The activists beginning to push universities and local governments to sell their oil stocks may think they have a tough road ahead of them. Other divestment campaigns, like those involving tobacco, the arms trade, and apartheid in South Africa, have taken decades, if they’ve worked at all. But the climate change divestment movement has one observer who thinks it is capable of moving mountains.
Not that this observer thinks it should move those mountains. In fact, he would rather divestment activists stop trying to move anything, period — which is the story of how the climate movement came to have an ambitious three-part series written by Stanley Kurtz, Harvard PhD and social commentator for The National Review, about how divestment is one of the greatest dangers facing this great country. Published last spring, it remains a noteworthy attempt from across the political spectrum to take this new movement seriously.
“Silly as it may seem,“ Kurtz writes, “we need to pay careful attention to what these young people are telling us”:
Fossil-fuel divestment is economics Lena Dunham-style: an embarrassingly naïve and apparently futile stance by those who nonetheless hold the power to swing elections and shift the culture. When nearly three-quarters of voting Harvard undergraduates elect to treat the companies that power our economy as pariahs, it’s time to take notice. Energy is so fundamental — in a sense, fossil fuels are the economy — that our climate wars increasingly serve as proxies for a battle over the status and even the existence of America’s free-market system. Look carefully at the fossil-fuel divestment campaign and you’ll find a new and potentially more damaging incarnation of Occupy Wall Street.
The profits generated by oil and gas companies, Kurtz argues, are an essential part of what has helped America stay America.
Economic growth and the technological innovation that drives it have long been bulwarks of our domestic tranquility and national security. Enlarging the pie for everyone prevents politics from devolving into nasty zero-sum squabbles over redistributing wealth. Growth also keeps us strong enough to hold external threats at bay. Do we really want to surrender this time-tested recipe for social peace and international success?
Divesting holdings in coal and oil, Kurtz argues, would depress economic growth, and depressing economic growth, Kurtz adds, could “very easily cost lives. Refrigerators holding vaccine in rural Africa need power, after all.”
Which is a lovely thought. If only energy use were so noble. If only humans had accidentally warmed the planet because we were trying to keep vaccines cold, not even for us, but for another country entirely. It is as though no has ever told Stanley Kurtz about flat-screen televisions. Or Vegas. And no one should ever tell him, because if he has made it this far without knowing, he should stay this innocent. Also: While he thinks there’s a strong chance that global warming exists, he questions the extent of its effects, and so odds are good he wouldn’t listen to you anyway.
It’s worth reading the whole series, because there’s a whole lot of worthwhile subtext there, including a steady thrum of anxiety that America’s youth are losing faith in capitalism. This seems like a stretch, since the social movement Kurtz is addressing uses primarily capitalist arguments to make its case. But this is an old fear, and one that clearly still has power.
I recommend checking out Kurtz’s other writing, including this nightmarish vision of the future of American urbanism:
The new HUD rule is really about changing the way Americans live. It is part of a broader suite of initiatives designed to block suburban development, press Americans into hyper-dense cities, and force us out of our cars.
As someone who, as a young person, left the suburbs of Detroit for the big city with many dreams — including the one where she would never again have to show up for work covered in grease up to the elbow because her car had gotten stuck in reverse and she had to reach down under the hood and manually reattach the shifting mechanism — I do not think this sounds like the end of the world. Neither does the rest of it.
Young activists, be of good cheer. Someone believes in you!