In a scathing critique at the Huffington Post, Nation editor Christian Parenti blasts the 350.org fossil-industry divestment campaign, Fossil Free, as merely “symbolic” and flawed by “crucial weaknesses”—namely, that even if colleges divest from fossil fuel investments, the fossil fuel industry will still be very rich and powerful.
It is not clear why Parenti, a colleague of Naomi Klein, one of the strategists behind the divestment campaign, took the unusual step of taking his criticisms in public, after the campaign has been launched and divestment efforts begun on 146 campuses across the nation.
In an email to Hill Heat, a prominent climate activist with national influence responded to Parenti’s critique:
This manages to be smug and naïve at the same time. And totally ahistoric. His basic conclusion is “government should do its job.” Super.
Why isn’t that happening now? Because the fossil fuel industry has our government, our economy, our culture by the balls.
What can we do? Well, he’s right, ultimately we need assertive public policy. And we need to press relentlessly for the key pieces that are within executive reach – CO2 regs on existing power plants, and an end to government actions – like Keystone permits – that facilitate long-term investments that make the problem unsolvable. And of course we are. And of course we have been, for decades. And we’re getting killed.
Plausible near-term government action is not remotely enough. We need to wrest power back. This often seems impossible, because our economy and our lifestyles are designed to feed the beast at every turn. But the flip side of that realization is that every turn is an opportunity to take a little of our power back, and reduce theirs.
OF FREAKING-COURSE we should address demand. We can do it in our lifestyles. We can do it in state policy, like energy codes. We can do it in community design. We can do it in how we eat. We can do it with our feet. Every damned day. And it’s not just a futile act of individual environmental responsibility. It’s waging freedom.
AND we can stop owning – literally OWNING – this nightmare by divesting. That’s waging freedom too. How much direct damage will we inflict on the industry’s bottom line this way? I don’t know. But we will take back our money and our souls. We’ll draw a line in the sand and make ourselves and others look hard at which side we are on. We’ll make a statement. We’ll activate young people. Those young people will challenge us – most of us alums of these institutions – to choose which side of the line to be on. We will build a stage on which to play out this moral drama, since our legislative bodies have ceased to be such a stage, corrupted as they are by Big Fossil’s money.
And maybe, possibly, conceivably we will build the moral power we need to force our “leaders” and our government to do their job.
If all that sounds hopelessly naïve and “symbolic”, well, shit, given the size of the climate challenge and the scope of any one actor’s ability to change it, you could argue that all actions are “symbolic.” Symbols are powerful. We need power.
Parenti says “I am all for dumping carbon stocks, if for no other reason than a sense of decency and honor. But how is dumping oil stock supposed to hurt the enemy?” Fine. Do it for decency and honor. Isn’t that enough? And if college students all over America and the alums of those institutions simply declare that this is a Fundamental Matter of Decency and Honor – that even if we don’t affect the financial outcome one bit, at least our fingerprints won’t be on this genocidal crime—won’t that be an ENORMOUS change from the bizarre, complacent moral detachment that is our current, collective condition?