Yesterday, Harvard President Drew Faust issued a public statement explaining why the university will not divest from the fossil fuel industry. Renowned climate activist Tim DeChristopher, newly arrived at Harvard Divinity School after serving a two-year federal sentence for peaceful civil disobedience, is now a member of the “Harvard community” addressed by Faust. I wrote about Tim in an essay called “The New Abolitionists,” but we met in person for the first time only this week. We had a good conversation yesterday about divestment and Harvard, and just after we spoke, we learned that Faust had issued her statement. Tim immediately wrote a concise and powerful response to Faust, and I asked him if I could post it here. It’s worth noting that Tim indicts the industry in much the same terms I used in my divestment speech at Harvard on September 16: crimes against humanity.
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Drew Faust seeks a position of neutrality in a struggle where the powerful only ask that people like her remain neutral. She says that Harvard’s endowment shouldn’t take a political position, and yet it invests in an industry that spends countless millions on corrupting our political system. In a world of corporate personhood, if she doesn’t want that money to be political, she should put it under her mattress. She has clearly forgotten the words of Paolo Freire: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and powerless means to side with the powerful, not to remain neutral.” Or as Howard Zinn put succinctly, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
She touts all the great research on climate change that is done at Harvard, but she ignores the fact that the fossil fuel industry actively works to suppress or distort every one of those efforts. To seriously suggest that any research will solve the climate crisis while we continue to allow the fossil fuel industry to maintain a stranglehold on our democracy is profoundly naive. Faust never admits whether or not she agrees with the basic science of the carbon budget, which is the foundation of the understanding that the current reserves of the fossil fuel industry cannot be burned without condemning us to an unlivable future. If she accepts the science, she should explain how her plan of cooperation will convince the industry to leave those assets in the ground.
Faust’s claim that the university should not divest while it continues to consume fossil fuels obfuscates the fact that divestment is about undermining the political power of the fossil fuel industry. Energy is a market driven not by consumers but by political influence, yet Faust alludes to the worn out old argument that the consumers of fossil fuels don’t have a right to object to the crimes against humanity committed by an industry that uses political leverage to prevent alternatives. As a historian of the Civil War, surely Faust knows that the exact same argument was made to defend slavery, an energy source that was once every bit as vital to our economy as fossil fuels are today.
The students’ call for divestment was a call for help by the young people who will reap the consequences of the climate crisis. The industry committed to ruining our future simply asked Faust to stay out of it. There is no way for someone in a position of influence to not take a side in such a situation. That’s why leadership is no place for a coward. By turning her back on those calling for help, Faust absolutely took a side. I strongly suspect that time will show that she chose the wrong side of history. When our generation writes Drew Faust into the history books, being not as bad as Larry Summers will not suffice as a position of honor. Harvard needs leaders better able to see beyond their own time, and the students who will continue to push for divestment are a great example.
Wen Stephenson on why Harvard should divest from the fossil fuel industry.