From the Right: Fear and loathing at the Divestment Dialogue
Published: Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 02:03
When I walked into Huddleston Hall on the night of March 4, I was handed a nametag and a table assignment. I sat at my table, was greeted by my table’s “facilitator,” and had a glass of water. A few minutes later, an older woman sat next to me. If I was going to convince my fellow participants that divestment is bad for the university, I knew I would need to build trust.
We made small talk about conservation and Robert Frost. We agreed that, given the state of affairs in Washington, it was best to focus on one’s local community. Okay, so she probably meant, “…until Obama seizes the power necessary to end social injustice once and for all!” While my unspoken caveat was something along the lines of, “…and hopefully the federal government will just go away!” At least we had the façade of solidarity!
Having spent three years listening to faculty members, hall directors and administrators pontificate that all perspectives and value systems are equal and relative, I was a little irritated to hear words like “values” and “morality” thrown around when it came to divestment. So, in the coyest manner I could summon, I began by challenging my discussion group: “I know that ‘we’ feel very strongly about the environment, and of course ‘we’ have ‘science’ on our side, but have you considered that our perspective is relative to the perspectives of other groups on campus?”
One participant, an economics major, pointed out that, while he did not personally agree with using morality to guide an investment strategy, “sustainability” is a “core value” at UNH. Fair enough, we’ve integrated this academic fad into our mission statement. Whether this decision was made out of sincere concern for the environment or as a justification for creating frivolous administrative posts and hiring interdisciplinary frauds is not an opinion I care to render here.
Next, I invoked the concept of privilege. Not the “privilege” of women’s studies textbooks and “privilege” checklists, but the privilege that wealthy white liberals on this campus have to make demands that will likely raise the price of tuition and lower the amount of financial aid available to low income students.
“I am privileged,” I told my group, “to have the opportunity to sit here, sip on lemon water, and attempt to steer my university’s financial future. But I wonder if anyone has considered the fact that the students who this will affect are not here tonight. Some of them are, perhaps, out working to make ends meet and continue their education.” For a moment, I thought I had presented a paradox that would put an end to talk of divestment: poor people or the environment?
Then, the pro-divestment participants rolled out a deus ex machina to trump all facts: “Who cares if low income students can attend UNH if they don’t have a planet to live on!” the older woman sitting next to me huffed. Damn it! Well, I knew there was no breaking through this wall of emotional reasoning.
In their minds, the logic was sound: if UNH divests, other schools will too. If other schools divest, citizens will take notice. If citizens take notice, they will stop using and investing in fossil fuel. Furthermore, they will send politicians to Washington who will “punish” traditional energy companies for their “crimes” (the telling words one prominent SEAC member used to describe the objective of her movement). Surely that is worth the educational aspirations of poor people. “Together we can break the back of big oil!” the woman sitting next to me exclaimed.
Lost on the pro-divestment participants were the following facts: only one college has fully divested thus far. That would be Unity College in Unity, Maine with a student population of 497 students and an endowment of $13 million. I hasten to add that Harvard University has declined to divest its endowment citing financial risk (compare Harvard’s $32 billion endowment to UNH’s $132 million endowment).
Additionally, people need energy. While everyone would like to see a quick transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy, let’s acknowledge that energy companies provide an important service to the public: they heat our homes, power our vehicles, and create jobs.
Instead of making traditional energy companies the “other” and demanding they be punished, why not engage these businesses as citizens, consumers, and investors? But, of course, they are “big evil corporations” (as opposed to the caring federal government that environmentalists would like to see play judge, jury and executioner).
Perhaps the most troubling feature of this fossil fuel divestment logic is the startling unfamiliarity with basic economic concepts. As George Leef wrote in National Review, “Evidently, these students do not understand how equity markets work. If Harvard sells, someone else buys their shares at market price. Companies are not financially hurt by the trading of their stock and are not going to stop producing fuels that everyone else needs and wants.” Nor will other schools divest because UNH does, nor will citizens take notice, nor will the United States government irreparably “punish” the industry that drives the country’s economy.
So, the question of divesting our endowment of fossil fuels ought to be restated: are we willing to risk the ability of low-income students to attend our university in order to indulge the political passions of their affluent peers?
Nick Mignanelli is a senior political science major and a former intern at the Heritage Foundation.