Divestment At Swarthmore And ‘Hard Choice’ Foolishness
The college and university student campaign to divest from fossil fuels as a protest against climate change began at Swarthmore College. It was therefore surprising when the board that overseas that institution’s investments recently voted against divestment.
Or maybe it wasn’t very surprising after all.
That’s because this sort of decision has been happening in so many places for so many years for the same ‘hard choice’ reason. We can therefore imagine that the discussion that led to this decision at Swarthmore must have gone something like this:
“We truly admire the students’ idealism in seeking divestment from fossil fuels,” one of the wise heads at the table would likely have said. “It’s the kind of idealism this school was built on, the kind of idealism that turns out students dedicated to building a better world.
“And for that reason alone,” this worthy might well have continued, “I would love to vote for divestment. Love to strike a blow, no matter how merely symbolic it would be in terms of actually bringing about policies toward fossil fuel.”
Here we can imagine the speaker’s expression turning deep and introspective before continuing: “I have grandchildren, too, you know, and the thought they may have to grow up in a world so badly tainted by our polluting, a world so brought to the brink of ruin by unbridled fossil fuel use, makes me sick at heart.”
Soul searching complete, the speaker gets down to the all-important adult issue of responsibility: “Alas, we have a responsibility, a fiduciary responsibility, when it comes protecting the assets of this institution. No matter how strong our personal feelings in this matter, or even the sincere and honorable wishes of our student body and faculty, we have to make the hard choice, the very hard choice, to retain our fossil fuel holdings.
“Moving on to the same next issue on today’s agenda….”
There it is again. The hard choice that pits environmental protection against economic well-being.
This so-called ‘hard choice’ has been made and is being made in so many places in so many ways by people who have so many kinds of responsibility, that one might suppose it has become hard wired into people’s brains — or at least the brains of people charged with making responsible choices that affect others.
The thing about this choice, however, is that it doesn’t exist. Never really did exist. In past years choosing to pollute for jobs and profits sake might have created short-term benefits with long terms negative consequences. These days there isn’t even that kind of time lag.
Put simply, fossil fuels are a lousy investment today. And renewables are not just the investments of the future.
Solar, wind, geothermal, et. al. have already taken over so much of the world’s energy markets and are so obviously poised to take a much greater share of these markets very soon, that buying and holding fossil fuel investments is like seeking to tap the future profit potential of horse drawn buggy makers in 1900.
So here’s my message to investment advisers at Swarthmore and other education institutions. Stop making those silly hard choices. Do your fiduciary duty and divest from fossil fuels. And do it quickly, before the failure of your economic analysis when it comes to energy investing becomes too apparent to your employers.
The author of this piece, Michael Silverstein, is a former senior editor with Bloomberg News. His latest book is Gorilla Warfare Against The Bureaucratic State (Confessions of a Lefty Libertarian).