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When Divestment Isn’t Enough

CREDIT: Illustration by Erin O'Neill

It’s early March and raining as I ride through the mountains of the Mad River Valley. Where white usually paints lines thicker than the lane marker, there is no snow. As I hitchhike through Vermont with two talkative strangers, I’m worried by the stories a mother tells one of my teenage companions. This native Vermonter recounts the winters of her childhood, full of snow and flurries, while her daughter stares out at the pavement, as grey and dry as sky. I look out the window myself, only to see sleds abandoned and pale yellow tracts of grass. The stories of this woman’s childhood now pass as legend. The daughter grimaces as her mother tells a story she’s heard before.

It’s as apparent as ever: Human activity is shifting weather patterns. We do not live on the same planet that our parents did. And while the leaders of yesterday and today have known about climate change for almost 40 years, the burning of fossil fuel continues largely unabated. What is the value of science if it does not inform decisions? Scientists and citizens have interpreted climate change thus far—now it’s time they fix it.

The move to divest college endowment funds from fossil fuel companies marks a fundamental shift in the “ask” of environmental groups as a whole. Instead of asking individuals to decrease demand, the divestiture platform asks fossil fuel companies to decrease supply. This alone brings nothing problematic to the table. However, it is important to note that the mainstream environmental movement has adopted this rhetoric.

On Feb. 17, approximately 40,000 people rallied at the Washington Monument to protest Obama’s approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Speakers of diverse professions and ethnicities addressed the crowds with emphatic speeches. The attendees cheered as speaker after speaker renounced the greed of the fossil fuel industry. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI-D) captured the rhetoric of the crowd best: “The big oil companies don’t want you to be heard. The polluters don’t want you to be here.” Inherent in the language of both the divestment campaign and the Keystone XL Pipeline protest is a psychological split between the polluter and the activist. This distinction could not be further from the truth.

It’s almost inevitable that such a split would have to be made, for, as Albert Camus reminds us, “Rebellion, after all, can only be imagined in terms of opposition to someone.” It’s clear that a scapegoat ideology has emerged in mainstream environmentalism; this is where things get problematic.

The consumer culture that plagues America today was no less apparent at the Keystone XL rally than it has been on any street corner. The true enemy of growth and the wealth that it has brought were both present in full force, mostly unbeknownst to the crowd. So will a whole lot of shouting, dancing and screaming effectively change oil companies into alternative energy companies? Is the mainstream environmental community truly willing to sacrifice what it would take to combat climate change? Can symbolic gestures such as protests overturn the market maxim of supply and demand?

Russ Girling, the President of TransCanada, the company proposing to build the Keystone XL Pipeline, frames this tension well: “If you want to go after greenhouse gases in a meaningful way, then go after consumption. Don’t pick winners and losers among all the heavy oil being produced in the world.” I hate to say it, but he makes a good point. A student at Middlebury College made a similar remark in regards to the environmental movement: “At Middlebury, environmental groups can mobilize lots of supporters and there are no opposition groups.” So, against whom is the environmental movement really fighting?

Whereas in the Civil Rights movement it was very clear who was the oppressor and who was the oppressed, these roles in the fight for climate justice are much less clear. The power that the climate justice movement attempts to fight is the power of demand.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand itself. It never did and it never will,” Frederick Douglass said over a century ago. It seems that this statement holds true today, for as long as people demand oil, companies will supply it. And while “symbols are important,” as Sierra Club President Allison Chin reminds us, the environmental reality requires much more than symbolic revolution.

All symbols aside, the United States of America, and particularly American youth, create the demand for fossil fuels.

“CO2 emissions in the industrial countries are five to six times higher than in the developing countries,” and with 75 percent of the world considered “developing,” global emissions will inevitably rise. And why shouldn’t they? Even if every person on Earth were to have the average human ecological footprint today, the total ecological footprint would still be 25 percent greater than the regenerative capacity of Planet Earth. Simply put, “25 percent of the world’s population appropriates roughly 75 percent of the world’s resources.”

As a society, we have externalized the true cost of labor and it has afforded us unprecedented wealth. By using the hydrocarbons stored in fossil fuels, the burden of labor is no longer on modern society’s back or in its pocketbooks. It sounds like what many philosophers dream of.

Over two millennia ago, Aristotle remarked, “If the shuttle would then weave, and the lyre play of itself; nor would the architect want servants, or the master slaves.” While the costs to humanity have gone down steadily since Aristotle’s day, the costs to the environment have exponentially increased. As a culture, we have forgotten that it is we who depend upon the external world and not the other way around. It is we who came out of the world and not it out of us. As a generation, we mistakenly fail to recognize that the costs to the environment and the costs to humanity are deeply intertwined.

In his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Bill McKibben writes, “Researchers warned in 2006 that climate change could kill 184 million people in Africa alone before this century is out.” Consider that “in total, about 35,654,000 people have died in [last] century’s international and domestic wars, revolutions and violent conflicts combined.” While the former statistic only serves as a gauge, 184 million people dying in Africa alone will certainly only make up a small portion of the total global number of people either killed or displaced and impoverished by the effects of climate change.

The moral high ground that we often hold as individuals and that our nation claims to uphold must come face-to-face with the consequences of our actions. Although the connection between climate change and devastation to developing nations is a relatively new concept, the call for ethical action toward developing countries is not. If we want to help people in the developing world, we should stop burning fossil fuels. It’s that simple.

The now-deceased cartoonist Walter Kelly summed up the battle to achieve sustainability in his Earth Day 1971 comic strip, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” In the case of students with the passion to fight climate change, it’s time to face the truth and overcome it; we are the enemy. For if we, the privileged and educated constituents of this globe, cannot acknowledge and therefore change our habits, then how can we expect anyone else to do the same? If we as informed college students and citizens cannot come to terms with the fact that our emissions cannot be sustained, that our consumption is irreconcilable with environmental limits and that we must change our ways, then no one will. That is a stark vision of the future that seems all too possible.

Throughout my journey to nearly 10 different colleges, I have seen little in the way of actual change. From environmental studies majors leaving their lights on without a hint of regret, to wasteful spring break trips to South America, to frat parties where one would think recycling didn’t exist, we are doing little to confront reality. The environment is failing to sustain us. Even this statement brings with it an anthropocentric air, for it is not the duty of the environment to sustain us. It is our duty to sustain it, even if only for our own sake.

Sometimes I think humanity’s dreams were too large for this relatively small blue planet. And while divestment is an important strategy to start the conversation, it’s time that, as climate activist Marla Marcum said, “The power of our words be eclipsed by the power of our actions.” We may all choose to act for different reasons—whether for those without a voice in the developing world, for our future, for our children’s future, against greed or against the destruction of nature—but after all is said, something must be done.

The story of climate change that is unfolding is not one specific to you or me; it is the story of us. It is the story of humanity that will either be etched into gravestones or triumphantly told in history books. At the risk of sounding cliché, it is the ultimate test of whether or not we can come together and recognize what we have in common. I only hope that college students find the strength to lead the way.

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