You know when you see an article titled “Why Stanford Should Keep Its Coal Stocks” presented by Shell, it might be a good idea to question the content. But let’s ignore for a minute the somewhat disappointing “Partner Content” nature of the “article” and just focus on the content. The argument is a common one begging for a counterargument.
David Gross argues that divestment is a “passive-aggressive act” that “isn’t particularly effective.” Let me correct one thing first: divestment is not passive-aggressive. In fact, it’s quite aggressive. And that’s exactly what we’re going for. Gross points out that students at universities with divestment campaigns (in essence, all U.S. university students) are hypocritical:
“When students at Stanford and Harvard power up their computers, charge up their iPhones, gas up their Toyota Priuses, turn on their air conditioners, or fly to Cancun for spring break, they’re participating in the fossil fuel economy—to a far greater extent than they would by owning a few hundred shares of any particular company…Breaking the link between fossil fuel and our energy-fueled lifestyle requires a certain amount of self-abnegation. Bike, don’t drive. Travel less. But it also requires breakthroughs in research, and changes in policy and market structure.”
I don’t think I’m stretching the metaphor by saying that Gross’ suggestion of “self-abnegation” is a form of victim-blaming. I don’t mean to say that individuals’ choices don’t affect our status as a fossil-fuel economy, but I do think that there are higher institutional (read: corporate) powers at work.
We are stuck in a vicious cycle: our viable choices for lifestyle in this country (which, unfortunately, includes the use of electricity, a car or at least public transit, and large agribusiness) include fossil fuels because those companies’ product (fossil fuels) have become ingrained in our economy through a set of path-dependency mechanisms over which we no longer have that much control. Those companies became extremely powerful because they provide a product that we all have grown to need. Now, as we want to move away from the product and toward alternative forms of energy, the companies’ power in our economy and over our government prohibits us from doing so (there is a reason why Shell is powerful enough to insert an article into the Daily Beast, and a reason why the Keystone XL Pipeline was not immediately dismissed as an antiquated proposal). While our government stalls on initiatives to move away from fossil fuels and incentives to invest in renewable energy out of fear, citizens are by and large stuck using fossil fuels just to get by. Tell us to bike all you want, but that is too little, too late to change our trajectory as we face immense global climate change.
Vicious cycles are vicious for a reason, and it is easy for Gross to dismiss the divestment tactic as a “passive-aggressive” and “ineffective” one. The only way to break a vicious cycle, though, is to block something somewhere in the circle. Environmentalists have tried everything to create roadblocks elsewhere in that circle: by trying to create a carbon tax (failed due to fearful government), by encouraging people to use hybrid or electric cars (a better solution, though they financially are out of reach for many people thanks to the power of the fossil fuel industry), etc. Environmentalists are left needing to use a more drastic roadblock tactic: stopping the fossil fuel companies through divestment. The purpose of divestment is to put the people and the money in the way of the cycle. It will not stop the cycle immediately, but it will be at the least an inconvenience, and at the most, it will be the man standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square.
The fossil fuel companies are trying to blame individual citizens for not stopping the vicious cycle since people have not been able to “will” themselves away from fossil fuels. It’s like blaming someone for not being able to stop a highway’s traffic flow with one traffic cone. So instead, environmentalists realized they could use universities and their endowments as a much larger, more public, more wealthy roadblock. And guess what? It’s working.
As I mentioned in my last post, one of the big purposes behind divestment is making a hell of a lot of noise. Shell wouldn’t address the issue in a poorly disguised “article” if it weren’t a little bit scared, and divestment wouldn’t be appearing frequently in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Bloomberg, and more if it weren’t making an impact. We have to create a roadblock somewhere in this vicious cycle of being a fossil fuel society. Twenty years ago, lawmakers and investors could have put in other roadblocks through stricter emissions laws and by investing more in renewable energy. Now that we have missed that chance, a roadblock will have to come from the people, and it is coming in the form of divestment. I do not mean to say that other initiatives to create a more sustainable society are not vital; in fact, they are. But we have also reached a point where we must go beyond recycling bins and the occasional bike-to-work day and must not be afraid to use divestment as the powerful roadblock tool that it is.