Diminishing Returns

Rachelle Peterson

Is divestment losing its radical chic? On April 30 and May 1, The New School hosted a major conference in New York City on “Sanctions and Divestments: Economic Weapons for Political and Social Change,” and hardly anybody came. The 500-seat auditorium held about 40 participants on May 1, most of them middle-aged.

Sustainability activists argue for divestment from fossil fuel companies accompanied by increased (often government-funded) investment in renewable energy. The nationally-acclaimed sustainability sage Bill McKibben ridicules the fossil fuel companies as “Public Enemy Number One.” So far 21 American colleges and universities have heeded McKibben’s call to divest.

With 400 fossil fuel divestment campaigns nationwide—half a dozen in New York City alone—one might have expected a crowded conference. But perhaps New School “Climate Citizens,” as students there are now called, are exhausted with nonstop sustainability propaganda and decided to take a rest. New School announced its divestment from fossil fuels in February.

Alternatively, divestment activists are licking their wounds. Sit-in season this spring failed to move the trustees at Yale, Harvard, Bowdoin College, Wesleyan University, University of Mary Washington, Tulane University, University of Colorado-Boulder, Tufts University, and Swarthmore College. On May 2, Swarthmore trustees resolved for a second time to not divest. The “divestment spring” sit-ins yielded only one victory for the activists: Syracuse University bowed.

Too bad for Syracuse. The experts assembled at the Sanctions and Divestments conference admitted that divestment won’t do much to stall fossil fuels. Pressuring the fossil fuel industry to quit drilling for oil is tantamount to asking it to commit suicide. Oil companies might respond to shareholder activism but have no reason to heed ex-investors. And some prominent sustainability advocates such as Columbia University’s Steven Cohen (not at this conference) argue that oil companies are likely to be the long-term leaders of developing non-fossil fuel forms of energy production.

Then again, maybe the activists stayed away because the conference presented reasoned analysis rather than exciting slogans. Sean Turnell, an Australian economist, said US sanctions against Burma prompted reforms because of lucky coincidences. Sanctions usually hurt the poor disproportionately, but in Burma, currency restrictions hit hardest those who were wealthy enough to have bank accounts. Marcus Noland, another economist, explained that sanctions on weapons and bomb-making matériel restrain North Korea’s military ambitions, but have scant likelihood of driving any serious social change in the Hermit Kingdom. Sanctions on Cuba, said American University government professor William LeoGrande, hampered Cuba’s economy (especially when, in the 1960s, 50% of the country’s GDP was due to sugar exports, mostly to the US), but had done naught to incentivize democracy.

The conference consensus: sanctions rarely accomplish much. When they do work it is because they match up with a particular vulnerability. The movement to sanction coal and oil companies by getting colleges to divest matches no vulnerability at all.

Columbia journalism professor (and former sixties radical) Todd Gitlin acknowledged he drafted a letter asking Columbia to divest to “pressure” and “influence corporate behavior” of 200 fossil fuel companies. Moments later he scrumbled his bright line by criticizing the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction (BDS) Israel. That movement’s “slippery” goals—ending the “colonization of all Arab lands,” and permitting all displaced Palestinians to return to their homes—are purposely vague. Do they imply the destruction of Israel? This, he said, makes BDS a “wrong measure” that capitalizes on “feel-good citizenship.”

“Feel-good citizenship” is the essence of the fossil fuel divestment campaign. Holding sleepovers in campus hallways may be exciting but it does nothing for families in energy-starved Africa. Divestment is a placebo for real environmental protection, which requires individual stewardship far more than symbolic gestures. Swarthmore’s sitters-in were well supplied during their “earth-saving” staycation with cardboard-boxed pizza and plastic-cupped salad donations solicited on Twitter. California’s Ivanpah solar plant—the “clean energy” that activists want their endowments to reinvest in—incinerates birds. The genius of the divestment movement is that it salves a generation’s ecological guilt without requiring the hard work of stewardship. Raging against “the system” is simpler than curbing one’s own consumerism.

The New School conference provided a useful reminder of the difficulties of effecting real world change. Unfortunately the activists stayed home.

Image: Wikipedia

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