FOSSIL FUEL DIVESTMENT: EMPTY SYMBOLISM?

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Dartmouth is the most recent locus of the fossil fuel divestment campaign. I’ve got to admit I have mixed feelings about 350.org’s whole “fossil free” divestment movement. It’s a great way to get people engaged and involved, and to tap into the energy of students who want to relive the glories of past activist movements.

But the logic behind divestment doesn’t really work. The logic has to go 1) Universities and pension funds sell of their fossil fuel stocks, 2) the value of those stocks drops incrementally and fossil fuel companies become social pariahs, 3) ???????, and 4) fossil fuel company management decides to leave fossil fuels in the ground and go bankrupt instead of continuing to make money for their remaining shareholders by meeting the global demand for gas, coal, and oil. I don’t see how to fill in step 3) or anything that gets to step 4) other than a global ban on fossil fuels.

I’ll admit that the moral logic of divestiture activism by fossil fuel consumers also escapes me — it has to go something like this: 1) Extracting and selling fossil fuels is morally reprehensible (like apartheid) because the burning of fossil fuels causes catastrophic climate change that will destroy lives and ecosystems around the globe; 2) participating in this reprehensible enterprise by owning and profiting from investments is also reprehensible; 3) burning fossil fuels (which everyone who drives a gas or diesel car does) is not morally reprehensible, because using fossil fuels is (apparently) an absolute necessity; 4) producing and selling a product that our society (apparently) considers an absolute necessity is nevertheless morally reprehensible because (??????).

Why aren’t we organizing for a global ban on fossil fuels?

Although the fossil free movement likes to draw parallels to the anti-apartheid South African divestment movement, the apartheid protestors did not cover themselves with blood diamonds during their student years. University presidents can’t help pointing out the irony of privileged college students driving their fossil fueled cars around campus, while demanding an end to fossil fuel investments. As the Swarthmore Board of Managers put it:

Divestment’s potential success as a moral response is limited-if not completely negated-so long as its advocates continue to turn on the lights, drive cars, and purchase manufactured goods, for it is these activities that constitute the true drivers of fossil fuel companies’ economic viability-their profits. It is important that we ourselves acknowledge that our consumption of energy makes us complicit in the threat to the planet and that it is in our hands to reduce our demand for it.

Defenders of divestment as a strategy acknowledge these limits and point to the moral, organizational, and symbolic value in divestment. But there is a huge risk in devoting a movement to purely symbolic goals. The temperance movement has been analyzed as a movement devoted to symbolic goals rather than actually responding to any grievances. This may be why Prohibition failed.

So how about my own fossil-free stunt for Earth Week? Empty symbolism?

I’d like to think not, of course. It’s true that my own modest abstention from fossil fuels for the week has not lead to a decline in the profitability of fossil companies. But living without is liberating — I feel comfortable advocating for $15 a gallon gasoline because, frankly, it wouldn’t make a difference in my life. People whose lifestyle is dependent on the availability of artificially cheap fossil fuel energy have even more of a vested interest in continued fossil fuel production as a university with a small portion of its portfolio in ExxonMobil shares. Like the temperance movement, their support for the cause may evaporate once the cause starts to affect them personally.

If I can go for a week without any fossil fuels and be happy, then I could probably go for two weeks, or a month, or a year. Going without for a week reminds of those few things I still rely on fossil fuels for (hot water, driving long distances — both replaceable now or in the near future). We all have to start somewhere.

Meanwhile, this move by 350.org is a move towards more direct direct action, and can only be a good thing.

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