But where will you get your oil?

Divestment's Easy. Dumping Big Oil Isn't.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
Read More.
a | A

A divestment activist from the University of Michigan has chided me for failing to consider the moral dimension of divestment. Even if it has no effect, is it not reasonable for nuns to divest from companies that manufacture birth-control pills? Or universities to divest from a South Africa's apartheid regime?

Sure. But there's a wee bit of difference, which is that in the examples above, the divesting groups are not making heavy use of the offending subject while castigating those who produce it.

I understand that universities are exploring sustainability. Just the same, they consume huge amounts of fossil fuels: To heat and cool their buildings. To power their labs and computer networks. Maintenance and landscaping. Cooking all that food. Lighting all those rooms. Every year, they put on many large events to which people fly or drive long distances. Their students travel to and from their premises multiple times a year, rarely on foot. Their faculty fly to do research or attend conferences; many of my friends in academics have much better frequent-flier status than I could ever dream of. Their admissions officers fly hither and yon to recruit students. Their teams fly or drive to games. But you get the idea. The point is that the fossil-fuel consumption of every university in the country dwarfs the impact of their investments on climate change.

Doing all this while divesting from your fossil-fuel investments is the moral equivalent of divesting from Janssen Pharmaceuticals ... in your abortion clinic's endowment. Of divesting from South Africa ... at the University of Alabama in 1949. It is doing the pointless but easy thing while actively continuing the stuff that is actually harming the planet.

If divestment activists were serious about making a difference, setting an example, and drawing the full weight of America's moral opprobrium onto the makers and consumers of fossil fuels, they'd be pushing a University Agenda that looked more like this:

  1. Require administrators, faculty, sports teams and other student groups to travel exclusively by boat and rail, except for "last mile" journeys.
  2. Cease construction of new buildings on campus.
  3. Stop air conditioning buildings, except for laboratories and archives that require climate control. Keep the heat no higher than 60 degrees in winter.
  4. Put strict caps on power consumption by students, keeping it to enough electricity to power one computer and one study lamp. Remove power outlets from classrooms, except for one at the front for the teacher.
  5. Ban meat from campus eateries and require full-time students to be on a meal plan.
  6. Remove all parking spots from campus.
  7. Stop operating campus shuttles, except for disabled students.
  8. Divest the endowment from fossil-fuel companies, if it makes you feel better.

Why has No. 8 jumped to No. 1? Because it's easy. Because a group of students pushing endowment divestiture can shut down a public meeting and be rewarded with the opportunity to hold a teach-in; a group of students pushing a faculty flying ban and the end of campus parking would find the powers that be considerably more unfriendly. Not to mention their fellow students. Or, for that matter, their fellow activists, few of whom are actually ready to commit to never in their lives traveling out of America's pitiful passenger rail network.

This is what I meant in an earlier post where I said that doing the easy but pointless thing is a substitute for, rather than a complement to, the hard and necessary thing. In my opinion, activists have selected this issue not because it is useful, but because it is feasible. Unfortunately, it is feasible precisely because it will make no difference in anyone's consumption of fossil fuel. If it were going to actually be personally costly to members of the community, it would suddenly become very difficult indeed.

Unfortunately, that leaves a university in the same moral position as a drug addict who wants to tut-tut at his dealer. If you think that fossil-fuel companies are immoral, then you should stop giving them money. And the primary way that universities fund the activities of fossil-fuel companies is not by investing in their securities; it is by buying their products. That -- not stock issuance -- is where they get the funds to do all the lobbying and drilling and exploiting that the activists are complaining about.

If you want to stop doing business with the fossil-fuel companies because you think that they do great wrong, that's a stand I can respect. But you have to actually stop. As long as you continue to give them money, then you have no right to complain about what a sordid business you're both in.

  1. Some sustainability initiatives may well be personally costly to someone: parents paying tuition checks, taxpayers, students whose scholarships will become smaller, the future selves of students currently taking out loans without much understanding of how difficult it will be to repay them. But they are not costly to the students, faculty or administrators whom the activists are trying to persuade, which is why persuasion seems possible.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net