[Print] Inside the Environmentalist Echo Chamber


If you haven’t yet encountered the divestment movement, you will soon. Ever since its inception in the pages of The Rolling Stone last summer, it has crept up on college campuses throughout the nation, leaving bewildered administrators and conservatives in its wake. After inspiring a University-wide referendum at Harvard in November, legions of Chaco-clad climate-types have carried the movement throughout North America and beyond. Now it has infested over 413 colleges and civic organizations around the world, including our very own.

In recent weeks, Divest Dartmouth has enjoyed a great deal of success across all corners of the campus. Beyond the usual gaggle of Green groups, it has attracted support from Greek organizations, varsity athletes, religious groups, campus publications, and even aspiring finance-Gods. Its frequent meetings have been documented extensively in the local press and its student divestment petition has won nearly 300 signatures to date. Perhaps most remarkable of all, a number of environmental studies classes have gone so far as to examine the movement’s efforts within their “eco-activism” units and add the topic of divestment to their syllabi. Divest Dartmouth, then, has gained momentum like no environmental group before it and has the potential to become a lasting fixture within the campus’s political debate. As a result, it appears that Dartmouth has yet another problem, one that has gone unaddressed in its recent protests and attempts at community reflection: somewhere along the line, it has institutionalized a severe distrust and misunderstanding of the very economic system that it is meant to serve.

This is a serious issue indeed, and one that will have far-reaching implications for the future of both the College and the nation at large. To be sure, it has not arisen all at once. Divest Dartmouth has not magically sowed the seeds of our socialist discontent in a few months time; rather, it has figured out how to reap them. By leveraging popular concerns about climate change and a generational leeriness toward capitalism, the divestment movement has found a home in academia’s critique of the free market economy and gained a critical mass of support amongst its future stewards. In order to see how the movement has succeeded and the severity of the threat it poses, one need look no further than the campus’ first ever divestment symposium early last week.

This past Monday, I joined the curious assortment of undergraduates assembled in the lower levels of Dartmouth Hall for the much-promoted event. Having arrived a mere fifteen minutes before the published start-time, I was hard-pressed to find a seat in an auditorium filled with chattering undergraduates, faculty members, and local high school students. Picking my way through the crowd, I located an unobtrusive seat at the very back of the room and settled in next to an overtly affectionate couple who looked and smelled like they had hiked there from Middle Earth. In order to distract myself from their malodorous tickle-fight, I began to survey the surrounding audience and eavesdrop on the conversations behind me. Amongst the hushed excitement, I could make out one recurring exclamation: “Wow! Bill McKibben is really here!”

Indeed, sitting nonchalantly at the front of the room, was the celebrated environmentalist himself. As a professor of climate studies at Middlebury College, McKibben is somewhat of an academic rock star, the Green movement’s Noam Chomsky of our generation. After publishing The End of Nature, the first full-length account of global warming and its dangers, in 1989, he emerged as a leading voice within the nation’s drive to retrench its energy acquisition and consumption habits around a more sustainable foundation. His latest initiative, a group he named 350.org (which is itself a reference to the 350 parts per million that he and many other climatologist consider to be the safe upper limit of carbon in the atmosphere), leads the campaign to block the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and serves as the activist inspiration for today’s collegiate divestment initiatives. For the eco-activists in attendance, then, his presence was truly something to get excited about.

After an interminably long wait, McKibben was eventually joined on stage by the rest of the panel. To his right, separated by the event’s moderator, was Tuck Professor of corporate valuations and sustainability strategies, Anant Sundaram. To his immediate left sat Terry Tempest Williams, a Dartmouth visiting professor obsequiously introduced as “one of the greatest living writers in the English language” and a leading agitator for progressive change in climate practices. Beyond her were half-a-dozen members of the Dartmouth divestment team who had been invited to participate in the discussion and offer their personal insights into the movement. Unbeknownst to the audience, this seating arrangement would provide a visual framework for the discussion to follow. As the lone voice of divestment opposition, Professor Sundaram was sequestered both physically and intellectually from the panel’s agenda and left to the side as a perfunctory nod to the “free dialogue and debate” that the organizers had promised. Clearly, this was not to be an open discussion; instead, it was a Vyshinski-style show trial, in which the verdict was a foregone conclusion and opposition was a mere gesture of self-assured magnanimity.   

Given this context, it was particularly fitting that the moderator began by introducing the forum in the spirit of last month’s protests. Standing before the audience, she proclaimed that the divestment movement was consistent with the principles of change that had led to the cancellation of classes several weeks ago and an increased emphasis on community inclusion. In a call that was oblivious to its own hypocrisy, she encouraged us to internalize the model of Swarthmore College and use “open dialogue” as a means of outlawing fossil fuel investments, sexual assault, classism, and other social ills. Apparently, for the divestment movement, discussion is useful only so far as it serves the predetermined end of making ExxonMobil and Chevron the moral equivalents of rapists and elitists. Just like the protestors, then, the event’s organizers hoped to dictate their program of reform under the guise of a disingenuous and one-sided discourse. As a result, they had far more in common with #realtalk than even the decidedly partisan moderator acknowledged.

After this revealing introduction, she handed the microphone to the first in a long line of students who made speeches that were not only insipid and redundant but also entirely irrelevant to the topic at hand. Throughout the first forty minutes of the event, these speakers droned on and on about the importance of protest, the dangers of climate change, and moral imperative of immediate action. Divestment as a strategy was hardly ever mentioned, and when it was, it was presumed to be the self-evident savior of man. In my favorite moment, Divest Dartmouth organizer Leehi Yona ’16 made the tangential and unsubstantiated claim that American Indians in North Dakota suffered from higher rates of cancer diagnosis because of fossil fuel extraction. The point of this remark was entirely unclear: unsubstantiated medical assertions aside, in a debate about the merits of institutional divestment, how would reshuffling Dartmouth’s energy portfolio reduce carcinogen exposure for a single ethnicity that comprises 5.5% of a population spread across 70,762 square miles? It seems that in her eagerness to vilify Big Energy, Ms. Yona was too quick to resort to racialized fear tactics and untoward smear campaigns.

This tendency toward hyperbolic distortion only accelerated as the night went on. After the campus divestment leaders had had their moment in the sun, the headline speakers began their presentations. Up first was Professor Williams, who perpetuated the movement’s self-styled image as the righteous extension of the #realtalkers’ April protests. In one particularly pedantic moment, she claimed that “there was a fresh breeze blowing through the campus” which could inspire a “democratic revolution against self-interest” and end the “utilitarian” temptation to support American business interests. Apparently, all of this and more was possible so long as Divest Dartmouth held firm and continued to challenge the Board’s investment strategies. To further illustrate this point, she read a poem that she had recently written about a friend who, in a profound moment of artistic rebelliousness, hung a bubble-wrap wedding dress over a dead tree in her backyard. The crowd snapped and murmured enthusiastically as she explained that the act illustrated our “marriage to madness” and horrific need to destroy the environment for petty self-gain. In her eyes, man had to “take off the bubble wrap dress” and embrace the “nakedness and vulnerability of humanity” before he could stop “living [this horrific and immoral] lie.” Divest Dartmouth, then, represented the all-important first step in a process that would turn the campus and the world into a more sustainable and ethical place.   

Up next was Bill McKibben. After quelling the crowd’s uproarious applause, he began his presentation much like the speakers before him, emphasizing the consequences of climate change and the need for immediate student action. To his credit, however, he was quick to leave this type of argument behind and refocus his remarks on the advertised topic of the panel: divestment as a strategy for change. Throughout the next 20 minutes, he ran through a series of talking points about the movement’s goals and the nobility of its course of action. In one particularly telling moment, he suggested that “if you own [Big Energy] stock, the bet you are making is that the world will do nothing” and that you could either “invest using the physics department or with Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal.” This remark, in turn, became the thesis for the rest of his talk in which he argued that it was not only immoral to invest in the fossil fuel industry, but also financially ill-advised. Unfortunately for the professor, his statistical acumen did not extend beyond the realm of the climatological, for in a moment of intellectual abandon, he stated that saving 26% a year on green light bulbs was a “better return on investment” than buying Exxon stock. Apparently, somebody forgot to explain to him that failing to spend 26% on something as trivial as light bulbs was nary the same as earning a 26% return on millions invested with Big Energy. This oversight did not seem to bother the crowd, however, for it exploded with a furious round of snaps and murmurs of agreement. Let’s hope that they weren’t economics majors.

After a few more remarks in which he compared fossil fuel divestment to the 1990’s Apartheid strategy (he even acknowledged the destruction of Dartmouth’s shantytown wistfully), McKibben concluded his talk with a final call to action and then yielded the microphone to Professor Sundarum. We were now nearly 90 minutes into a two hours event, and the lone voice of opposition was finally getting his first chance to speak. He did not disappoint. After expressing his concerns about climate change and his adamant belief that action was needed, he laid out a convincing and logical argument for why divestment was not a desirable strategy. It had four main points.

First, because a mere 0.4% of investments in fossil fuel stocks come from college and university endowments, divestment in its current form could not possibly have any meaningful effect on either Big Energy’s financial security or the changing climate. Second, even if it did, it would leave higher education on a “slippery slope” toward dangerous interference in the free market economy. As the good professor pointed out repeatedly, “if we intervene against ExxonMobil and Chevron, what is to prevent us from divesting McDonalds because of obesity or Apple because of working conditions in China?” That seemed to unnerve a few members of the audience, who clutched their iPhones a bit more tightly in discomfort. Third, Sundarum contended that divestment was unfair and even unethical because it would disproportionately affect the lower and middle classes of the developing world. Because cheap and reliable energy is the basis for wealth creation, the end of the global fossil fuel industry would “disrupt international prosperity and prevent the average Indian or Chinese laborer from escaping poverty.” Ivy League calls for divestment, then, were intensely hypocritical and destructive to those who need affordable energy the most. Finally, he pointed out that divestment would ultimately be counterproductive. In what was perhaps the most powerful part of his presentation, Sundarum explained that Big Energy is more heavily invested in “deflating the carbon bubble” than any other industry simply because their long-term survival depends upon it. As a result, the Exxons and Chevrons of the world have been the most active in developing carbon capture technologies, alternative fuel sources, and more efficient consumption methods as a part of a sustainable and profitable growth strategy. This led him to conclude that divestment was a well intentioned, but ineffective course of action that ought to be abandoned as part of the environmental movement’s playbook.

Needless to say, the audience did not take this prescription well. In the discussion that followed, it largely ignored Sundarum’s extensive arguments and lobbed feel-good questions to McKibben and other like-minded panelists. In what became my favorite moment of the evening, one faculty-member went so far as to ask how many subsidies would be needed for the Green movement to bankrupt the fossil fuel industry. Sundarum jumped on the question and pointed out that free market innovation was the only way to construct a more sustainable future and that government interference was more likely to produce a hundred Sollyndras than one scalable alternative. The pro-divestment panelists, however, not only completely ignored this criticism, but also began to speculate as to how the Obama Administration could provide more financial support for solar, wind, and other energy sources.

Ironically, this answer proved to be the perfect capstone for an imperfect evening of debate. In their abject failure to acknowledge the perspectives of the opposition, the activists parodied their own calls for dialogue and revealed their overt hostility to free market principles. As a result, the true nature of the divestment movement became clear: far from a targeted stand against Big Energy, it is actually a sweeping and dictatorial effort to force fundamental change on the global economy. And now that it has found a home within capitalism’s young discontents, there is no telling how far it will go.

— Nicholas P. Desatnick