On Divestment

The movement, its critics, and the moral case for divesting.

1. On Criticizing Activists

The primary response met by students at Stanford calling for divestment is doubt regarding the efficacy of divestment as a tactic. I find this criticism to be, for the most part, lazy and hypocritical. If you:

  • Agree that climate change is a problem; and…
  • Are doing nothing yourself to work against climate injustice; while…
  • Criticizing others who are dedicating their time and energy to saving the planet from a fiery implosion; then you are…
  • A hypocrite!

Because even if you think the impact of divestment is symbolic and insignificant, there is literally no tactic that can possible accomplish less than doing nothing and criticizing people who care enough to do more. You are not only a hypocrite, you are also a fraud. Because you pretend to care about this planet and its inhabitants, but your words belie your actions. If you really cared about the climate and thought divestment wasn’t the right tactic, you’d be doing something else. But you aren’t. Because you don’t care.

2. Why Divest?

Divestment doesn’t stop climate change. There, I said it. Although there’s a chance I’m wrong. We have every reason to believe that a globally-recognized institution like Stanford has the leadership and political power to influence other organizations to follow suit. And further, when you aren’t profiting from the destruction of the planet, you’ve eliminated an important conflict of interest that stops you from taking other meaningful action against the fossil fuel industry. You probably don’t believe this. I don’t care. Why? Because the moral obligation to divest isn’t about hurting fossil fuel companies. It’s about refusing to profit from exploitation.

Let’s start from a basic moral premise: It is wrong to intentionally profit from the suffering of other people. Uncontroversial, right? And importantly, this is true whether or not you have the ability to prevent the suffering. For example…

If you are a part of a highly profitable sex-trafficking ring, you are making money from the suffering and exploitation of innocent people. Every right that is violated adds to your paycheck; every broken person inflates your salary. It is apparent that you have a moral obligation to quit participating. Importantly, not because your quitting would end sex trafficking, but because it is wrong to profit from the suffering of others.

Now, let’s turn to climate change. I hope I don’t have to work hard to communicate the impact that climate change has on helpless people around the globe. And I think that’s the worst part, that they are totally helpless. People in South America, in Africa, in Indonesia, in most places that will be underwater and uninhabitable, cannot do a thing to stop climate change. Because almost all emissions are coming from just a small minority of countries—developed and emerging economies. There is a linear relationship between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global temperature, which means that until emissions get close to zero, the planet will not stop warming, and the world’s most vulnerable people will be subjected to unimaginable terror and suffering. And there’s no recourse: there’s nothing that a person in Indonesia whose house was consumed by a wildfire could have done to stop the United States, Europe, and China from emitting that carbon dioxide.

Because we burn fossil fuels, people suffer in real and measurable ways. Agriculture fails. Civil war breaks out. Water tables collapse. Disease proliferates. And in the face of this humanitarian tragedy, we continue to profit.

If you accept that it is wrong to make money from other people’s suffering, you must agree that remaining invested in fossil fuels is not permissible for any individual or institution that claims to be moral. Stanford has the political and financial sway to have a choice. I hope we make the right one.