Op-Ed: Combatting An Accusation Of Moral Hypocrisy

On November 20, 2014, Chair of Swarthmore Board of Managers Gil Kemp published an opinion piece titled “Divestment an empty gesture, college seeks better solutions.” Part of Mr. Kemp’s argument for why divestment is an “empty gesture” is quoted here: “Divestment’s potential success as a moral response is limited – if not completely negated – so long as its advocates continue to turn on the lights, drive cars and purchase manufactured goods.”

I believe that Kemp’s moral reasoning is flawed. Divestment is intended to put social pressure on lawmakers and CEOs to change national energy policy. Our moral right to exert this large-scale pressure is not impeded by our individual participation in the corrupt system. Two historical analogies should suffice:

1. Would Kemp have told Quaker abolitionists in 1850, “Abolition’s success as a moral response is limited – if not completely negated – so long as abolitionists continue to wear cotton clothing produced by slaves?” In 1840, almost all cotton in the US was harvested by slaves. Quaker abolitionists had no choice but to participate in the slavery-based textile market. And even if every abolitionist had personally sworn off cotton, it would hardly have bankrupted the gargantuan slavery enterprise (0). Instead, the abolitionists wisely sought a “broad and deep” (1) change: they wanted to change the way cotton was produced. They wanted cotton, but they wanted it harvested by paid labor. The analogy to fossil fuel divestment is direct: divestment activists want to use lights and cars that are powered by clean energy, not fossil fuels.

2. My namesake, biologist Rachel Carson, successfully fought chemical manufacturing companies in Congress to outlaw the use of DDT, a pesticide that she discovered was killing and disabling children and animals. But before Carson’s success, much of the food produced in the US was sprayed with DDT. It would have been nearly impossible to tell whether food you bought had been grown with DDT. So during Carson’s fight on the Senate floor, would Gil Kemp have told her that she was not morally entitled to advocate for systemic change in US agriculture until she stopped eating US-grown food? I doubt it.

I have not participated in divestment activism in the past. But I think that will change now. I see that the Board’s opposition to divestment, as articulated by Chairman Gil Kemp, is not a standpoint I can agree with. To wean the US from fossil fuels, we cannot wait for lifestyle changes from the 300 million people in America. Instead, we need to pressure those who control the source of the energy flowing to the homes and businesses of these 300 million people.

Kemp attempts to halt pro-divestment activism by telling us (among several other arguments) that we cannot advocate divestment if we turn on our lights. But I disagree. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I will quote a song I learned in elementary school. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,”(2). I hereby declare that I will use fossil power to read at night. I will use fossil power to travel home for Thanksgiving. And I will use fossil power for Internet and phone service and word processing as tools in my advocacy for a clean energy future. I hope that one day, I will turn on the lights in my house, my workplace, and my alma mater knowing that they are all powered by sun, wind and tides. Until that point, I will use available energy sources to press for change.

(0) There was a small movement to forgo cotton, but it was largely ignored and was unsuccessful.

(1) “The board’s decision not to divest is broad and deep,” (Gil Kemp, idem)

(2) Harry Dixon Loes, circa 1920


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3 comments

  1. 0
    alum 12 says:

    This is a great article that brings a valuable perspective to the divestment debate. I admit that I assumed Mr. Kemp’s line of reasoning on why divestment is a meaningless, but now I see that this reasoning is morally flawed, hypocritical, pessimistic, and very very un-Swattielike (Swatties don’t like hearing impossible).

    Now, what to do from here…I’m sure the Swarthmore divestment supporters realize that for divestment to work it can’t be a small slap in the face to the energy companies–it needs to be a body slam. We need to join with other colleges and universities, for profit and non profit companies, government organizations, hedge funds, private capital funds, mutual funds etc. for real change to happen.

    Also, we need to lobby to the people who have the largest stakes in the energy company to influence their respective companies to plan for the future and invest in alternative energy sources that are more environmentally friendly–because anyone knows that the future of energy is NOT coal or oil.

    Of course, those with the largest stakes are understandably incentivized to keep the status quo, since their main concern is the return on their investment.

    Keep on going. Someday, that wall will fall down.

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