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Todd Gitlin: How to Reverse a Slow-Motion Apocalypse

November 25, 2013

Why the divestment movement against big energy matters.

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Image from Flickr via London Commodity Markets

By Todd Gitlin
By arrangement with TomDispatch

Apocalyptic climate change is upon us. For shorthand, let’s call it a slow-motion apocalypse to distinguish it from an intergalactic attack out of the blue or a suddenly surging Genesis-style flood.

Slow-motion, however, is not no-motion. In fits and starts, speeding up and slowing down, turning risks into clumps of extreme fact, one catastrophe after another—even if there can be no 100 percent certitude about the origin of each one—the planetary future careens toward the unlivable. That future is, it seems, arriving ahead of schedule, though erratically enough that most people—in the lucky, prosperous countries at any rate—can still imagine the planet conducting something close to business as usual.

To those who pay attention, of course, the recent bursts of extreme weather are not “remote “or “abstract,” nor matters to be deferred until later in the century while we worry about more immediate problems. The coming dystopian landscape is all too real and it is already right here for many millions. (Think: the Philippines, the Maldives Islands, drowned New Orleans, the New York City subways, Far Rockaway, the Jersey Shore, the parched Southwest, the parched and then flooded Midwest and other food belts, the Western forests that these days are regularly engulfed in “record” flames, and so on.) A child born in the United States this year stands a reasonable chance of living into the next century when everything, from available arable land and food resources to life on our disappearing seacoasts, will have changed, changed utterly.

Given the might and recalcitrance of the usual culpable and complicit institutions, it falls to people’s initiatives and to other kinds of institutions to take up the slack.

A movement to forestall such menaces must convince many more millions outside Bangladesh or the Pacific islands that what’s “out there” is not remote in time or geographically far away, but remarkably close at hand, already lapping at many shores—and then to mobilize those millions to leverage our strengths and exploit the weaknesses of the institutions arrayed against us that benefit from destruction and have a stake in our weakness.

There is a poetic fitness to human history at this juncture. Eons ago, various forms of life became defunct. A civilization then evolved to extract the remains of that defunct life from the earth and turn it into energy. As a result, it’s now we who are challenged to avoid making our own style of existence defunct.

Is it not uncanny that we have come face-to-face with the consequences of a way of life based on burning up the remnants of previous broken-down orders of life? It’s a misnomer to call those remains—coal, oil, and gas—“fossil fuels.” They are not actually made up of fossils at all. Still, there’s an eerie justice in the inaccuracy, since here we are, converting the residue of earlier breakdowns into another possible breakdown. The question is: will we become the next fossils?

Subsidizing Big Energy

The institutions of our ruling world have a powerful stake in the mad momentum of climate change—the energy system that’s producing it and the political stasis that sustains and guarantees it—so powerful as to seem unbreakable. Don’t count on them to avert the coming crisis. They can’t. In some sense, they are the crisis.

Corporations and governments promote the burning of fossil fuels, which means the dumping of its waste product, carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere where, in record amounts, it heats the planet. This is not an oversight; it is a business model.

Governments collude with global warming, in part by bankrolling the giant fossil fuel companies (FFCs). As a recent report written by Shelagh Whitley for the Overseas Development Institute puts it,

Producers of oil, gas, and coal received more than $500 billion in government subsidies around the world in 2011… If their aim is to avoid dangerous climate change, governments are shooting themselves in both feet. They are subsidizing the very activities that are pushing the world towards dangerous climate change, and creating barriers to investment in low-carbon development and subsidy incentives that encourage investment in carbon-intensive energy.

Of course a half-trillion dollars in subsidies doesn’t just happen. It cannot be said too often: the FFCs thrive by conniving with governments. They finance politicians to do their bidding. Seven of the ten largest companies in the world are FFCs, as are four of the ten most profitable (just outnumbering three Chinese banks, which presumably have their own major FFC connections). These behemoths have phenomenal clout when they lobby for fossil-fuel-friendly development and against remedial policies like a carbon tax. And if this were not enough, they flood the world with fraudulent claims that climate change is not happening, or is not dangerous, or that its dimensions and human causes are controversial among scientists whose profession it is to study the climate.

The Cascade

Fossilized corporations do their thing while frozen governments produce (or opt out of) hapless and toothless international agreements. By default, initiative must arise elsewhere—in places where reason and passion have some purchase as well as a tradition, places where new power may be created and deployed. This counterpower is, in fact, developing.

Children of FFC executives go home for Christmas and their nagging questions make their parents’ business-as-usual lives less comfortable. (This dynamic, though seldom credited, undoubtedly played some role in ending the Vietnam War.)

Given the might and recalcitrance of the usual culpable and complicit institutions, it falls to people’s initiatives and to other kinds of institutions to take up the slack. This means universities, churches, and other investment pools, now increasingly under pressure from mushrooming campaigns to divest funds from FFCs; and popular movements against coal, oil, fracking, and other dangerous projects—in particular, at the moment, movements in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere to stop tar sands pipelines.

Those in the growing divestment movement suffer no illusions that universities themselves wield the magnitude of power you find in investment banks or, of course, the FFCs themselves. They are simply seeking leverage where they can. The sums of capital held by universities, in particular, are small on the scale of things. Harvard, the educational institution with the largest endowment (some $32.7 billion at last count), reports that only 3 percent of its direct holdings are in the top 200 energy outfits. (The amount of its money held indirectly and opaquely, through private capital pools, and so also possibly invested in FFCs, is unclear.) Though millions of dollars are at stake, that’s a drop in the bucket for Harvard, whose holdings amount, in turn, to nowhere near a drop in the total market capitalization of those energy giants.

Set against a landscape in which people have lost faith in the principle sectors of power, however, universities still have a certain legitimacy that grants them the potential for leverage. Divestment will make news precisely because such movements are unusual: universities biting the hands of the dogs that feed them, so to speak.

We won’t know how much influence that legitimacy can bring about until the attempts are made. What we do know, from historical precedent, is that such efforts, even when they start on a small scale, tend to inspire more of the same. As Robert Kinloch Massie argues in his fine book on South African sanctions, Loosing the Bonds, divestment campaigns such as those over apartheid and Big Tobacco (phased out by Harvard in 1990) worked by creating a cascade effect.

With climate change, the stigmatization of the FFCs is already spreading from universities and churches to city and state pension funds. Eventually, if it works, the cascade changes the atmosphere around private and public investment decisions. Then those decisions themselves begin to change and such changes become part of a new market calculation for investors and politicians alike.

That’s why it matters so much that some 400 divestment campaigns are currently underway at American colleges and universities. Cascades of influence can move institutions, often in surprising ways. Every time a divestment demand is put forward, the conversation changes in elite board rooms where investment decisions are made. Children of FFC executives go home for Christmas and their nagging questions make their parents’ business-as-usual lives less comfortable. (This dynamic, though seldom credited, undoubtedly played some role in ending the Vietnam War.)

At Harvard, my alma mater, a fierce campaign by courageous and strategic-minded students has spun off a parallel campaign by alumni. They are being asked to withhold contributions to the university and to donate to an escrow fund until Harvard divests from its direct holdings in FFCs and undertakes to divest from its indirect holdings as well.

Transforming the world is something like winning a war. If the objective is to eliminate a condition like hunger, mass violence, or racial domination, then the institutions and systems of power that produce, defend, and sustain this condition have to be dislodged and defeated.

Is this sort of demand just a gesture of moral purity? Not necessarily. Indeed, there may well be an economic payoff for morally motivated divestment and reinvestment. My fellow alumnus Bevis Longstreth, a former commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission, makes a strong case that the policies of the FFCs are shortsighted and risky. (During the year 2012 alone, the top 200 sank $674 billion into acquiring and developing new energy reserves and working out ways to exploit them.) Significant parts of the capital they are now investing will likely be “wasted,” since in a climate-change world, large portions of those reserves will have to stay in the ground.

Looked at in the long term, the FFCs may not turn out to be such smart investments after all. Indeed, in the boilerplate language of financial prospectuses, past results are no guarantee of future results; and there are already investment models showing that non-FFC funds deliver better proceeds.

These efforts and arguments have yet to convince Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust that climate change is one of those “extraordinarily rare circumstances” when divestment is justified. Instead, she proposes “engagement” with the boards of the energy companies, as if sweet reason by itself stood a chance of outtalking sweet crude oil. She touts Harvard’s teaching and research on climate issues, while neglecting the way those corporations fund disinformation meant to blunt the effect of that teaching and research. Having declared that the issue is not “political,” she defends Harvard’s investments in the chief funders of propaganda against climate science. Some rejection of politics! Meanwhile, for saying no to divestment, President Faust wins the applause of an Alabama coal company front group.

Still, Divest Harvard is undeterred. By conducting referenda, organizing panels and rallies, gathering signatures, and activating alumni, it and like-minded groups are in the process of changing elite conversations about wealth and moral responsibility in the midst of a slow-motion apocalypse. They are helping ensure that previously unthinkable conversations become thinkable.

Something similar is taking place on many other campuses. At the same time, writers in influential conservative publications have already begun taking this movement seriously, and the first signs of a changing state of mind are evident. A report out of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, for example, recently warned against the risks of “stranded assets” (all those fossil fuels already bought and paid for by the FFCs that will never make it out of the ground). The Economist has begun to doubt that oil is such a great investment. The Financial Times heralds the spread of divestment efforts to city governments.

Hinges Open Doors

Transforming the world is something like winning a war. If the objective is to eliminate a condition like hunger, mass violence, or racial domination, then the institutions and systems of power that produce, defend, and sustain this condition have to be dislodged and defeated. For that, most people have to stop experiencing the condition—and the enemy that makes it possible—as abstractions “out there.”

A movement isn’t called that for nothing. It has to move people. It needs lovers, and friends, and allies. It has to generate a cascade of feeling—moral feeling. The movement’s passion has to become a general passion. And that passion must be focused: the concern that people feel about some large condition “out there” has to find traction closer to home.

Vis-à-vis the slow-motion apocalypse of climate change, there’s plenty of bad news daily and it’s hitting ever closer home, even if you live in the parching Southwest or the burning West, not the Philippines or the Maldive Islands. Until recently, however, it sometimes felt as if the climate movement was spinning its wheels, gaining no traction. But the extraordinary work of Bill McKibben and his collaborators at 350.org, and the movements against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and its Canadian equivalent, the Northern Gateway pipeline, have changed the climate-change climate.

Now, the divestment movement, too, becomes a junction point where action in the here-and-now, on local ground, gains momentum toward a grander transformation. These movements are the hinges on which the door to a livable future swings.

Thanks go to the sociologist Gay Seidman, elected as an anti-apartheid candidate to Harvard’s Board of Overseers in 1986, and to Eric Chivian, M.D., who got me thinking about the concept of a slow-motion apocalypse.

Todd Gitlin, who teaches journalism and communications at Columbia University, is the author of The Whole World Is Watching, Media Unlimited, and many other books including, most recently, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

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