A Sorry Sit-In

Fossil fuel divestment remains unproductive

In the face of Divest Harvard’s sit-in at Massachusetts Hall, which was still ongoing at press time, not only does our opposition to the fossil fuel divestment movement remain strong, but we also condemn the group's latest protest methods. As we have opined many times in the past, while anthropogenic climate change is one of the greatest problems of our time, divestment would not change the calculus of the energy industry.  

Fossil fuels represent only about 0.2 percent of Harvard’s $36.4 billion portfolio, and Harvard’s largest investment in a fossil fuel company, Anadarko Petroleum, clocks in at near 0.1 percent of that company’s value. To assert that divestment would generate public pressure against these companies seems naive. After all, the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill created an enormous amount of bad publicity for the company, but it still posted $5.3 billion in profits the next year. It is unlikely fossil fuel companies will abandon their entire businesses when global oil demand only looks to rise. These oil companies—precisely those that Divest Harvard wishes to be rid of—have indeed historically undertaken some of the first and largest investments in renewable energy. Considering we as a community rely on fossil fuels to power our laptops, the T, the airplanes we fly to Boston, and the trucks that bring fresh food to the dining halls, divestment at Harvard seems both impractical and hypocritical.  

Harvard’s place is to be a university: an institution of teaching, learning, research, and collaboration. As such, numerous existing Harvard programs seek to generate new solutions to climate change. However, Divest Harvard’s latest tactics—from the videotaping of University President Drew G. Faust to yesterday’s sit-in—only prevent open discussion and impede Harvard’s important educational and social mission.  They sideline the debate and distract from the real goal of combating global warming. As we have opined in the past, other student groups like I, Too, Am Harvard and Our Harvard Can Do Better have effected change without disrupting University operations.

Past meetings with President Faust, representatives of the Harvard Management Company, the Board of Overseers, and the Harvard Corporation have afforded Divest Harvard an unusual degree of access to the administration. Yesterday’s offer of yet another meeting between President Faust and Divest leaders stands in contrast to the Undergraduate Council’s single closed meeting with Faust each semester. The offer of a closed meeting without any media or recording devices present is generous; students should not expect continued audiences with the administration, especially in light of Faust’s October 2013 open letter that clearly articulated her anti-divestment stance. Indeed, even despite the University’s objections to divestment, Harvard Management Company has added a vice president of sustainability.

We believe that Divest Harvard’s radical protest actions have no logical end, especially since Faust’s stance is so clear. Were Faust to agree to an open meeting but still refuse to divest, then what? Given the Faust’s previous experience with the video confrontation, where her words were spoken over and the full conversation edited, the University’s reticence to agree to an open meeting is understandable. Tactics like the sit-in or blockade are merely self-promotion, not reasonable attempts to change minds on this critical issue. In fact, they seem far more likely to alienate potential supporters than to draw them in.

Disrupting University business is not open debate, it is not free speech, and it is not a productive way to move forward on this desperately critical issue. Harvard deserves better, and so does the environment.