As most upperclassmen and probably fewer freshmen are aware, last year’s fossil fuel divestment campaign was long, brutal, and, more often than not, absurd. The peak of hilarity was when Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial Progress, a speaker who maintains that fossil fuels are in fact good for the environment, was paid to speak at Vassar. He was met by an audience of Dick Cheney-masked Vassar Greens members who had come to the lecture exclusively to interrupt and leave mid-lecture. That said, if you were to argue that the height of absurdity was actually the Moderate Independent Conservative Alliance (MICA)’s NO-GO and Vassar Loves Fossil Fuel campaigns, I might have to concede.
Those who have criticized divestment in the past have argued that it is not financially viable for the college, especially in the wake of the financial crisis that did not leave Vassar’s endowment untouched. The common critique is that Vassar cannot afford to abandon its stake in the fossil fuel industry, considering its past profitability. While a complete divestment from fossil fuels might dent our endowment’s short-term income, assuming the capital was invested competently, there is no reason to think that it would have a long-term effect upon the college’s operations.
Though the Vassar Greens and other advocates of divestment have successfully argued that the risks are small, they have failed to recognize the biggest problem with divestment: the rewards are nonexistent.
Upon first thought, divestment seems like a good idea: why should Vassar be involved in the extraction, processing and sale of fossil fuel? Shouldn’t we make sure that we are not assisting an industry that is responsible for so much pollution and climate change?
Anyone who considers further the advantages of divestment will quickly realize that fossil fuel usage, extraction and sale is controlled not by the fortune 500 companies that provide this service, but by the consumers that demand cheap energy.
Let’s examine the results of divestment, of selling shares of these Fortune 500 companies: imagine, for a moment, that Vassar’s endowment owns a 33% stake in BP, Chevron and Exxon Mobile. Of course, I have no idea what Vassar’s share in any particular corporations are, as that information is not made public. We can be sure that the college’s share in fossil fuels is infinitely smaller. I use these vastly exaggerated numbers to make it easier to imagine the effect of our divestment. If we were to sell our shares of these companies (divest), the result would be visible because of our large imagined shares: the price of these three companies would plummet. The front page of every newspaper would run the story.
Although the stock prices would be hit hard, there would be no effect upon the operation of these companies. They would continue their practices of drawing oil from under the ocean, of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas, of shipping oil across the ocean, and of lobbying representatives and government officials in the US and internationally. There would be no great blackouts or WWII-esque gas lines. Slowly, savvy investors would buy Vassar’s shares in these corporations, returning prices to their current levels. If every single college and university divested from fossil fuel companies instantly, the effect would be less drastic than what I just described.
When an institution owns stock in a corporation, they have the capacity not only to vote for board members who have a history of favoring renewable energy, but also to vote on certain aspects of that corporation. Shareholders can make proposals at a company’s annual meeting, allowing other shareholders to bypass the board and directly control that corporation’s actions. When we sell that stock, or divest, we put that power in the hands of another investor, perhaps an individual who votes in the interest of profit alone. Our shares could be bought by Alex Epstein himself. The new shareholders might vote for a board member known for his or her support of fracking, or off-sea drilling. They could vote for Tony Hayward (BP’s ex-CEO) for chairman of the board.
Is it really worth giving this small, but undeniable power to a new shareholder for the sake of “a stand?” Is it really a stand if it works against the principle that we are ostensibly taking a stand for?
Perhaps the most shocking thing is that the Vassar Greens know that divestment will be ineffective. In Gabe Dunsmith and Erin Boss’ article from last winter, they admit, “Divestment is, by nature, a symbolic gesture.” (“Vassar must divest to take a stand against oppression” The Miscellany News 02.27.13”. The trouble with symbolism when it stands in the place of action is that it must impede action. Our campus has been so distracted by the divestment movement that we have not focused on movements that actually have the capacity to slow climate change or to limit our college’s enormous use of fossil fuel.
We could do simple things like riding a bike instead of taking a car and ensuring that new equipment is energy efficient. We can also be drastic and install wind turbines on the Vassar farm. Many of the corporations that the divestment campaign would like us to divest from are heavily involved in the research and creation of renewable sources of energy. If the world’s energy consumers stopped buying cheap energy (as Vassar does) and started buying clean energy, these corporations would be more than happy to sell us solar panels and wind turbines instead of oil, coal and natural gas. Their goal is to make money, not to cause global warming.
If we are to minimize our impact on the environment, we must shift consumer habits, not the actions of corporations that try to meet their (and our) demands. As we experience a moment of such pivotal importance in climate change and environmental preservation, let’s take action, not “a stand.”
—Macrae Marran ’15 is a political science major.