The Cheese Stands Alone

The movement for higher education to divest from fossil fuel producers frustrates me. First and foremost in the way that participants in the movement are anointing themselves as sole moral paragons struggling through a wasteland of sin and sinners.

I think right now the country has its hands full enough with one small minority with strong views asserting the unconstrained right to have those views be the only possible or permissible policy controlling the future of the whole.

There may be times where that’s the only righteous position to take, that you stand on principle even if you’re against the entire world. You’d better be damn sure that you are absolutely and unambiguously right, that there’s not even a smidgen of legitimacy in any opposition, and that there are no alternatives left. Because quite aside from the privilege you’re asserting, quite aside from the emotional risks of perilously narcissistic high self-regard, voluntarily casting yourself in the role of Will Kane in “High Noon” is usually lousy politics. In any circumstance possible you’d rather the whole town turn out to support you and be generally vigilant against outlaws. That’s much better than perpetually rushing to lock yourself into engaging in an endless series of lone shoot-outs with an army of bandits while everyone else huddles in the saloon, has a drink, and waits for the hubbub to be over.

I’ve read advocates for divestment protesting that their case is proven beyond any shadow of a doubt and thus to oppose divestment is the moral equivalent of personally upending a barrel of sour crude on a sack of baby kittens. I think what they are often doing is transposing the moral and empirical certainty of the first part of a long chain of thinking onto the last part of the chain.

Here’s how I think the chain is structured.

1. Climate change is real.

Yes. Facts are proven here to my satisfaction, the satisfaction of 98% of scientists, and I suspect to the satisfaction of most of the Board of Managers of Swarthmore and other colleges and universities.

2. Climate change is anthropogenic.

With you so far.

3. Fossil fuel production and use is THE major contributor to anthropogenic climate change and has additional destructive effects on global environments.

Yup, completely right.

4. Fossil fuel producing corporations are profitable in significant measure because of a dense infrastructure of governmental subsidies (by both the US government and other world governments.) The real or ‘natural’ price of fossil fuel production (even without a carbon tax to build environmental damage into that price) would make alternative energy instantly competitive.

I think you’d get a lot of consensus on this point, even from (gasp) economists. This is pretty much where Bill McKibben’s initial argument for divestment started: this is the political problem he wants to solve.

5. In the medium-term fossil fuel corporations are a bad investment risk because climate change is real. They’re bound to fail as business ventures, maybe some of them quite soon.

This seems a fair point to me. Though in a way I’m not sure that anybody investing in any market is really thinking any longer about the medium-term viability of their investments. Folks really don’t buy IBM at a couple of bucks and hold on to it for thirty years now. That’s not a good change but it maybe is what it is. Still, if this is part of the argument for SRI funds, that they’re trying to return to the kind of capitalism that looks prudentially at the long-term, it’s a worthy argument. It also runs into the difficulty that many institutions depend on annual investment returns for annual budgets, however. As long as endowment income is part of your needs for this year and not just part of your model for the next twenty, this is going to be at best a partially persuasive claim.

6. We can’t afford to wait for fossil fuel producers to fail. They need to be stripped of their subsidies and protection and only strong political pressure from a large number of mobilized Americans will make that possible.

Right with you on this point. Only right about here I begin to think we’re heading into territory where there are other branches that could be plausibly followed from #1-5. For example, you could argue that the best thing to do is fight even harder for a carbon tax, to give even more generous subsidies to alternative energy and energy research, (as arguably the Chinese government has done to solar panel production), or to be far more aggressive about strategies for reducing carbon footprints or all of the above. E.g., an intensely exclusive focus on stripping fossil fuel producers of their political protection is at least debatable.

7. The best way to create strong political pressure is by changing the image of fossil fuel producers in public culture. The more that they are seen as moral anathema, a dirty and destructive industry that is putting billions of lives at risk, and a “welfare queen” that is only profitable because of corrupt manipulation of the political system, the more likely it is that Americans will demand the removal of governmental support for fossil fuels.

Ok. Here I think there’s still a pretty good argument to be made, but now we’re getting into territory where there is a very long history of disagreement even between otherwise progressive, leftist or liberal thinkers and activists, as well as a very wide range of models for political action that apply across the political spectrum. “Changing the image” of some facet of everyday culture is demonstrably a very hard thing to accomplish under the best of circumstances, and most of the successful examples (including making the apartheid state a global pariah or making tobacco companies look like bad guys) took decades of highly coordinated efforts across a wide range of initiatives to accomplish. There’s almost no examples of this kind of outcome happening quickly and almost no examples of it happening because of efforts originating from a narrow institutional or social base. In other words, we have now very clearly left the realm of empirically demonstrable facts and are now in the realm of very clearly debatable political and philosophical choices.

8. The best way to begin the process of changing the image of fossil fuel producers and/or bring pressure upon those companies is for colleges and universities to divest their endowments from those companies.

Wait, what? At least tell me either what else you’re doing right now, or what you’re going to do next towards the objective of #7.

Here’s at least some of what I think is debatable or arguable by any standard about #8:

Are institutions that are already regarded as liberal and leftist in American public culture really the best, first place to start a campaign to change the culture or bring political pressure? We can’t even win out in domains that are at the heart of our professional practices where we have decades of cultural capital built up in the public eye and with a Presidential Administration that ought to be at least moderately sympathetic to us. How are we going to win hearts and minds on something like “the image of fossil fuel producers” if we can’t easily win hearts and minds on something like “it is a good thing to study anthropology or philosophy when you are an undergraduate”?

Fossil fuel producers aren’t even going to be minimally inconvenienced financially by divestment, so this brings no additional pressure on them besides having higher education denounce them as morally repugnant.

Plus this doesn’t actually deal with a huge source of fossil fuel production in the world, which is state institutions, not private ones. To really impinge on actual fossil fuel production, this campaign would have to do more than strip away political support for U.S. government subsidies, it would have to push the U.S. government towards regarding big state-driven fossil fuel production as a reason to limit its commercial and political relationships with those state producers. And higher education would need to “divest” from foreign governments as well as corporate producers. (Curiously enough, I think this could directly sting those governments far more than it would hurt companies, but at the cost of being crudely nationalistic and nativist.)

All of these debatable points and others precede any discussion about whether divestment costs an institution some money or not.

Last in the chain of reasoning:

9. Divestment won’t hurt the institutions that do it, or if it does, it won’t hurt them much, or if it hurts them much, the contribution it makes to making fossil fuel companies into moral pariahs is worth it, or if it doesn’t make much of a contribution to that objective, who cares anyway because these institutions and their managers and administrations and employees and students are just part of the same political economy and society that sustains destructive fossil fuel production.


Ok! Here I beg to differ, but more importantly, here I cannot even begin to understand how even the most modest of these propositions (“divestment won’t cost money”) can be offered as a ABSOLUTE FACT BECAUSE THE EXPERTS SAY SO AND IF YOU DISAGREE YOU ARE SO MORALLY WRONG THAT ANY ACTION AGAINST YOU IS JUSTIFIED. At best, it’s a valid debate (meaning that no projection of costs or no costs can just claim to be QED, including assertions of a cost of $200 million etc.).

But when we get past the point that it won’t cost to the back-up arguments of some divestment advocates that the costs will be pretty small, or the institutions are so rich that they can bear the costs, or the costs could be large but this is more important than anything else, or the costs could be large but the institutions themselves are so unimportant that who cares about them anyway, things get really dicey. This is precisely the moment where I see the high-stakes certainties and moral urgency of the first few arguments in this long chain being very casually swapped into the really tenuous or contentious reasoning of the last links in the chain. For example, for everything from #1-8 to hold water, virtually all of higher education needs to divest. Can all of higher education absorb the costs, if there are any? No. Casually mapping the financial situation of Swarthmore College or Harvard University onto less wealthy private colleges and universities, let alone publics, is about as privileged an assumption as you can make. But arguments #7-8 really don’t hold any water if it’s just the wealthiest institutions that divest.

Arguing that even wealthy institutions can live with smaller rates of return, smaller rates of growth in the principal of their endowment, or even with cutting into the principal if need be is…well, it’s true in the sense that if any of those things were to happen, they wouldn’t disappear in a puff of smoke tomorrow. But it’s not true if by that you mean, “They would not have to make decisions about ongoing commitments that would require limiting or eliminating some activities.” Swarthmore, for example, is in the middle of adding a number of staff positions so that it responds more effectively and aggressively to sexual assault. That’s why budgets have grown in most of higher education: a larger and larger number of functions, tasks and responsibilities that either higher education believes it must respond to or that it is mandated to respond to by other institutions (like the government). Colleges and universities have grown because services and products have gotten more expensive, which hits especially hard in a labor-intensive industry and even harder on a labor-intensive approach to a labor-intensive industry (which is what a small liberal-arts college focusing on teaching is).

Meaning that this whole argument isn’t really serious unless it concedes at least some possibility that the approach will have costs, that it is worth actually comparing the possible costs of the approach compared to the proclaimed costs of not-divesting, and worth clarifying whether there is actually anything about higher education in and of itself that the advocates of divestment value independent of its imagined utility for wounding fossil fuel producers.

But more important, it’s pretty hard to deal with a preemptive declaration that any dissent with any part of this chain of reasoning makes one guilty of dissenting against every link in the chain, therefore only those who follow the whole chain are righteously responding to climate change. And that those who have that righteousness on their side are therefore entitled to have their will and only their will enacted no matter who disagrees and no matter which processes stand in their way. If that’s true, there’s a long line of small groups, factions and pluralities (and maybe even a few majorities) who are similarly convinced of their righteousness who would have every reason to assert the same privilege to determine outcomes, whatever the existing deliberative structures and decision-making norms might be. The only argument you really have against those other groups at that moment is that you’re absolutely right and they (whomever they are) are absolutely not. Which is, by the way, one of the reasons that the federal government has been closed for the last two days.

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5 Responses to The Cheese Stands Alone

  1. Justin says:

    Am with you but the argument seems a lot simpler to me. 1. Don’t like oil companies. 2. Anything that (seemingly) hurts them without (seeming to) hurt me much = jackpot. Anyone hesitant about 2. must also be hesitant about 1. and not hating oil companies at Swarthmore = obviously evil dingus.

    Too cynical?

    Just found the blog. Really like it.

  2. DensityDuck says:

    I find it amusing that you consider the Chinese government’s subsidies of solar-panel production to be based in environmental concerns, rather than a market-capture effort.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t consider it to have anything to do with environmental concerns. The point is that market-capture looks a lot better when the market for solar improves further–already there’s a lot of installation of solar going on because Chinese overproduction has pushed the price low enough to be worth it. If the folks who point out that fossil fuels are at a lower price than they should be due to existing governmental subsidies (US and otherwise) are right, if even a few of those subsidies were removed, then solar and other non-fossil fuel might be even more favored in price terms.

  4. Barry says:

    “I think right now the country has its hands full enough with one small minority with strong views asserting the unconstrained right to have those views be the only possible or permissible policy controlling the future of the whole. ”

    Wrong. We’re suffering from the fact that (a) they’ll use all methods (including illegal ones, such as voter suppression) to get their way, no matter who gets hurt, and (b) they have the backing of powerful interests.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    So it’s ok if you use most methods, if not all, regardless of the damage that follows, and you’re relatively weak?

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