The fossil-fuel sustainability and divestment movements began with colleges and universities. Over the past two years, the movements have gained momentum from faith-based activists intent on stranding oil, coal and natural gas in the ground. At the same time, they’re pressing their religious communities to endorse impossible fossil fuel reduction goals.
Progressives in the sustainability and divestment movements must assume that if Big Oil is brought to heel, then Big Renewable will immediately fill the void. Never mind that there exists nothing today to replace the growing need for oil, coal and natural gas. Will we one day have an efficient and affordable replacement? Not if we bankrupt advanced, technologically rich economies with sustainability policies.
Additionally, mounting evidence suggests that sustainability efforts in the academic industry, which includes fossil-fuel divestment, have inflicted economic harm on colleges and universities (and taxpayers) without providing a scintilla of benefit for the environment.
The National Association of Scholars’ Rachelle Peterson and Peter W. Wood note in their recent report, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism,
For people accustomed to images of clear blue skies and fresh mountain springs when they hear the word “sustainability,” the suggestion that sustainability is really a war against the comforts of modern life seems too large a stretch to be true. So let’s start with the words of one of the most prominent advocates of the movement, Naomi Klein, whose recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, declares that the environmental crises of today call for no less than the abolition of capitalism. Ms. Klein writes that “the urgency of the climate crisis could form the basis of a powerful mass movement” aimed at protecting “humanity from the ravages of both a savagely unjust economic system and a destabilized climate system.”
Ms. Klein blames what she calls “free market fundamentalism” for “overheating the planet.” She disparages the idea that markets in general solve most of our problems of scarcity and distribution. And she sees “big business” as inimical to environmental health.
Such is the fervor of the climate-change cult. Never mind the profound economic impact and human suffering that would follow worldwide if all nations suddenly switched from fossil fuels to what amounts to unicorn and Smurf energy. Increased costs for energy translates into losses for industry, investors, employees and customers – and the world’s poorest. Currently, an estimated 620 million people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to electricity, and for those that do have it, supply is often insufficient, unreliable and among the most costly in the world, reports the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Around 730 million people in the region rely on solid biomass for cooking, which – when used indoors with inefficient cookstoves – causes air pollution that results in nearly 600,000 premature deaths in Africa each year.
Without evidence to guide them, the progressive religious community couldn’t wait to jump into the sustainability pool with their academic brothers and sisters. In 2013, Inside Climate News’ Katherine Bagley wrote:
“With the civil rights movement, the youth led and the churches followed,” said Fred Small, minister of the Unitarian Universalist First Parish Church in Cambridge, Mass. The church is one of dozens of congregations across the country exploring how to divest their portfolios of coal, oil and gas companies.
“If young people see divestment as a key issue in the climate fight, then it is important for us to get involved,” Small said.
The furthest along is the 1.2 million-member United Church of Christ, which will hold a national vote in June to adopt a fossil fuel divestment measure. Since November, divestment campaigns have spread to 210 universities in the United States and Canada, and to the city of Seattle, the first municipality seeking to divest its $1.9 billion pension fund.
The campaign is organized by 350.org, a grassroots climate organization founded by author turned activist Bill McKibben. It is part of a larger effort to boost the moral case for action by drawing attention to what McKibben calls global warming’s “terrifying new math.” Based on peer-reviewed science, the numbers say energy firms must keep 80 percent of their carbon reserves in the ground to limit the global temperature rise to the critical 2-degrees Celsius mark.
Peterson and Wood, however, identify the real sustainability agenda:
So what is sustainability? It is an ideology that attempts to unite environmental activism, anti-capitalism, and a progressive vision of social justice. The three are not equal partners. For some advocates, such as Naomi Klein, the anti-capitalist theme comes first. Environmentalist concerns, for Klein, simply provide a fortunate opportunity to do what she wants to do anyway: get rid of capitalism. For others, such as Bill McKibben, the Middlebury College professor who is at the center of the campus fossil fuel divestment movement, the environment comes first, and economy and society will simply have to adjust to the needs of nature. For still others, such as Mitchell Thomashow, former president of Unity College, social justice is the preeminent aim of sustainability initiatives.
Much mischief can occur under all three rubrics regardless their lofty descriptors, as pointed out by Peterson and Wood:
The goal of the sustainability movement is radical transformation of the relation between humanity and nature. To this end, it seeks extreme forms of conservation of natural resources; the virtual elimination of extraction of energy from fossil fuels; a drastic retreat from the forms of mass consumption that are characteristic of the modern world ever since the Industrial Revolution; fundamental redistribution of the world’s wealth from richer to poorer countries; the end to industrial development in the underdeveloped parts of the world; and a return wherever possible to subsistence and near-subsistence standards of living. The sustainability movement generally views these goals as impossible to achieve via the forms of governance that prevail among modern nation states. To accomplish their ends, sustainability advocates favor the short-term tactics of international treaties, binding multi-national agreements, and rule-setting by world bodies. In the longer term, they see the need for a form of enlightened despotism in which sustainability-minded rulers would create, impose, and enforce a new set of universal norms.
None of this is to say that the sustainability movement is likely to achieve any of its goals. It is worth taking seriously, however, because as an ideology it is exacting and will continue to exact enormous costs by diverting resources from better ends, co-opting higher education, and instilling in students a profound distaste for political and economic freedom.
The sustainability movement’s “dominant voices view free markets themselves as the cause of environmental disaster,” the authors write. “Some even view the existence of private property as the fundamental problem. Let people decide for themselves what to do with the things they own, and people will do foolish things.”
So the abrogation of freedoms, rights and religious values that are part and parcel of what made Western civilization so successful can be seen as an endgame for the sustainability zealots, at least according to Peterson and Wood. It’s one thing to accept human-caused, catastrophic climate change, but another to demand as a legitimate response the peeling back of our freedoms and wreaking economic havoc to combat it. This is absurd by all academic standards but sinful according to religious first principles.