Forget everything you thought you knew about why Middlebury College must divest. It is not about abandoning profitable investments for moral reasons. It is about abandoning investments with little hope of future growth. It is about getting out of a bubble that is about to burst.
Last year, we watched as the movement grew from a niche concern into the mainstream of campus dialogue. The rationale initially focused on the need to send a signal to the oil companies and to the world that we will not profit – that it is abhorrent to profit – from their conscious engineering of a warmer, more dangerous planet. It was moral crusade and, so, a quixotic one; in a world driven by quarterly or even hourly investment numbers, concern over the bottom line usually wins out. Early on in the divestment movement, even the most diehard supporters conceded that there had to be some financial cost to sustainable investment paradigms. This concession was based on a consensus belief about the absurd profitability of the oil industry.
This belief does not hold up to reality.
Research done by Standard and Poors, MCSI, the Associated Press, and other respected sources has shown that fossil fuel companies were mediocre investments all along. They do well in boom times but are extremely volatile, too connected to the whims of dictators, the news of the day, or even the weather. An endowment that excluded the stocks of oil majors over the last decade would have grown by a larger amount than one that included them. Continue reading
Many of the opponents of fossil fuel divestment on college campuses, including here at Middlebury, like to attempt to counter arguments in favor of action by claiming that the whole process is a waste of time. I have to admit that I originally fell into this camp. A year ago, it seemed like the latest quixotic cause du jour: something that would inflame the activist crowd for a few weeks and then fade away.
It didn’t, and it shouldn’t.
To be fair, a lot of the arguments initially made by divestment supporters played right into this case. They’d say that divestment would affect the share price of oil companies or cause their CEOs to take climate change seriously. Or they’d argue that divestment will somehow lead to a renewed interest in cap-and-trade in Congress. Unfortunately, neither of these arguments make much sense. So opponents would point out the lack of a connection and use that to claim that the whole issue was a waste of time. They’d suggest that we leave our investments to the ‘professionals,’ and focus on those actual issues.
But the truth is, the fossil fuel divestment is an effective use of the time and passions of collegiate climate activists, partly because of a lack of better options. What issue should we fight for, if not this one? Raising climate change awareness? It’s 2013. We are aware. You are aware. Even Steve King is aware; he just chooses to ignore reality. Replacing light bulbs and appliances with more efficient versions? Schools like Middlebury and Hobart and William Smith have already taken a lead on this. They’ve created positions for sustainability directors to oversee these efforts. Getting to carbon neutrality? Again, forward-thinking liberal arts colleges have already made carbon neutrality goals and plans, and getting there is now a technical challenge rather than a matter for continued lobbying of the Administration and Trustees. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
The informational meeting about Middlebury’s endowment last week might have been more at home in a government intelligence agency than a liberal arts institution; non-answers and obfuscation ruled the afternoon. At one point, Investure “client relations” analyst and apparent sacrificial lamb Oliver Platts-Mills, clearly frustrated by the unexpected hostility sweeping through the packed auditorium assured the group of concerned students that “if there’s a company out there right now that you think is a good company, we own it.” Later, he defended himself by informing the bemused crowd that we’d all be super impressed with the companies in the endowment, if only he could tell us what they were. Next time I’m in a job interview or on a date, I think I’ll try a similar line and see how well it goes over.