Opinions, Editorials

Divesting Is Overly Simple Response To Complex Issue

Two documents have emerged related to the increasing call for the divestment of Boston College’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry in the past two weeks. The first, a press release by BC Fossil Free, a student organization dedicated to the divestment cause, condemns the decision by the University to host Peter Voser, Chief Executive Officer of Royal Dutch Shell, as the keynote speaker at its monthly CEO Club of Boston event. The second, a resolution by the UGBC Senate, specifically “urges [the] President and Board of Trustees to ensure that none of its directly held or commingled assets include holdings in fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within 5 years as determined by the Carbon Tracker list.”

Let it first be said that the threat of global warming is very real, and the overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed studies show that it is largely due to the actions of human beings. Climate change has been shown to lead to rising acidity levels in the world’s oceans, harmful melting of Arctic ice, flooding, and droughts worldwide-phenomena that seriously affect the lives of thousands of people and drastically harm the American economy. These facts have been recognized across the United States, leading students from more than 250 colleges and universities to begin campaigns dedicated to ensuring that their respective universities divest from the fossil fuel industry.

It is encouraging to see BC students engage in conversation about a nationwide movement with global effects, but both of the documents put forth are, in many ways, black and white versions of what is really a color image-dangerous oversimplifications of complicated issues.

The authors of the BC Fossil Free document write, “It is fundamentally inconsistent with the Catholic, Jesuit identity of the University for the Boston College Chief Executives’ Club to invite Royal Dutch Shell CEO Peter Voser to its upcoming luncheon and celebrate him as an exemplary business leader.” This strong assertion, made throughout the document, is disconcerting. By making this argument, BC Fossil Free is stating that only those speakers who agree with “the Catholic, Jesuit identity of the University” should be permitted to speak at BC sponsored events. This logic implies that those people whose life choices disagree with those of the Jesuits should not be celebrated for their success. But what about marriage equality activists like Ellen DeGeneres, whose potential visit to BC is currently the subject of a GLC petition? What about medical experts who support the practice of euthanasia, or moral theologians who support the use of condoms?

Any of these speakers would clash with the Jesuit, Catholic identity of the University, yet it would be both ridiculous and detrimental to the student body to disallow them from coming to speak. The fact that a particular speaker’s views or actions disagree with the Jesuit, Catholic tradition should never be used as a reason for prohibiting them from coming to campus. True Jesuit, Catholic education is best accomplished when multiple sides of an issue are presented and the costs and benefits of each are taken under equal consideration. Ethical dilemmas like global warming and the effects of fossil fuels should not be dealt with by ignoring those who are involved in them, as BC Fossil Free seems to be suggesting by condemning Voser’s keynote address. Rather, they should be addressed precisely by engaging in conversation with those who have differing viewpoints. Perhaps BC Fossil Free could work towards gaining support for its cause by presenting the other side of the argument, bringing to campus speakers who disagree with Voser’s business practices.

The UGBC Senate proposal, a two and a half page document, seems to ignore too many variables in so strongly urging the University to divest from the fossil fuel industry, without considering any one of the numerous negative implications such a divestment could have.

Similar to the BC Fossil Free press release, the Senate proposal uses BC’s Jesuit, Catholic identity as justification for the University to divest from fossil fuels, citing statements from both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. However, thousands of companies worldwide-including several with ties to BC and its students-violate Jesuit, Catholic beliefs. Apple and Adidas are reported to benefit from sweatshop labor, Nike is often accused of preying on impoverished, inner-city Americans, and Google supports progressive causes like marriage equality. In fact, just about any major corporation arguably conflicts with the Jesuit, Catholic identity of BC. Should the University divest from all these companies, as well?

Such questions are not intended to suggest the futility of ethically motivated social activism, nor to say that one should be resigned to any evil in the world because one does not have the ability to change it. On the contrary, in cases such as these, one should direct his or her time and resources toward an area in which change is not only feasible but entirely beneficial, rather than presenting an over-simplified solution-and one that could have detrimental side effects-to a large and complex issue.

What anyone who reflects on this topic of divestment must do is weigh the good versus the bad. BC produces more than 2,000 graduates annually, who go on to become investors, politicians, doctors, lawyers, nurses, lobbyists, and educators at all levels of learning, among many other professions-representing a vast potential for social good. At BC, students are introduced to sustainable practices, with a wide range of resources-from classes to student organizations-available to explore sustainability efforts and climate change further. What BC can feasibly accomplish and should do is ensure that anyone who graduates from the University is fully aware of these initiatives, as well as the scientific realities of climate change, in order to produce members of society who will be well informed on the topic and able to effect change in their future careers.

The University likely does invest in companies that encourage or enable the use of fossil fuels. Divesting from those companies over the next five years may be possible for the University, but it probably is not. Unfortunately, the Senate proposal is put forth without much knowledge  about the University’s current investments, which remain confidential. If it was possible for the University to divest from the fossil fuel industry, and if hundreds of other universities did the same, those companies might lose enough funding that they drastically reform their business practices. If they did, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might stop rising so rapidly and climate change might be stalled. But any one of these might just as easily not occur.

At the same time, it is crucial to understand the importance of the University’s endowment-it is not merely a large number. Rather, it provides for future development of the University through investments in new academic buildings, residence halls, endowed faculty chairs, research and development, and, most importantly, financial aid for students. When it comes down to it, the University needs an endowment to educate the students who are here today, and the ones who will be here in 10, 20, or 100 years. Although the Senate and BC Fossil Free might like it to be, perhaps it isn’t possible for the University to divest so fully from fossil fuels and still support its vital educational functions.

March 21, 2013

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