GROUP THINK is the DP’s round table section, where we throw a question at the columnists and see what answers stick. Read your favorite columnist, or read them all.

This week’s question: Do you think Penn should have divested? Are fossil fuels a "moral evil?"

Amy Chan | Chances Are

Do I find fossil fuels a "moral evil?" Forgive me if I scoff a little. I don't think Penn should have divested, mainly because it's not very practical for a school and a business (yes, Penn is one). And no, I don't think fossil fuels are a "moral evil." They don't hurt anyone. However, I do find Penn's rhetoric for not divesting a little extreme. Maybe the requirements for divestment have always been this way — I wouldn't know. But Penn's comparison, stating that fossil fuels are not "on par with apartheid or genocide," feels a little like shaming to me. Almost like they're belittling people who care about environmental issues. Personally, I agree with Penn. I don't find fossil fuels to be as big an issue as apartheid or genocide. But I don't think that's any reason to write someone else's priorities off.

James Lee | The Conversation

To answer the second question first: Not yet. My understanding of the University’s policy on divestment is that it will not act until the issue at hand is universally considered a moral evil. That is to say, its policy should reflect an already existing societal standard rather than seek to change it. While the harmful impacts of fossil fuels have long been noted, it seems premature to label them an evil, when essentially every aspect of our lives depend on them.

Moreover, it seems to be a practical issue rather than a moral one for most people — if fossil fuels were renewable and their environmental effects sustainable, I doubt that people would consider the moral nature of using such fuels. On the other hand, a vast majority of the people would condemn apartheid or genocide, the two examples mentioned by the Board of Trustees as examples of moral evils, regardless of whether they brought about positive or negative consequences for society as a whole.

As for whether this decision was “correct," I defer to those who know more about the issue. I will say that it seems to me that if we were to consider things like fossil fuels a moral evil, there would be a very limited range of things that Penn could invest in in good conscience. In this globalized, interconnected world, it’s unimaginably difficult to divest oneself of all its moral faults. The Nikes on your feet could be a result of child labor in Southeast Asia, that shot of vodka could go towards supporting systematic discrimination in Russia, etc. How we bear the weight of all this, I suspect, will remain a question that extends far beyond the grounds of Penn.

Aaron Cooper | Aanarchy

I think the fossil fuel industry directly participates in a moral evil, and because of that Penn is obligated to divest. The line here isn’t too hard to draw. If you look at an organization like a multinational energy conglomerate, trying to discern some sort of morality from intention quickly becomes absurd. Decisions are diffused over an enormously widespread organization, and trying to point to any one executive or board member with good intentions is uselessly particulate. When trying to pin some kind of morality on a diffuse organization, you can only really look to consequence, and even the squeaky cleanest of fossil fuel companies disqualify themselves from any moral high ground.

An oil company is built to sell oil. No matter how much impressive marketing about energy research or commitment to the environment Exxon churns out, if it fails to sell large amounts of fossil fuels to global consumers, it’s a dead company. It goes without saying that fossil fuels cause enormous harm. The climate science is conclusive: climate change is caused by fossil fuel consumption. The state of the environment has gotten drastic, and if change isn’t made soon we will see irreparable harm done to this planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants. It’s an awkward truth, but an unavoidable one. An oil company can not exist without harming humanity on a massive scale. That’s a pretty clear moral evil to me, and we need to buy out while we have the chance.

Emily Hoeven | Growing Pains

In reading over the letter from Penn's Board of Trustees explaining their decision not to divest from fossil fuels, I was particularly struck by one of their primary rationales: "In its unanimous decision, the Ad Hoc Advisory Committee concurred in what the Trustees consider to be the linchpin of any divestment decision at Penn: the interpretation of moral evil as an activity on par with apartheid or genocide. While the Trustees recognize that the “bar” of moral evil presents a rigorously high barrier of consideration, we are resolute in our belief that such a high barrier must be maintained so that investment decisions and the endowment are not used for the purpose of making public policy statements."

Although I understand the Board's desire to rise above the current political climate and make sure their decisions are politically unbiased, it seems to me that they fundamentally do not understand their own priority in this situation. Lack of divestment from fossil fuels across the country may lead to an unprecedented and unpredictable destruction of our planet — this has been shown in numerous studies and in the comprehensive outline of the dangers of fossil fuels and their related effects in Fossil Free Penn's letter to the Board. Shouldn't this possibility of utter destruction, or extremely altered environmental conditions and standards of living, really be considered a matter of utmost importance to the Board — a matter so important that it transcends worries about "public policy statements?" If Penn really wanted to rise above politics, they'd be thinking long-term — and in so doing, considering the planet that they will be leaving behind for future generations. If we do not act, we may end up enabling the very moral evils we hope to avoid. 

Cameron Dichter | Real Talk

Yes, of course Penn should have divested from the fossil fuel industry. But that's not even the real issue. The issue is that Penn students and faculty, the majority whom voted for divestment, have absolutely no say in what the Trustees choose to do. The proposal system is a farce. Penn students deserve change and that means more than just our investments.

Joe Tharakan | Cup o' Joe

Many universities, not just Penn, have faced similar movements demanding the administration divest the endowment and all other financial interests, from the fossil fuel industry. Some have, and some have not. This movement is not based on any profit motive, but rather the moral issue with supporting an industry that is polluting our environment.

Penn's decision not to divest is entirely consistent with Penn's identity as a practical and pre-professional university, where idealism is less important than profitability.

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