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Letter to the Editor: Divestment is not Hypocrisy

By Jane J. Mansbridge and Daniel I. Wikler

To the editors:

In your recent editorial opposing divestment, you write:

“Divestment is a profoundly hypocritical answer. All Harvard affiliates—from the administrators in Massachusetts Hall to the recently arraigned Divest protesters—look to fossil fuels every day as a helpful convenience. Our morning routines alone involve heated rooms, alarm clocks, hot showers, and lit hallways—all made possible by the combustion of long-dead dinosaurs.”

When President Faust made a similar argument—the argument from hypocrisy—the fossil-fuel industry’s major anti-divestment organization jumped on it, quoting it prominently on its website. They seemed to think it important, as you do. But it is a fallacious argument.

Buying or keeping any shares puts the shareholder in the position of hoping that the value of those shares will increase. The share price of fossil fuel companies rests on their continuing to pursue their present plans to extract and sell the fuel in their existing reserves and to search for new reserves. If the fuel in existing reserves is extracted and burned, most calculations indicate that the temperature of the earth will rise enough to have catastrophic effects on human societies. If governments and consumer pressure succeed in slowing or preventing this extraction and burning through carbon taxes or outright bans, the prices of the fossil-fuel companies’ stock would fall. If we own that stock, we thus must hope that extraction and burning proceeds at the current or a faster pace.

Those who use these companies’ products to fuel their cars, heat their houses, and power their computers may hope, without any hint of hypocrisy, that taxes, bans, and consumer decisions reduce the attractiveness of fossil fuels, that research will produce renewable, affordable alternatives, that fossil-fuel companies find themselves undercut in price and efficiency by other industries, and that their reserves stay in the ground, so that they do not contribute to a fast-developing environmental and public health catastrophe.

Investors in fossil-fuel companies, in short, may and do have different objectives and aims from those of the users of fossil fuel products. There is nothing inconsistent—much less hypocritical—in buying and using these products today while pressing for their replacement as soon as possible by safer alternatives. Nor is there anything inconsistent—much less hypocritical—in buying and using these products today while asking the institution one reveres not to put itself, gratuitously, in the position of hoping financially that these fuels will not be replaced.

The world-wide divestment movement has already changed consciousness and inspired questioning of the fossil fuel economy. If there are sustainable arguments against it—not just that its proponents are hypocritical or should be doing something better with their time—its opponents should be willing to advance those arguments in civil public debate.

Jane J. Mansbridge is the Charles F. Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at the Harvard Kennedy School. Daniel I. Wikler is the Mary B. Saltonstall Professor of Ethics and Population Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Both have signed a letter calling on Harvard to divest from fossil fuel companies.

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