On divestment, double-think, and the authority of received (un-)wisdom

Yale University is about to hold a referendum on whether to divest its endowment from fossil fuels.  Having recently blogged on that subject from here in Edinburgh, and coincidentally having also touched on it in an address at Yale a few days earlier, I am following with interest the current developments.

The Edinburgh and Yale contexts are not identical, although the two universities stand just nine places apart within the top 20 universities globally, according to a recent survey.   One difference has to do with size.  While Edinburgh has the third largest endowment of UK universities – at quite some remove, it has to be said, behind Oxford & Cambridge – its wealth pales into insignificance beside that of Yale’s $19 billion. Whereas an action by a university with lesser funds to invest may exert some marginal moral suasion and contribute to an incremental raising of social norms in the field of ethical investment, a comparable action by Yale might be expected to make a rather bigger splash.  But this is not certain.  A second difference is that at Yale – unlike UK universities – there has arisen a counter-campaign.  But this difference may have arisen because Yale’s College Council provides the possibility of a referendum, hence there is a point in trying to persuade students towards a view that, in other institutions, the administration may be relied on to take seriously by default.

More striking than any difference, then, is how similar the debate is in the different contexts.  On both sides there seems to be a clear and simple point.  Pressure on behalf of divestment invariably draws its momentum quite directly from moral and practical concerns about the state of the biosphere that we are imposing on distant strangers and bequeathing to the descendants of all of us.  If we care, we must work to ensure the carbon in the ground is not brought out and burned.  Those who are reticent about or opposed to divestment have a simple rejoinder, as exemplified in the words of the founder of Yale’s anti-divestment movement: “we accept and we understand why so many people are concerned with the environment and its future.  But we don’t think you need to put at risk the long-term financial stability of the institution in order to make that point.”

Now if there are more powerful arguments than this student contra-campaigner can muster, I think they need to be presented.  The arguments for and against divestment do not look well-matched as they stand. For it is entirely question-begging of the contra-campaigner to assert that long-term financial stability is at odds with concerns about the environment and its future.  It is also plain wrong. The divestment campaigners present a stark fact and draw a straightforward consequence from it: we are either to be complicit in the burning of fossil fuels to an extent that tips the biosphere into a social, ecological, economic, and security disaster; or we are to take whatever stand we can to oppose it.

An interesting question, accordingly, is why the mismatch in arguments pro and con divestment is not more widely noticed by those on the con side.  It may be partly because, like the Yale student, they think the campaigners are merely out to make a point whereas they, by contrast, especially if they are responsible for the good management of an institution, have to deal with economic realities.

But built into their views about economic reality are, I think we can discern, some assumptions also about authority.  These can be teased out by considering the motivation for their resistance, which seems, in fact, to involve two different sorts of thought that stand in some tension with one another.  On the one hand, they articulate concerns of the form “Suppose everyone did as you wish…” in which eventuality, it is suggested, the lights would go off and the economy would be at risk of collapse.  On the other hand, there is the worry that the financial flourishing of our institutions would be compromised if we allow information about the ecological basis of their operations to be factored into our decision making.  This looks like double think: it is claimed that the people seeking divestment don’t give enough thought to the wider future socio-economic implications of their proposal; it is also claimed we must not allow thoughts about wider future socio-ecological implications to influence our decisions.  Or is there perhaps just not enough thinking – about how the ultimate destiny of our economy lies in the same world as our ecology?  Why is it thought that the campaigners for divestment can do real harm whereas business as usual generates a presumptive balance of benefits over costs?  The consensus of scientific understanding of the state of the world does not encourage that thought; careful philosophical analysis of the implications for action of it does not either.  It seems to rest on some set of beliefs – taken as authoritative – that stand in need at least of examination.

Minimally, we need to think carefully how the long-term financial stability of any institution cannot be assured on a basis of indifference to its ecological conditions.  This is something neatly highlighted in a recent piece by Brett Scott. In fact, maybe some re-engagement with thought about how the study of economics relates to the world at all is in order.  This is a question that students are now increasingly starting to take into their own hands.  Those students are challenging the authority of received (un-)wisdom about socio-economic realities.  Perhaps they are spearheading an intellectual movement of renewed enlightenment in which the divestment campaigners are playing a part.

Meanwhile, I do not think the students of Yale need fear that their endowment will collapse as a result of its managers being alerted to the ecological clock ticking in regard to what will at some point definitely, and possibly quite soon, become stranded assets.

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3 Responses to On divestment, double-think, and the authority of received (un-)wisdom

  1. Pingback: The Contradictions of Divestment | Foot of the Fig Tree

  2. Pingback: Who can be trusted with our planet? Reflections on a week in climate politics | Tim Hayward

  3. Pingback: Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility: conflicting factors in a university’s ethos? | Just World Institute

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