By Contributor on August 17, 2014

By Bill McKibben

Over the last eighteen months, the effort to get colleges and universities to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stock has gained amazing momentum.

Oxford University called it the fastest-growing such effort in history. Plenty of colleges have shed their stock, beginning with tiny Unity College in Maine and running right up to mighty Stanford (endowment $18.7 billion, a number that would surely make that nineteenth-century robber baron Leland Stanford proud!).

But there have been plenty of rejections too, mostly from rich and powerful institutions at the heart of the liberal establishment. Their presidents have published open letters with a similar combination of earnest concern (Harvard’s Drew Faust: “Climate change represents one of the world’s most consequential challenges”) and unwillingness to act (“We should be very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution”).

Similar sentiments have been expressed by a variety of college presidents, at institutions like Vassar, Swarthmore, Middlebury, and Brown.

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The letter from Brown President Christina Paxson may provide the single best example of the sophistry necessary to avoid engaging in the climate fight. Brown students, with great moderation, had asked for the divestment of only coal stocks, since this is the dirtiest of all the hydrocarbons. And they had carefully gone through the approved channels, taking their case in great detail to the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies, which, after more than a year of hearings and meetings, found that “the harms associated with these companies’ business practices are so grave that it would be deeply unethical for Brown to continue to profit from them.”

In the few occasions in the past when the committee had recommended such action, the college’s trustees had com-plied, but in this case Brown balked. Paxson reasoned that “coal provides needed energy for millions of people through-out the world,” and hence “a cessation to the production and use of coal would itself create significant economic and social harm.” But of course no one thinks, or could think, that Brown’s divestment from coal companies would some-how cause coal use to cease; all it would do is help reshape the political environment so that there was some chance coal use doesn’t continue unhindered for decades to come. “Our consideration of divestment is over,” Paxson said, adding that the campus would work to reduce its carbon footprint, just as Faust promised that it would give “awards to recognize ‘heroes’ who are helping to make Harvard green,” and Swarthmore’s board proposed a one-day-a-week “energy sabbath” where students would use less electricity. Such measures fail to get at the systemic and structural problems that keep the planet warming.

This basic unwillingness to acknowledge that the way you invest your money inevitably makes you a political actor does not befit the intelligence of the college presidents making the argument.

Harvard’s Faust, for example, is an eminent historian of slavery, and a remarkably fine writer. Her essays inThe New York Review of Books show a mind and pen far nimbler and broader-ranging than the average academic. So it’s hard to imagine that she really believes selling the oil stocks in Harvard’s vast portfolio would “instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution” but that buying them in the first place would be a politically neutral act.

If you own Exxon, you own part of a company that’s made huge contributions to climate-denier “think tanks,” and whose CEO explicitly told Chinese leaders in the late 1990s to ignore climate change (the globe was cooling, he insisted) and go full speed ahead on fossil fuel. If you own Chevron, you helped make the largest corporate campaign donation post-Citizens United, two weeks before the last federal election, a gift designed to make sure that the House stayed in the hands of people who think physics is some kind of liberal plot.

Over time, Harvard and the rest will divest. It took them a decade to even partially sell their racist South African stock, but I bet this will go more quickly. It will go more quickly because arguments travel more quickly now. The amazing students around the country who are pressing this campaign have the technological tools for minute-by-minute coordination. It will move more quickly because it’s abundantly clear that those students are actually doing their endowments a favor by warning them off fossil fuel stocks. If and when the world actually tackles climate change, their values will start to fall, as analysts at far left institutions like HSBC Bank have made clear.

Mostly, though, this fight will go more quickly because Mother Nature is increasingly cutting through every last bit of the self-serving nonsense that the do-nothings have been putting out. Faust, for instance, said Harvard would use its endowment only on issues of fundamental importance. The answer from the Antarctic: The news that the great ice sheet had begun an irreversible melt, adding ten feet to projections of sea level rise. Harvard owns a piece of that flood,and a piece of the typhoon that slammed into the Philip-pines last fall, leaving millions homeless, and a piece of the massive drought now cauterizing California. At a certain point, the moral pressure will simply get too great, and they and the others will act.

And when they do, it won’t solve global warming. But it will weaken the political hand of the bad guys, and give us a better shot at applying science and reason to the greatest crisis we’ve ever faced.

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Bill McKibben is founder of 350.org, the global climate campaign.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).


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