The big rage among the enviro left on campus today is to pressure universities to divest their endowments of all stock holdings in “fossil fuel” companies. (I put “fossil fuels” in quotation marks for a reason: see the addendum below.) Plainly this is a page borrowed from the divest South Africa movement of the 1980s.
Harvard has had a look at the idea and said, “No, thanks.” President Drew Faust’s message released yesterday follows the party line on how seriously we must all be bummed out over climate change, but can’t avoid acknowledging the unseriousness of the divestment campaign, tacitly admitting that the whole idea is more about feeling good about our own moral purity than doing something real about the issue:
I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day. Given our pervasive dependence on these companies for the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances, it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.
I wonder if Faust is tiring of Harvard’s presidency, and phoned Larry Summers for advice on how to get fired. I’ll add that I’ve often said that if the climate divesters were serious, they’d be calling on their campuses to eschew all forms of fossil fuel energy on their campuses, and replaced them 100 percent with “renewables.” And watch their tuition skyrocket even more. This suggestion is met with silent glares or a change of subject. Heh.
Addendum: “Fossil fuels” is one of those formulas that is clearly intended to portray our principal energy sources as obsolete, etc. You wouldn’t want to be an “old fossil” would you? But it isn’t entirely accurate. It is more precise to refer to oil, gas, and coal as hydrocarbon energy, because it is the hydrocarbon molecule, not the residue of an old seashell, that provides the energy. Corn ethanol is a hydrocarbon, but we don’t call it ia “fossil fuel” do we, even though it comes from the husks of corn just as oil comes from the husks of bacterial creatures. They’re both organic in origin. (We’ll leave aside for now Thomas Gold’s hypothesis about the possible abiotic origins of oil and gas.)
This raises a question for the divesters: Suppose Exxon-Mobil succeeds in making algae- biofuels? It would be the ideal renewable fuel, but still a hydrocarbon. And just who would look like an old fossil then?