Fossil Free. Divestment. Social Impact. These terms are trendy. Sexy, even. But divestment is based on the principles of modern environmentalism, which disadvantages the world’s poor and is not social justice.
In one short article, I cannot — nor do I purport to — address all of the claims of the Fossil Free movement. Rather, I ask you to examine the group’s basic assumptions, and from there you can determine the validity of each individual claim that Fossil Free Penn makes.
What is the goal of the divestment movement? As Francis Leong of Penn Sustainability Review noted, “Most proponents of divestment realize the strategy’s small potential for financial impact, especially in the case of universities.” Matthew Yglesias explains in Vox that, “divestment is really just a symbolic act of disapproval.”
Indeed, though Penn’s $10 billion endowment is far larger than most universities, it is but a drop in the $5 trillion fossil fuel asset bucket. So while there are reasons to doubt that divesting would actually impact climate change, as well as reasons to doubt that it would be financially beneficial for the University, the question I raise here is not about efficacy but about moral validity.
The problem with divestment is that it is but a proxy of modern environmentalism, which combines Western, post-industrial privilege with a callous disregard for the poor, both in our own society and abroad.
Those on the environmentalist bandwagon claim they will “save the world,” but disregard the impoverished who will be directly doomed, rather than saved, by their policies. And divestment supporters are just one extension of this ideology. Attempting to divest from, discredit and destroy the non-renewables industry will unquestionably lead to higher energy costs.
Those who claim that renewable energy is — or soon will be — cheaper than fossil fuels are wrong. Alternative energy sources are very expensive and cannot compete without large subsidies and guaranteed market shares. Rising energy costs regressively hurt the poor both in the United States and around the world. The elites behind the environmental movement seem to have forgotten that affordable and dependable energy is the key to modern civilization and prosperity.
The World Health Organization estimates that 2.9 billion people live in homes that use wood, coal or dung as their primary cooking fuel. This indoor pollution leads to the development of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and cancers and caused 4.3 million deaths in 2012 alone. Helping the poor access affordable and abundant electricity would exponentially improve their lives, but the trendy topic of “climate change” seems to trump our compassion for the disadvantaged.
When we understand the very strong correlation between energy consumption and GDP growth, then we see that making access to energy HARDER for the poor is really denying them access to becoming rich like we are. And as has been proven time and again, wealthier is healthier. Preventing the poor from becoming rich is also preventing them from living longer, more prosperous lives.
The post-industrial world has unquestionably benefited from the use of fossil fuels, and there is a blatant hypocrisy in preventing developing countries from pursuing the same success. We are in effect saying, “The post-industrial West is done with fossil fuels now. And since we are done, so is everyone else!”
Of course, the United States, being the “one percenters” of the world, will not be as affected by rising fuel costs (although the poor in the United States will be affected as well.) After all, the rich can afford to pay higher energy costs and access expensive alternative energy. It is the poor who will suffer.
We must resist embracing the hypocrisy of the current generation of Rockefellers, of whom Benjamin Zycher writes, “Their central objective is loud applause at the upper-crust cocktail parties for a divestment that will have no effect on the fossil-fuel sector, that will cost them literally nothing, and that is part of a leftist campaign that views ordinary people as a liability.” Penn is better than this.
Protecting the environment is a noble goal, but you must be ready to answer the question “at what cost?” If you, like me, believe that environmentalism should not come at the expense of the world’s poor, then I urge you to join me in opposing Fossil Free Penn’s divestment effort, as we seek to steward our environment in a way that does not disproportionately affect those who already suffer most.
TAYLOR BECKER is a College junior from Lebanon, Or. He is also an elected member of the Penn Undergraduate Assembly
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