The University of Edinburgh has decided to resist the call from campaigners and some of its academics to divest decisively from fossil fuels.
Does it matter?
Nobody – on either side of the debate – can sincerely think that the extent of the University of Edinburgh’s investment in the petroleum industry makes the slightest bit of difference to the latter’s financial position, or that its withdrawal would have any perceptible effect on business. A decision to divest would, in itself, be essentially symbolic.
But symbolism is important. Used for pernicious ends it can stir up hate, conflict, war and genocide; used constructively it can inspire peoples to build great civilizations.
Those advocating divestment see the question as about the kind of world we are leaving in our wake: will it be one where human activities have pushed our uniquely benign biosphere across planetary boundaries, or one where humans have regained control not only of their environmental impact but also of their own practices and their less admirable tendencies of arrogance and avarice?
Those resisting the argument point out that we are currently dependent on fossil fuels across the board and that there is no immediate prospect of replacing them. To get out of fossil fuels would threaten the collapse of civilization and curtail any prospects for the developing world. If you want to engage in symbolic action, they say, do so in a more careful and less naïve way. Your way will jeopardise the University’s own standing in relation to the petroleum industry and yet achieve nothing by doing so.
We notice that there is fear on both sides: fear of what the changing climate is going to do to people and planet; fear of how antagonising the petroleum industry will rebound on those engaged in teaching and research on petroleum, directly, and the rest of us within the University indirectly.
Perhaps we all need to face our fears, and think together how best to address them.
Both sides of the argument accept that if there were sufficient renewable energy to support the global economy then it would be better to stop burning carbon; both sides of the argument are in favour of supporting research in geology and in the properties of hydrocarbons. Both sides recognize the pervasive significance of the petroleum industry in the world as it has developed over the past century and the extent of our dependence on it. But while one side fears what that dependence is doing, the other fears what would happen if you tried to end it.
The University has listened to both sides, and has reached a definite decision – namely, to neither divest nor not divest.
Really? In all good faith, is the balance of reason and evidence so unclear?
Well, the question is not such a simple one, we have been told. And no doubt, behind the closed doors where decisions are made, matters can be complicated. They must be, if our relation to Big Oil is such that our leadership warns that going against them will result in ‘undue incursion into academic freedom’.
This leaves the rest of us wondering whether, after all, their dependence on our research and training means less to them than the symbolism of a gesture of disapproval? If it does, then we have both a problem and an opportunity – the sort of challenge an institution dedicated to learning might relish and harness all its talent to grapple with, if it so decided.
Just now, though, our University looks, like Buridan’s ass, to be rooted to the spot because pulled in two directions: its proclaimed path towards 21st Century Enlightenment lies in one and the petroleum industry would take us in another.
I personally hope the University’s reputation as a beacon of high ethical standards and enlightenment values can be preserved from the fate of the ass. Allowing a properly open discussion of what is at stake for our great institution in this epoch-defining struggle would be a start.