Rethinking Divestment

Apparently the Undergraduate Council referendum to divest from fossil fuels is impossible, and many Harvard students don’t do math. At least, that is what a recent Wall Street Journal opinion article “Harvard Needs Remedial Energy Math” implies. According to Robert Bryce, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the numerous energy experts he cites, alternative energy, such as wind and solar, can never be plentiful enough to keep pace with the world’s increased energy usage (as much as 121 percent since the 1980s). Bryce says the 72 percent of voting undergrads who chose to divest from fossil fuels did not look at the numbers behind our energy needs. His point is clear: We need fossil fuels.

At least that is what I think he was trying to say; all the fractions kept on confusing me. But beneath all the statistics, Bryce might be onto something—maybe we were not looking too closely when we voted to divest from fossil fuels.

Or maybe I am using the communal we here unjustly. Maybe I am the only one who didn’t spend much time when I voted on the measure. I did not do any research. I did not pull out my calculator, my abacus, or my smart friend who can do math in his head. I did not even read the whole measure; I only skimmed the summary of the ballot (perhaps Bryce should write an op-ed about how we don’t read). I saw “fossil fuel” and I voted as any student who recycles when convenient has been conditioned to: in favor of divestment.

I was proud of myself for doing my 10-second part to save the environment and celebrated with a half dozen paper cups filled with dining hall coffee. You’re welcome, ice caps. I did not think twice about the consequence of my vote or if divestment was even possible. I trusted that since I voted against evil, against fossil fuels, I had done right.

Supporting environmentalism, the green movement, and divestment has become the norm, a social law that we obey at the risk of destroying the planet and upsetting Prius owners. We support them because we are supposed to, because green is good, oil is bad, four legs good and two legs bad. We are programmed to support the green movement without thinking.

Our votes have consequences, even if we refuse to think about them. In this case the administration chose to ignore our mandate, but this is not always the case. Imagine if members of Congress didn’t think when voting on health care or economic policy, ignored the substance of a bill, and only looked at trigger words that told them how they should vote. That would lead to gridlock and government immobility. We expect our leaders to make informed decisions. There is no reason we shouldn’t hold ourselves to that same high standard.

It’s not really our fault. We have been programmed to take short cuts, skim readings, and multitask. Why shouldn’t we? We barely have enough time to sleep as it is. So why should we take the time to research every country’s energy consumption or study the background of every UC candidate? That time could be spent sleeping or perhaps reading the news while listening to a lecture while doing Zumba.

Yet, we (just me again?) could have spent a little more than two minutes voting on the UC ballot. Skimming referenda and voting for friends and people with catchy names seems like a slap in the face to those students who invested months working on their campaigns and drafting measures. We could spend a little more time looking into it.

If you won’t do it for them do it for yourself. We have a reputation to uphold and not the Elle Woods “Legally Blonde” one. We look bad when we don’t think. It’s embarrassing when people like Bryce chide us in the Wall Street Journal.

Worst of all, most of us cannot even defend our position. We cannot support our decision, we have no facts, have done no research, and apparently don’t do math. The debate team should be horrified. We need stronger defenses than “I had a good feeling about this one,” “The sentence I skimmed had a nice font,” and “Eenie meenie moe never fails.” We have to admit that yes, maybe we could have done a little more research, or at the very least given the measure some thoughtful consideration.

Maybe Bryce is wrong, maybe divestment is completely possible, and he needs to redo his own math. However, we will never know unless we look into it ourselves. It is unreasonable of the student body to expect the administration to make drastic changes without fully understanding or even considering the implications of what we are asking it to do.

Nicole J. Levin ’15, a Crimson FM executive, is a history and literature concentrator in Dunster House.


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