I set forth in the previous blog, production is a by-product of demand. Want to do something about the burning of fossil fuels? Stop consuming them. If one were truly interested in a mass movement that might have an impact, rather than divest (a meaningless gesture) from a consumption group, say auto manufacturers, an organizer would move to reduce sales of the vehicles of consumption. But then that organizer would run headlong into all the vested interests arguing that the economy was saved by the bailout of the auto industry. We are up against the double bind again. 
It gets worse. The colleges that have signed on to divestiture are small and remote and totally dependent on autos and trucks, burning fossil fuels, to get their students hither and yon. If their faculties were alert to the implications of divestment a grand discussion could be joined that would make visible this hypocrisy and the greater problematic (classist and racist) issues of stopping "development" in other places. Maybe some sensitivity could be stimulated for those persons who live in other remote areas of this country, or who are desperately trying to enter the 21st century as developing countries. 

Organizers of divestment movements like to point out the success of actions against South Africa in the attempt to undo apartheid. There was a commonly held agreement that apartheid was an evil practice and by withholding economic activity one could sway the government to alter its behavior. There is no parallel in selling one's stock in a fossil fuel producing firm. 

What is required, and what is feasible, is the changing of the basic patterns of consumption, of these students in particular. When I arrived in Maine to try to develop a model of how a university might create incentives for students to get out of their cars, I was informed that car pooling just wasn't part of the culture of Mainers. We couldn't even get bike sharing started without a fight. When we were students car sharing was normal. Ride to/from boards were posted in student unions all over the country to assist moving students home for the holidays or weekends. No more. On a larger scale students could and should be organized to demand the alternatives be developed. But, they should be schooled in what is practical and affordable. They should be schooled in the real costs of burning fossil fuels (throughputs) so that they can make rationale judgements about what they are willing to spend to secure their energy future. And they should never ask others to do without something they are unwilling to sacrifice for themselves.


  1. Exactly right.
    It's one thing when we are talking about denying economic activity with Cuba, a tiny island country conveniently isolated without American contact, but which the Germans seem to have found a perfectly reasonable spot for vacation, leaving even that grand, national gesture looking like more of a victimization of individuals and perhaps the revocation of airport rights. Another thing entirely when tiny collectives of monied institutions decide to simply let other collectives of monied institutions invest in things. It's no more substantial than a church deciding they won't invest in music companies, because music is the devil's work. It does't make the music go away, it just lets the parishioners pat each other on the back while removing themselves from all decision making processes and profit. (Well done!)

  2. Define your yardstick. Against our shared climate threat, neither divestment or carpooling at one college amounts to much. However, as a vehicle for culture change, to try and overcome the strategic weakeness of a 4-year cohort's departure, divestment could play a part. Chicken vs. egg. What are the means of making the decision to put a bikeshare, carpool(or even more radical & necessary steps like tearing up parking lots and protecting wetlands), and other fossil fuel-reducing investments an easy one to say "yes" to? Does a divestment campaign get alumni exercised? How about tenured staff? The Provost? These are the necessary elements of culture change - and there's only so much time left before change decides it for you.