Divestment is No Excuse for Inaction

It became clear in just a few days here over J-term that the issue of divestment has captured the imagination of the Middlebury population. In a school full of aspiring investors, targeting the endowment is a clever approach, and divestment is not a bad idea. It is the height of hypocrisy to rail against climate change while using the enormous value of the companies that enable it as the source of our funding, akin to a police officer driving drunk or a minister with a mistress. When we profit from the success of oil and coal companies, any carbon emissions that we achieve as a community are essentially greenwashing, a gesture devoid of meaning. The students who pitched the concept to the trustees last weekend have worked hard to make their case to the broader community and to ensure that the change wouldn’t hurt the College’s bottom line. If all goes well, the trustees will respond favorably in the coming weeks and we can jump into new issues with equal enthusiasm. What we cannot do is to declare victory and then return to complacency.

It is important to ensure that we do not become so caught up in this one issue that we lose focus on the things that we can change within our own lives and as a community to reduce the impact of global climate change. If successful, divestment will earn Middlebury headlines from this paper and many more national outlets. It will bring years of positive publicity to this institution and bring our funding in line with our goals. But at the same time, buying a share of ExxonMobile, or AEP or Chesapeake does not bring those companies a dime. Their funding comes not from the stock market but from the fuel that we purchase.

Divestment has important symbolic value but will neither fix climate change nor bankrupt the dealers that exist purely to respond to our addiction to cheap and dirty energy. We cannot turn to divestment simply because changing our own habits is too difficult or because it provides the enormous battle against global climate catastrophe with an easily defined villain. To sit back and attack them while we use their product every day is an even worse form of hypocrisy than to take their money while trying to break the addiction — the moral equivalent of a heroin addict taking pot shots at his dealer while mainlining his product.

Divestment may have helped to end apartheid in South Africa, according to Desmond Tutu, but in that case, companies targeted by disgruntled investors could simply shift their operations in order to avoid patronizing a racist regime. Enterprises that exist exclusively to produce oil have no such flexibility; even BP no longer pretends to be “beyond petroleum.” The only product they produce is one that we must soon finish consuming.

Divestment may have helped to remove the social license for tobacco companies to operate, reducing them to second-class corporate citizens with little public support or lobbying pull. But without public antismoking campaigns, it would have accomplished nothing other than to make their stock a cheaper purchase for less scrupulous investors. And still, even here in the Middlebury bubble, far too many students who know about the dangers of tobacco can’t resist the occasional cigarette, or two, or five. Unfortunately, the same goes for gasoline.

Let’s not pretend that climate change will be defeated by lurching between sexy sideshows that require little from the average person beyond vague outrage. The only way to truly cut into the obscene profits of oil companies is to cease buying their product. We need to turn off the lights and the unused electronics in our dorm rooms, and close our windows when the heat is on. We must choose to walk or ride bikes instead of driving, to put solar panels on our roofs and to install wind turbines in our fields and backyards. We need to ensure that Middlebury actually accomplishes the goal of becoming carbon neutral. Some of these steps are challenging and may require expensive upfront investments. But all are entirely possible with today’s technology if we remain focused and committed, recognizing that measures like divestment are just small stepping stones along the way and that corporations are not solely to blame. They would have no influence without eager customers for their product.

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