EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part 1 of a three-part series. Click to read part 2 and part 3.
Slowly but surely, America’s free-enterprise system has been bleeding cultural support. To be sure, Occupy Wall Street’s open anti-capitalism flamed out, and direct challenges to the system are few. Yet appearances are deceiving. Just prior to the 2012 election, a series of polls showed the millennial generation (ages 18–30) about evenly split between positive attitudes toward capitalism and socialism. We needn’t take that support for socialism literally in order to recognize that America’s free-enterprise system is facing a legitimacy crisis, especially among the young. The manner in which millennials resolve their generation’s uncertainties over capitalism will likely determine the fortunes of the Republican and Democratic parties for years to come. The millennials were pivotal in 2012, after all. So we need to keep an eye on them. Consider an issue that has so far gotten only limited media play, and yet offers a ready glimpse of free enterprise under cultural pressure: the campus movement to divest from fossil fuels.
In a referendum held in November of 2012, 72 percent of participating Harvard undergraduates called on their university to sell off the stock in any large fossil-fuel company held in the school’s $32 billion endowment, by far the largest in the nation. That vote drew significantly higher student turnout and support than a 1990 measure pressing Harvard to divest from South Africa, when apartheid was still in force. Indeed, the avowed purpose of the divestment campaign now sweeping America’s colleges — it was active on 256 campuses at last count — is to make this nation’s leading energy companies as repugnant as apartheid was. Ultimately, the goal is to drive America’s energy producers out of the fossil-fuel business.
Cue the eye-rolls. Oil companies may not win popularity contests these days, yet few of us want to prevent them from selling us fuel, much less to treat them as public enemies for doing so. Some might even suspect America’s big energy producers of performing the occasional public service — like, say, powering the economy, strengthening the middle class, and reducing income inequality by creating hundreds of thousands of well-paying blue-collar jobs, securing our energy independence and thereby stripping rogue states and big-power rivals of the capacity to blackmail us with oil, and correspondingly reducing the need for American military intervention on foreign shores.
Never mind. Growing numbers of students are convinced that oil companies are, in the words of author and activist Bill McKibben, “reckless like no other force on Earth.” After all, in the face of global warming, our energy giants persist in extracting and selling us a seemingly endless supply of carbon-based fuels. The divestment movement aims to jolt into action a public allegedly in denial about catastrophic global warming. Once aroused by the academy’s urgent warnings, voters will supposedly compel Big Energy to abandon its massive oil, gas, and coal reserves and leave the vast bulk of them forever unused in the earth.
Silly as it may seem, 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 country’s focus during energy debates naturally tends to be on President Obama and Congress, with the environmentalist Left treated as a mildly amusing or annoying sideshow. That’s not a good idea. President Obama will tell you only so much about what’s driving policies like cap-and-trade. Attention to the divestment movement, in contrast, explains where carbon taxes and trading schemes are actually headed. Once voters get the news, I doubt they’ll follow along.
The holy war on fossil-fuel investment was declared by Bill McKibben. His 1989 book, The End of Nature, was the first full-length popular account of global warming (then called the “greenhouse effect”). Arguably America’s most influential environmentalist, McKibben has gathered a mass following, particularly among the young. Along with his group 350.org, he leads the campaign to block the proposed Canadian-U.S. Keystone XL pipeline project, the aim of that campaign being to prevent the development of Alberta’s rich tar-sand oil reserves, which cannot be mined or refined without releasing plenty of carbon dioxide. The name 350.org refers to the 350 parts per million the group considers to be the safe upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Currently we’re at about 395.
Fossil-fuel divestment is the group’s latest effort. McKibben launched the divestment movement with a July 2012 article in Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” which immediately went viral. (It’s currently at 125k Facebook likes.) McKibben argues that the official international goal of holding global average temperature to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above where it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution can be achieved only by leaving 80 percent of the world’s known oil, coal, and gas reserves locked away underground. McKibben’s piece paints the fossil-fuel industry as planetary enemy No.1, blaming its lobbying and publicity efforts for America’s failure to put a price on carbon. Since writing off 80 percent of reserves would wreck the oil industry’s profitability, McKibben maintains that only government compulsion can keep all that energy underground — through a steeply escalating carbon tax, for example.