The New York Times has an article today about the “Disinvest from Oil” campaign that Bill McKibben has been pushing in his “Do the Math” tour during the past month. The logic is that unless we can force the hand of the fossil fuel industry, they will happily keep releasing gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere, ensuring that all our descendents die a very hot death. The only way to stop this mass suicide is to pull the financial rug out from under the industry by disinvesting the $$ billions that shareholders have put into those companies. For details, see Bill McKibben’s article in Rolling Stone.
Who better to be swayed by this logic than universities, those bastions of rational science who cannot fail to take the side of the 99% of scientists who say we have to act right now, and not be distracted by the clearly biased position of the fossil fuel industry who say there’s nothing to worry about?
What is so fascinating about the universities’ reaction, as made clear in the New York Times article, is that they don’t see their investments in the fossil fuel industry as an ethical problem. “Harvard is not considering divesting from companies related to fossil fuels,” said a university spokesman quoted in the article. Yes, the planet will die unless we cut our carbon emissions, and yes we (the wealthy universities like Harvard with a $31bil endowment) are shareholders in the very companies that are emitting that carbon, but no, we don’t feel a need to do anything differently.
This is the outcome of rational science devoid of ethics, and it offers a humbling lesson for the challenges of applying ethics to other arenas, like water policies. When Harvard University, a symbol of Western intellectualism, cannot see a reason to disinvest from the oil and coal companies they are financially supporting, can we really expect the US Army Corps of Engineers to question their historic traditions of converting healthy rivers into concrete floodways?
The problem is not that Harvard’s administration or the Army Corps of Engineers lack personal ethics about what’s right and wrong. The problem is that they don’t regard the issue of owning a share of an oil company, or replacing a stream channel with a concrete pipe, as a moral issue. Their focus is on the outcomes of high returns to investment, or smoothing over a stream for a building site.
We who work on the issue of “water ethics” are trying to reframe water management choices from being seen as purely technical or economic decisions to having inherent moral and ethical dimensions. We expect the Army Corps to “get” this concept, but the challenge seems more daunting if even Harvard doesn’t “get” it! How can we even imagine more sustainable alternatives unless we first learn to see the moral content of existing policies?
Once upon a time, it made perfect moral sense to invest in oil companies because they provided the energy we needed for our economic systems to flourish. It also made perfect moral sense to employ poor children as workers. Today employing children in factories is not acceptable no matter how much they are paid because our society recognizes the over-riding importance of those children spending their time getting educated. Companies that would like the benefits of cheap child labor are out of luck.
When the oil and coal companies are shown — by the world’s best scientists — to be undermining the health and livelihoods of our children and most certainly our grandchildren, shouldn’t we, as a society, tell them, “No!”? We don’t even need to change our ethics. We only need to recognize the basic ethics that we already hold.
With investments, as with river management, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t invest in industries that are killing us and pretend it’s not a moral choice. And the Army Corps can no longer “rectify” rivers that have pesky meanders and call it good management. In fact, the Army Corps no longer does that; they have adopted more ecological guidelines for their management decisions. Harvard University should be as enlightened!