Campus Energy Divestment: A Mistaken Legacy of the Anti-Apartheid Movement

Aug 28, 2014 | 

Caleb Rossiter

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Campus Energy Divestment: A Mistaken Legacy of the Anti-Apartheid Movement

Aug 28, 2014 | 

Caleb Rossiter



A year after being released from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela flew to Houston as a personal favor to a long-time financial supporter of his African National Congress.  Dominique de Menil had asked him to speak at the human rights center she had founded, the Rothko Chapel, as part of a ceremony honoring six priests who were assassinated in 1989 by U.S.-trained soldiers in El Salvador.  These Jesuit professors at the University of Central America had been murdered for trying to do what Mandela was doing in South Africa, negotiating an end to a horrific civil war.  

I had recently left the staff of a congressional caucus that had collaborated with Mrs. de Menil on efforts to end the Salvadoran war, and I had become a consultant at her center.  Taking advantage of this rare chance to talk with Mandela, I told him that as a college student in the 1970s I had joined others in trying, unsuccessfully, to push Cornell University to divest its holdings in companies doing business in South Africa, and that as a congressional staffer I had worked, successfully, on the 1986 law barring American investment there.  “Ah, those wonderful college students and their divestment movement,” replied Mandela, his voice rising and his eyes lighting up.  “The way they built those shanty towns on campuses to shame their elders!  Without them, I would still be on Robben Island.” 

Mandela was being politic and polite, since there were many stars that had to align to convince white South Africans that it would be better for their future to have the non-white majority voting, rather than continuing to march, disrupt, and call on the international community to ratchet up trade and investment sanctions.  But there was fundamental truth in his remark.  If ever there was a protest movement that had an obvious effect, it was campus divestment. 

Republican senators who were crucial to the unlikely override of President Reagan’s veto of the anti-apartheid act’s ban on new investment cited the constant pressure from student protestors.  Today’s Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, complained that he couldn’t have gotten into University of Kentucky football games without going through the shanty town that students had set up outside the stadium.  He reversed his position and supported the override.  As was the case during protests against the Vietnam War, college administrators and boards of trustees urged politicians to surrender to the protestors’ demands not because they agreed with them, but because they feared losing control of their campuses.  In this case, they also feared losing control of their endowments.  

Sanctioning Carbon

Today another divestment movement is underway on American campuses.  This one calls on universities to sell off their stock in carbon-based, or “fossil fuel,” energy companies, meaning those that extract, process, or sell coal, oil, or natural gas.  When burned, these forms of energy emit gases that trap heat in the atmosphere because they vibrate at some of the same frequencies as the infra-red waves through which heat leaves the earth’s atmosphere.  The supporters of energy divestment claim a legacy from the anti-apartheid movement, saying they are again protecting Africans from the negative effects of selfish American interests. 

Prominent anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu, the archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, has called on universities to join “an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet.”  In a Guardian opinion piece with that title on April10, 2014, he argued that, “we have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth.”  In Dissent magazine’s April 2014 issue, Kate Aronof of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network wrote that the “divestment movement seeks to replicate the successes of the anti-apartheid movement by situating universities as one of many targets.”

Under apartheid, the American interests were corporate profits and the apartheid government’s support for anti-Soviet regimes in southern Africa.  The African effects included financial support for violent race rule that entrenched poverty and inequality.  Today, the new divesters say, the American interests are corporate profits and access to sources of energy.  The Divest Fossil Fuels website of WeArePowershift.org calls “on mission-driven institutions to divest from the dirty, dangerous fossil fuel companies that have caused climate catastrophe in their ruthless pursuit of profit.” 

The African effects are again said to include financial support for violent rule that entrenches poverty and inequality.  Nevertheless, because many of the energy dictators already receive U.S. government funding in return for their cooperation in information-sharing and covert action against Islamist militants, the corporate energy royalties and payoffs are often redundant.  The primary driver of divestment is instead the belief that emissions from carbon-based energy are warming the air and the seas, and that the warming results in rising seas that flood coastal cities on the Indian Ocean and the Bight of Benin, and in crop-killing droughts and more malaria.

I am a supporter of universities using economic tools, such as divestment and boycotts, to achieve social justice.  Some administrators argue that it is not appropriate for universities to take institutional stands on social and political issues, but universities effectively make such judgments with every choice in their curriculum.  If universities don’t try to identify the good and support it, they can never in turn teach their students how to do so, which was the purpose of Plato’s teaching in the original grove of Academus, and has been a purpose of the academy ever since. 

Some administrators argue that economic sanctions rarely work, since other economic players will simply replace those who divest or boycott, but movements need victories like people need oxygen, and those victories need not be perfectly effective to gain great benefits.  Pressure built on the U.S. government to stop using napalm and cluster bombs in Vietnam because of divestment campaigns aimed at Dow Chemical and Honeywell.  Cesar Chavez’s farm-workers benefited from a boycott of grapes, democracy in Chile was promoted by a boycott on wine, the Salvadoran peace process was boosted by a boycott on coffee, and white South Africans were convinced by divestment and bans on international sporting competition to agree to democracy.  In none of these cases were the sanctions more than an economic irritant, but in all of them they became a political juggernaut. 

Opponents of sanctions can always point out their inconsistencies, like global warming alarmists driving, flying, and cooling as much as the rest of us, or Vietnam anti-war protestors being motivated by their or their loved ones’ low draft number for forced enlistment.  Such little hypocrisies, though, are just the inevitable chaff that comes with the great harvest of wheat that sanctions can bring.  

Still, proposed sanctions need to make sense.  For example, they worked in reducing human rights abuses and softening military rule in Burma recently, but they have failed to do anything in Sudan but increase the misery of the average citizen, who has no control over the government that is committing abuses in Darfur.  Students and staff demanding energy divestment and the administrators and boards who are considering acceding to their demands should act with the scholarly seriousness appropriate to their institution.  If they review the evidence and assess costs and benefits they will find that for developed countries, divestment’s goal of a reduction in industrial emissions of heat-trapping gases is almost certainly a non-solution to what is most likely a non-problem.  And they will find that for Africans it is a needless death sentence. 

First, let us consider the purported climate changes.  As a statistics professor I have assigned hundreds of papers in which students contrast the dramatic claims of carbon-based emissions causing climate catastrophe that are made by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with the journal articles it cites as sources.  My students start by digging through the data on drought frequency, sea levels, and malarial range, and learn that these are even more difficult than temperatures to collect accurately over the period of time needed to rule out natural trends and fluctuations. 

Then the students analyze the statistical studies that assess causality between the shaky data sets of temperature and climate change.  These studies, by the way, simply accept the dubious assumption that temperature is largely driven by industrial emissions of heat-trapping gases.  This assumption relies on heavily-manipulated computer models that are unable to incorporate natural trends and fluctuations, because their physics and interactions remain mysterious. 

When they are finished with their papers, my students are invariably troubled that the IPCC has systematically exaggerated tentative, weak, exploratory, and local research into sweeping claims of a global climate doom that is falling most heavily on the blameless Africans.  Let’s be clear about this: there is little evidence that Africa has been harmed by the one degree rise in average global temperature from 1860 to 2000 (a rise, by the way, that the IPCC itself says has paused for the past 15 years), or that the one degree rise has been mostly caused by energy emissions.

The African Death Sentence

 Now let us consider the African death sentence.  Like many other areas in the developing world, Africa has not achieved the carbon-based industrialization that has boosted education, comfort, income, and life expectancy to record levels in the developed world.  Even if Africa did make the leap, it would still account for about five percent of global emissions.

The unintended consequences of the carbon-phobia of the intelligentsia in developed countries are already being felt in Africa.  Tanzanian peasants in the Kilwa region have a word in Swahili for “bio-fuel starvation,” which happens when European companies displace them from their farmlands so they can grow bio-fuels to profit from European Union requirements on “sustainable” fuel content.  They call it njaa ya Bioshape, after the Dutch company that went bankrupt  there trying to cash in on carbon credits and subsidies.  American environmental and development groups that are rightly protesting the bio-fuel invasions, which they call “land grabs,” are the very ones that pushed the carbon-phobic policies that brought on the problem in the first place.  Bio-fuel requirements have also driven up prices for food aid exports to the millions of international refugees and internally-displaced people generated every year by African civil wars.  

The greatest danger for Africans, though, is not in bio-fuels, carbon taxes for air transport on perishable African imports, or other minor irritations that developed countries have introduced to pretend they are reducing heat-trapping emissions, even as their emissions rise (as they do in all countries) with income and consumption.  The greatest danger for Africans is that their economic development is being derailed by a lack of reliable consumer and industrial electricity.  According to the World Bank, only 24 percent of Africans have access to electricity, which is being denied them on the basis of the supposed environmental dangers of electricity.  The rest must resort to burning dung and wood in their houses and huts, leading to horrific rates of lung disease. 

The typical African business loses power 56 days each year, severely constraining investment and output in commerce, agriculture, education, and industry.  Growth suffers, and because wealth allows people to live healthily, so does life expectancy.  Energy poverty is stunting the sort of economic growth that Africa needs if it is to move from 59 years of life expectancy to the 79 that China has achieved through 20 years of economic growth fueled by intense, government-backed promotion of carbon-based electrical capacity.  With almost a billion Africans alive today, that is about 20 billion years of life lost because of climate fears based on the IPCC’s weak evidence. 

Africa’s share of global gases is so small that it is almost irrelevant.  Despite having 15 percent of the world’s people, Africa produces five percent of heat-trapping gases, which is one-twentieth the per-person emissions of the average American and one-fifth that of the average Chinese.  Even years of solid economic growth driven by increased generation of electricity would leave Africa’s contribution to the global total still at around five percent, because economic growth in other countries will continue to drive up their emissions as well.

A precautionary principle is often cited as the justification for reducing by taxation, or even ending by edict, the use of carbon-based energy.  “We might be wrong about carbon-driven climate catastrophe,” goes the argument, “but it is prudent to raise the price of energy, reducing economic growth and employment along with emissions, in case we are right.”  Surely there should also be a precautionary principle about not derailing economic development for people who have not realized the life expectancy gains of carbon-based industrialization, particularly if their carbon production is comparatively minimal.

The American environmental groups who are pushing campus divestment clearly do not agree with this additional precautionary principle.  They have even lobbied the U.S. government and the multilateral agencies to which it contributes, like the World Bank, to ban lending for electrical generation if there are heat-trapping gases produced as a by-product.  To return to Mr. Mandela and his country, they do this even against the policies of South Africa’s democratically-elected government, which is building modern power plants so it can maintain its reputation for investors as a reliable industrial power, as well as reduce toxic power emissions that, unlike the heat-trapping emissions, directly damage human health.

“Sustainable” Divesting

University leaders facing divestment demands are caught in a logical trap of their own making.  Most universities have long since acceded to two fads that cannot withstand scientific and economic scrutiny, “sustainability” and “carbon neutrality.”  They have adopted the institutional position that the very future of mankind is threatened by harvesting and replanting trees to make writing paper and paper towels, or by burning coal, oil, or gas to keep scholars’ research facilities heated, cooled, lighted, and powered.  They have entire departments dedicated to spreading this position, and some even encourage professors to improve the grades of students attending demonstrations favoring taxes and regulations to enforce it.  For these universities, divesting their endowments from companies that log and drill makes all the sense in the world.

Consider Stanford, which became the fifth and largest university to agree to energy divestment in April 2014, when it ended ownership of coal, but not oil or gas, companies.   President John Hennessy argued that “Stanford has a responsibility as a global citizen to promote sustainability for our planet” and vice president for business development Susan L. Weinstein stated that while all fossil-fuel emissions "significantly contribute" to global climate change, coal was the most carbon-intensive.  The Environmental Studies program at the University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh advocates divestment with impeccable logic for campuses like Stanford that officially adopt the sustainability and climate hypotheses as proven: “Divestment centers on a simple question: should a university invest in companies whose practices, products, or impacts run counter to the university's stated values?”

Sustainability as a concept caught on in the 1970s, when the fears of environmentalists ironically included “global cooling” as well as the nuclear power that many are today endorsing for being emission-free, at least if you ignore the millions of years of radiation stored in the waste.  Sustainability is at its core a belief that increased human population and consumption are exhausting the world’s limited pool of resources.  This belief flies in the face of the evidence from the past five centuries of capitalist development.  Throughout this period, which includes much of the carbon energy age, human creativity has led to increased productivity, consistently making a mockery of such doomsday claims. 

Much of what is sustained by recycling resources is already sustainable.  Water is in most cases renewable -- it happens with every rainstorm, and has since the dawn of time.  Forests are completely renewable -- just plant a replacement and your grandchildren can harvest it.  Food is renewable–grow it, let the ground go fallow, grow it again, but this time even more efficiently with research-based improvements in fertilizer, seeds, and harvesting.  While carbon-based fuels are certainly being depleted faster than they are forming, research-based efficiencies in all parts of the energy cycle, from exploration to production to use, have dramatically pushed back the boundaries of the reserves available for human use by hundreds of years in the past 20 years alone.  You don’t save the planet by reusing and recycling, although you can save some money.

Carbon neutrality, a more recent concept, is an impossible goal in a carbon-based economy.  Everything on a campus, from people to bricks and mortar, was developed through carbon-based energy and got there on carbon-based transport.  Using scarce tuition funds to buy wind power credits or paying a higher electricity bill to fund “carbon capture” cannot begin to “offset” the carbon production inherent in the campus and the society it serves.  And how did the windmills and transmission lines get produced and installed anyway?  With carbon-based energy.  And what happens to most of the captured carbon dioxide from coal plants anyway?  It is injected into oil fields to boost their yield.  Better to use those tuition funds to buy electricity from the low-cost power sources we have today and use it to support researchers in the arts and sciences as they discover tomorrow’s low-cost power sources. 

Like the anti-apartheid divestment that Mandela promoted and celebrated, energy divestment will harm the poorest Africans first.  In fact, that is the very the purpose of economic sanctions, be they embargoes, boycotts, or divestment.  Sanctions are not sweet.  They are often implemented as an alternative to war, but they can be as brutal as military operations.  Sanctions are intended to disrupt the economy, which always harms the poor first and the powerful last.  A university divesting is just another owner dumping company stock.  The value falls and the company’s operations are curtailed.  If the energy divestment movement were to be successful, energy companies would have less capital to use in exploration, restricting supply and driving up the price of electricity and transport. 

The poor are, of course, the most sensitive to price increases, and would have to cut back on lighting and heating, and lose jobs as businesses cut back their payrolls to pay energy bills.  The African National Congress knew that anti-apartheid divestment and a ban on trade and investment would harm the South African economy, and it openly acknowledged that the poorest would pay the biggest price.  Composed of citizens from all twelve of South Africa’s major ethnic groups, it had the credibility needed to convince anti-apartheid activists around the world that sanctions were needed to force political change, despite the pain the poor would feel temporarily and over the objections of the all-Zulu Inkatha Freedom party.  

Divestment supporters often claim that Africa is unfairly paying the price for developed countries’ industrialization.  The logic behind the claim is that heat-trapping gases mix quickly and become a global temperature driver, so Africa produces few emissions but shares equally in any purported global increase.  Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni has denounced this “climate aggression” and called for government-to-government reparations that, in Uganda at least, would disappear into the legendary corruption of his ruling party.

Some divesters claim that Africa pays another round of unfair prices because the effects of any warming are felt most strongly there.  It is true that because of its position near the equator Africa has the largest decadal variations in its climate, and as a result has always experienced extreme long-term rain fluctuations that can lead to prolonged droughts.  But the greatest warming over the past century has been registered in the Arctic.  This could be the result of long-term ocean oscillation or, ironically, the “black soot” that comes from the wood and charcoal fires used by Africans and others who lack electricity.  These black particles land on snow and ice, and reflect sunlight so intensely that heat and melting build up around them. 

The energy divestment movement will not be the first case in which Africa has paid a dear price for Western misconceptions.  Colonialism was justified well in the late 20th century by the European belief that it was the “white man’s burden” to modernize Africa.  Western nations cut off aid shipments of the anti-malarial chemical DDT in the 1960s because they feared, incorrectly, that its use would cause cancer.  More recently, European nations have insisted that African nations who wish to trade with them must bar genetically-modified seeds that resist pests and so boost production, despite the absence of any evidence of harm to humans, animals, or crops.  Perhaps there should be a sign posted in the Bight of Benin, near where the first Portuguese ship landed 600 years ago and grabbed the first of the 20 million Africans who were enslaved to develop the economies of Europe and its American colonies, even as the practice distorted and stunted the African economy in ways that can still be seen today: Western Countries: Saving Africa since 1450

Campus energy divestment is one more Western scheme to save Africa.  It is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s “constructive engagement” policy toward the apartheid regime, because it tells Africans to give up on their dreams, and accept reality.  Reagan told black, Coloured, and Indian South Africans to reject the demand for full democracy made by the “terrorist” ANC.  Better, he said, to accept a modicum of self-government within the apartheid state.  Today’s divesters tell Africans to build “off-grid” power systems based on expensive and sporadic renewable sources because it would be too expensive and carbon-intensive for them to hook up with full-time national networks.  As it was under apartheid, so it is for energy now: it is for the Africans, not the West, to decide.  They wanted freedom then and they want reliable electricity now.  There is a right to development just like there was a right to democracy.  Let’s listen to Africans’ voices as they call for 100 percent access to electricity.  Let’s envision the children sitting in their huts as wood smoke swirls around them, with the fire too dim for them to read their homework assignments.  Let’s divest from energy divestment.

Dr. Caleb Rossiter is an adjunct professor in the School of International Service and the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at American University.