Extinct Experiments

Peter Wood

The Divestment Student Network just dissolved.  On July 31, its co-founder Greta Neubauer announced that the DSN website was going coal black and the DSN payroll would henceforth have zero emissions.  DSN had been a central piece of the effort by global warming alarmists to attack fossil fuel companies.  Its signature tactic was to rally students to the cause of forcing their colleges and universities to sell off their investments in coal, oil, and natural gas.

In other news, a report published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society identified some fossils recovered in southern Argentina as the relics of the largest known dinosaur, the 76-ton, 122-foot Patagotitan mayorum.  The creature nosed out the previous record holder, Argentinosaurus, a puny 73-ton, 98-footer, though we expect controversy over which behemoth was more so.  The ticker that wraps around the façade of Fox News Studio Headquarters on Sixth Avenue noted the Patagotitan—Patty seems more affectionate—was not merely the biggest dinosaur, but the biggest land animal ever. 

Patty belonged to a group of oversized vegetarians who thrived about 100 million years ago. 

The Divestment Student Network was thriving as recently as spring 2015.

Extinctions are always a bit mysterious.  The debate over what happened to the mastodons, giant ground sloths, and other New World megafauna goes on and on.  Were they climate changed into oblivion?  Or hunted down with flint-tipped spears by Paleo-Indians? 

So it is with the Divestment Student Network.  In an essay on PJ Media, Rachelle Peterson, who is the director of NAS Research Projects, weighs the factors in the demise of DSN.  Was it the sheer futility of the DSN’s mission?  The organization imagined that it could drive fossil fuel companies into financial difficulty by getting colleges and universities to sell their stock in those companies. 

They never seemed to realize that for every seller, there is a buyer, and that Exxon didn’t much care whether the stock was held in the portfolio of Middlebury College or in a JP Morgan Mutual Fund. 

But as Rachelle points out, that’s not the only thing that went wrong for DSN.  The group’s emphasis on “leave it in the ground” (LINGO) didn’t mesh with the huge thirst for energy on the world market.  DSN floated arguments that the mineral reserves of oil and coal companies would become “stranded assets” (because it would be impossible to extract them).  But this didn’t happen either.  Instead fracking transformed international energy markets. And Rachelle presciently observed that the colleges and universities that announced they would indeed divest from fossil fuels were mostly DINOs—divestment- in-name-only organizations—that found ways to retain most of their holdings. 

For a season, DSN was unquestionably the hottest ticket in campus protest.  And then, as suddenly as it rose, it fizzled.  Among other things, it had been out-charisma-ed by Black Lives Matter protesters.  Fossil fuel divestment advocates had made a stab at claiming a multicultural identity, but the movement as a whole was hopelessly white.  Once the voices of black resentment spoke up, DSNers seemed quaint. 

All of these are good explanations, but Rachelle modestly underplays one other important factor:  the latter-day equivalent of the Paleo-Indian with the flint spear.  Surely DSN’s demise is partly the result of Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation against Fossil Fuels.  That was the title of Rachelle’s November 2015, 300-page report based on her year-long study of the movement.  Rachelle immersed herself in the world of DSN, attended its meetings, interviewed its leaders and followers, and wrote a remarkable first-hand account of the creation of a campus protest movement.

It was a first-of-its-kind study.  The National Association of Scholars took some heat for it, and not just from progressive activists who supported the fossil fuel divestment movement.  Other critics said we were wasting our time examining a movement that was too large, too well-funded, and too full of passionate commitment to be susceptible to NAS-style critique. 

That makes it all the more satisfying to say “so long” to DSN.  We don’t often get to see our opponents throw in the towel.  Maybe others who engage in efforts to push back against radical campus movements should take a look at Inside Divestment.   As DSN joins Patagotitan mayorum on the boneyard of not-too-big-to-fail experiments, we can contemplate other seemingly invincible causes that before long will join them.  

Image: Pixabay

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