Acton Institute Powerblog

The ‘Illiberal’ Religious Campaigners Behind Fossil-Fuel Divestment

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The recent decline in oil prices is a boon for consumers but a bust for oil companies. Collectively, profits of the four supermajors – Royal Dutch Shell PLC; Exxon Mobil Corp.; Chevron Corp.; and BP PLC – have plummeted 70 percent in the first nine months of 2015, according to the Wall Street Journal. Despite a “precipitous drop in profits this year,” the supermajors increased stock dividends 10 percent over 2014, disbursing approximately $28 billion to shareholders.

For the time being, that’s good news for investors unless the shareholders happen to be among the universities and religious members of the fossil-fuel divestment crowd. This group includes the always headline-grabbing college and university activists (10.9 percent), philanthropic foundations (31 percent) and faith-based organizations (25 percent). These figures are culled from the National Association of Scholars’ “Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels,” which was released this week. NAS is a New York City-based nonprofit dedicated to “the promotion and preservation of high academic standards in teaching and scholarship.” From the NAS Executive Summary:

The idea of fossil fuel divestment grew out of a college student campaign at Swarthmore College. 350.org, the main organization supporting divestment, emerged at Middlebury College. At least one student-run organization, the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, supports divestment campaigns. But much of the organizational and intellectual framework comes from professional environmental activists and environmentalist organizations that train college students and put them forward as the face of the movement.

PowerBlog readers may recall our old friends at 350.org, which was founded by Bill McKibben about whom I’ve written at length and with whom I’ve personally engaged in this space. Interestingly, I claimed McKibben and his divestment posse hid behind the vestments of clergy, nuns and other religious in much the same manner NAS claims 350.org and other organizations enlist college students. It’s a clever yet disingenuous marketing ploy intended to indicate not only is God on the side of the divestment crowd by upping the “cute quotient” with nuns and such and young, attractive and passionate college students. The reality is divestment warriors are a well-organized and extremely well-funded professional effort.

The NAS report continues:

The superficial goals of the movement are to convince institutions to pull out of coal, oil, and gas investments. But the movement’s abiding purpose has been to pressure governments to favor wind, solar, and hydro power, and to make colleges and universities pressure cookers of sustainability. The sustainability movement, in turn, combines environmental extremism, global warming alarmism, opposition to modern industrial economies and market economics, an affinity for global regulation, and a distaste for representative government….

The fossil fuel divestment campaign is more than a foolish distraction from environmental conservation. It represents an affront to academic freedom and the purpose of higher education, and an assault on the heritage of American political theory. Advocates of fossil fuel divestment sidestep real debates about energy and environmental policy and scorn discourse as needless delay. The campaign smears opponents and bullies dissenters. It treats colleges and universities primarily as instruments of political activism and only secondarily, or even thirdly or fourthly, as places that exist to cultivate the character of an inquiring mind and to pursue truth.

If NAS issues such strong words against the harm rendered by divestment advocates in academia, one wonders how they would characterize the like-minded groups and individuals in the faith-based community who have thus far had a 15 percent larger role in the divestment movement. In addition, the NAS report states:

The fossil fuel divestment campaign also denies the merits of an American-style representative democracy. The central premise of the campaign is that the political system is so indissolubly wedded to the fossil fuel industry that government action on environmental policy is illegitimate. That premise casts anyone who disagrees with divestors as a mercenary of the fossil fuel industry and litters with political landmines the grounds for legitimate debate. It asserts that mob rule by street-marching activists is better than representative democracy, and that the tradition of civic debate is a hopeless waste of time.

To the obvious question about the negative economic impact on fossil-fuel investors from divestment, NAS reports (citing Bradford Cornell’s “The Divestment Penalty”):

Studies that examine 20 to 50 years of investment history find that divestment would shrink endowment returns. One study, looking back 20 years, estimated that if five American universities—Columbia, Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, and Yale—had divested 20 years ago, they would have forfeited about $195 million in investment returns every year. Over a 50-year period, these short-falls would reduce the endowment sizes by a weighted average of 12.07 percent. Harvard alone, by those estimates, would lose an average of $107.81 million each year by divesting fossil fuels.

It’s a shame, really. As noted by my friend and former co-worker Joy Pullman over at The Federalist:

The latest in centuries of proof that the Left deliberately targets and enlists young people in its efforts to revolutionize America comes from a huge report recently put out by the National Association of Scholars. It chronicles the seemingly overnight rise of the campus fossil-fuel divestment movement, which is a boring way of saying that leftist groups are stoking and channeling uninformed young people’s hatred of free markets and agitating them into demanding collectivism, most particularly on the campuses that produce American’s leaders of commerce and politics….

Given all the striking similarities between these political-academic agitators, people who want to counter their anti-free-speech and anti-deliberation tactics from obliterating public discourse should read the full report. This isn’t just a campus thing. The Left used similar tactics in, for example, Wisconsin, during the union protests that made Gov. Scott Walker a national figure.

We can expect more of this kind of agitprop, not just on college campuses, but in all of political and public discourse. If you’re used to having your Facebook discussions shut down by that one annoying and really rude guy (or gal) who wants to hurl invective rather than actually sift ideas, even just the short summaries of this report … will give you many aha! moments. Realizing that it’s a deliberate tactic, and understanding its particulars, is the first step towards overcoming it.

Just so. And religious activists represent 25 percent of the divestment movement. More’s the pity.

Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. Most recently, he was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2007 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past three years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Midland, Mich., with his wife Katherine.

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