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The Logic of Divestment

By Marina N. Bolotnikova

This semester, Harvard’s chapter of the regional student coalition Students For a Just and Stable Future launched a campaign to persuade the Harvard Management Company to divest from fossil fuels.

The campaign, Divest For Our Future, marks something of a last-ditch effort for the environmental movement. Activists have campaigned for decades to enact legislation that limits the use of fossil fuels, which are the greatest contributors to global warming, to little avail. Today, our domestic political climate is such that ending our dependence on fossil fuels through the legislative process is all but impossible. SJSF’s campaign for divestment represents a novel, far-reaching, and strategic approach to confronting climate change. The HMC should divest from the fossil fuel industry not only to expose the inviability of fossil fuels, but also to shift public consciousness on the urgent and systemic nature of the current climate crisis.

Virtually no disagreement exists among the scientific community about the reality of climate change, and its implications are disturbing—the Environmental Protection Agency reports that global warming will likely result in water shortages and other life-threatening crises. Historically, activists have lobbied for protective legislation, but it’s time to acknowledge that political activism simply won’t do: It is no secret that governmental policy is fraught with the interference of the enormously powerful fossil fuel lobby. Oil, gas, and electric corporations are among the top ten highest spenders on lobbying in Washington.

Nor can we expect to end climate change through individual initiative. If we are serious about addressing the climate crisis, we must slash our consumption of fossil fuels, and that means a lot more than using fluorescent light bulbs and lowering our thermostats. Put simply, it is nearly impossible to function in our culture without relying heavily on fossil fuels. The fossil fuel industry has maintained a stranglehold on our way of life not because of consumer choice, but because consumers are effectively given no other choice. Climate change should be solved not by expecting individuals to make choices that are hardly within their power to make, but by challenging the structures that are at the heart of the climate crisis.

To this end, divestment from the fossil fuel industry will expose the institutions that exacerbate climate change and withdraw economic support of a socially irresponsible industry. Harvard’s history of divestment from socially irresponsible industries such as tobacco producers sets a powerful precedent for divestment from the fossil fuel industry, which poses no less significant a threat to human wellbeing. By refusing to invest its endowment in fossil fuels, Harvard can also ensure that its investments are not used to fuel an enterprise that endangers all life on our planet.

While we are not yet accustomed to viewing climate change as a structural issue, Harvard can begin to shift public discourse on the source of and solutions to the crisis by holding fossil fuel suppliers accountable for environmental damage and interference in the democratic process.

All told, it comes as no surprise that government policy has not even begun to adequately address climate change. Legislation follows public opinion—not the other way around—and Harvard ought to take advantage of its position as an esteemed university to shift public discourse and strike at the root of climate change.

Marina N. Bolotnikova ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is a joint Slavic languages and literatures and history of science concentrator in Eliot House.

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