But Harvard University President Drew Faust has rejected the idea, without responding to student requests for a public forum on the issue. In doing so, she turned her back on the institution’s mission: truth.
The fossil fuel industry, supported in some part by the Harvard endowment, has stooped to a particular form of political manipulation that poses a direct, existential threat to the purposes of academia. They fund and disseminate climate disinformation and corrupt our democracy in order to undermine political will for solutions. They have, with an alarming degree of success, prevented our institutions from acting on the basis of what our brains know about the dire, objective reality of our circumstances on the planet. They are at war with the truth.
By investing its assets in fossil fuels, Harvard is feeding a conscious and cynical strategy to separate human agency from knowledge and reason. The direct target of this strategy is the essential good that Harvard exists to serve: the unique human capacity for rational action based on intellectual discovery.
President Faust argues that divestment would have no practical effect. Harvard’s share of the market capitalization of fossil fuel companies is too small to matter, she calculates.
This analysis sells Harvard short. Calibrating the potential impact of divestment based on Harvard’s share of the capitalization of coal and oil companies is a bit like judging Rosa Parks’ contribution to civil rights based on the physical proportion of the segregated facilities in the South that she occupied when she sat in the front of the bus. At stake here is truth – the institution’s purpose – and our capacity to act upon it. If Harvard won’t stand up for that, who will? And if Harvard did stand up for that, how big a blow would that strike for truth?
Faust worries that divestment would be inappropriately political. But investing in fossil fuels is every bit as political as choosing not to. By shunning divestment, Harvard is not just missing an opportunity to shed light; it is financing darkness.
The illumination that Harvard could offer now by divesting would be clear and penetrating. The controversy surrounding the issue adds the wattage needed to make a dent in the prevailing darkness. If Harvard divests from fossil fuels, its more conventional academic contributions to climate solutions will gain a sense of integrity and hope that would surely increase their effectiveness.
What the world needs from academia right now is no more or less than what’s emblazoned on Harvard’s crimson shield, the institution’s motto and purpose: “Veritas” – truth – and the courage to take a stand for it.
Above, I focus on a specific reason why academic institutions in particular should divest from fossil fuels – because such investments directly undermine truth, their mission.
But President Faust’s statement rejecting divestment reads like a compendium of popular misconceptions and evasions about divestment in particular and climate action in general. Faust has offered sort of a non-deniers’ manifesto for shirking climate responsibility, so a thorough response would be something of a handbook for the opposite… if I get time.
In the meantime, and in case I never get to it, Jeff Spross has an economical debunker: Harvard’s Four Reasons For Not Divesting From Fossil Fuels, And Why They’re All Wrong.
Joe Romm follows up with a specific response to one of Faust’s most insidious arguments – the idea that divestment is hypocritical because we consume fossil fuels. This particular mode of tail-chasing is a maddeningly potent deterrent to climate action. I hope to focus on it soon. Says Joe: The Dangerous Bargain Harvard’s Dr. Faust Has Made With Fossil Fuels
For a wonderfully thorough fiduciary case for divestment, from former Reagan SEC Commissioner Bevis Longstreth, see: “The Financial Case for Divestment of Fossil Fuel Companies by Endowment Fiduciaries”
And whatever else you do, don’t just sit there, DIVEST: “Extracting Fossil Fuels from your Portfolio: A Guide to Personal Divestment and Reinvestment.”