The divestment movement is still going strong at Swarthmore. For the past week, divestment advocates have occupied a hallway of Parrish, quietly “sitting in” against the board of managers’ decision to not divest from fossil fuels. Although campus-wide enthusiasm for divestment has waned over the past year, Mountain Justice hopes the sit-in, along with famed environmentalist Bill McKibben’s visit to campus, will spur a divestment revival. I admire the passion of Mountain Justice members. They dream of divestment with a fervor that supersedes practicality, and in some ways, that is inspiring. I also commend protesters on hosting an unobtrusive and reasonable protest. It appears that Mountain Justice has come a long way from their dark days of overthrowing board meetings. With that said, I’d like to call attention to a side of divestment no one is talking about-its potential to harm the poorest of the poor.
It’s no surprise that many Swarthmore activists display a crossover between causes. It’s quite common to see a member of Mountain Justice take a breather from divestment to crusade for health care reform or raising the minimum wage. The majority of those sitting in for divestment wear the term “bleeding-heart liberal” like a badge of honor. Why then is there little concern about what divestment will do to those living in developing nations around the world?
Caleb Rossiter, a statistics professor at American University, aims to shed light on the real world consequences of divestment. In his article “Sacrificing Africa for Climate Change”, Rossiter argues that divesting from fossil fuel companies would drastically halt the economic progress of developing nations, as they have the greatest need for affordable and reliable energy. “Where is the justice for Africans when universities divest from energy companies and thus weaken their ability to explore for resources in Africa? Where is the justice when the U.S. discourages World Bank funding for electricity-generation projects in Africa that involve fossil fuels, and when the European Union places a “global warming” tax on cargo flights importing perishable African goods?” Rossiter asks. And he’s right. While Swarthmore’s divestment will minimally impact fossil fuel companies, if the movement were to have the large-scale success Mountain Justice hopes for, its results will be anything but socially just for developing nations.
Fossil fuels produce efficient and powerful energy. When World Bank estimates show that fewer than a quarter of African families have electricity, ease of access to low cost energy is key. For those in the developing world, implementing the technology required to harness wind or solar energy is unaffordable, and the power extracted from these sources is a fraction of what’s possible through fossil fuels. It’s impossible to predict whether encouraging Swarthmore to reinvest in alternative energy companies would hasten the development of affordable energy sources. The reality is fossil fuel companies are some of the greatest investors in the search for alternative energy solutions. They have tremendous incentives to find new energy sources. They know their main resources for profit are limited, and staking an early claim to new sources of energy would ensure their future success. The research, technology, and the knowledge just aren’t there yet. If divestment causes fossil fuel companies to raise their prices, how will the developing world afford energy? If the divestment movement achieves their dreams of bankrupting Big Oil, what solutions do the poorest have?
According to the World Bank, the average African business is cut off from power for 56 days each year, crippling economic progress. Progress that could improve agriculture, education, and overall quality of life for Africans. As far as commerce and infrastructure go, foreign companies don’t want to invest in countries with unreliable energy, which further limits opportunities for growth. Rossiter says, “Energy poverty is stunting the sort of economic growth Africa needs if it is to move from 59 years of life expectancy to the 79 that China has through 20 years of economic growth. . .with almost a billion Africans alive today, that is about 20 billion years of life lost.”
Privilege is the word that comes to mind when I think of divestment activism. As I write, protesters are comfortably camped out under the soft glow of electric lights, ordering pizza delivered by a Honda that runs on gasoline, and skipping classes that cost their parents $60,000 per year. They take these luxuries for granted, continuing to advocate for an idea that promises to deny the most basic amenities to the neediest people. Meanwhile, a small village somewhere is grateful to have a working generator and fresh water for the day. My question to Mountain Justice is: Does divestment outweigh the welfare of real lives?