As former presidents of the Moderate, Independent, Conservative Alliance (MICA), the sudden formation of the “Vassar Loves Fossil Fuels” (VLFF) campaign struck us as peculiar. In the past, such autonomous subcommittees were formed by large groups of interested members and associates during major campus events with much intra-organization discussion; however, there has been little, if any, communication from the current leadership and no voting on the VLFF campaign, its tactics, or the choice and cost of speaker. Hence we hold that this reaction is not only misfocused but improper.
Clearly, the motive behind bringing Epstein to Vassar is to redirect the discourse. Those who have done their YouTube homework will note that throughout his many taped debates and lectures, he recycles the argument that, paraphrased, because fossil fuels helped create our modern society, we should not criticize their harmful environmental impact. Underpinning Epstein’s entire analysis is the Randian notion — he was a writer and fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute from 2004-2011, after all—that Earth is imperfect and that humans can perfect it through further industrialization. Given the emphasis on critical thinking at our fine College, we find it hard to imagine any Vassarian falling for the fruitless trap of conflating the divestment debate with the merits of fossil fuel’s historical role in American industrialization. While one should understand the methods by which we came to this point in our society, now is the time to reflect upon both the scientific evidence at hand and the costs and benefits of staying invested in these companies. As such, our divestment debate should be one concerned with intertemporal choice and utility maximization, not for-profit love or blind ideological hatred of fossil fuels. By allowing the discussion of this issue to be co-opted by either extreme, we lose focus on what we were actually arguing about.
More astounding is that the VLFF campaign exacerbates Epstein’s already inflammatory posture by propagating memes throughout campus that seem as if they were paid for by some shadowy Committee for a Hydrofracked Tomorrow, using rhetoric clearly designed to spark controversy (perhaps best exemplified by the campaign’s own name), and creating an artificially viral campaign—from Facebook to the literally thousands of invitations placed in campus mailboxes. VLFF seems to have received much ridicule first and generated curiosity a distant second. Any publicity campaign aimed at producing interest for an upcoming lecture should work to increase attendance and awareness, goals which ought not be eclipsed by setting up straw men before the speaker even sets foot on campus, no matter how controversial his or her platform, though one must question why a more legitimate and respectable speaker was not found. Furthermore, such tactics and subsequent negative public perception have consequences, not the least of which is further ossifying extremes and estranging individuals attempting to navigate the now-hazardous spectrum of thought in between the poles.
In fact, none of the many legitimate criticisms of divestment require the vitriol or absurd theatre of VLFF. For example, VSA Vice President for Finance Alexander Koren and Miscellany News Contributing Editor Aashim Usgaonkar addressed the economic realities and negative impacts to financial aid and faculty salaries likely to result from divestment in “Fossil fuel divestment leads to lose-lose scenario for VC” (Miscellany News, 2.20.2013). Other dispassionate critiques include the myriad bankruptcies affecting the photovoltaic power industry—famously Solyndra and more recently Suntech, the world’s largest producer of solar panels; the lack of serious consideration of nuclear energy in the divestment proposal; the difficulties of storing intermittent power to supply grids; and the fact that many major corporations named in the proposal’s “List of Initial Companies” to divest from are responsible for much private sector funding of renewable and alternative energy projects, including the corporation at the top of the list, BP, which, for example, recently invested $800 million in a Kansas wind farm project as part of an energy consortium.
As opponents of both the current divestment campaign and VLFF, who are cognizant of the financial aid limitations future students might face without a sustainable endowment to support their education as well as the dangers of unaddressed climate change, we believe that informed and constructive campus discussion can still occur in a rational, respectful, and inclusive manner. Moreover, we lament that the VLFF’s leadership—as its organizational support is very questionable—favors circus and controversy over engendering such debate and discourse. But most of all, we lament the $2,430 price tag on Alex Epstein’s lecture, since we could have just ironically reserved one of the biggest rooms in Standard Oil—er, Rockefeller Hall—to mock his YouTube videos for free.
—Jeremy Bright ’11 and Will Serio ’13 are former Presidents of the Moderate, Independent, Conservative Alliance (MICA).