An Open Letter in Support of Divest McGill

by Jonathan Sterne on March 31, 2016

As I’ve mentioned before, McGill students have been organizing a campaign to get McGill to divest from fossil fuels.  This seems eminently sensible to me. This past week, the Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility released a report to the Board of Governors recommending AGAINST divestment because (among other things) oil companies have not cause “grave social harm” through fossil fuel extraction. The claim is outrageous.  And the “experts” they consulted are anonymous.  Which means nobody is willing to sign their name to this ridiculous position. While I would accept disagreements about strategy for fighting climate change, the report is based on some very suspicious ideas about causes.

In response to the CAMSR and the Board of Governors, Divest McGill has organized a series of actions on campus, and they’ve set up a website where you can get caught up on what’s happening and why it matters: .

I just sent the following letter to Principal Suzanne Fortier (, Chairman Kip Cobbett (, and Secretary-General Stephen Strople (, copied to

I urge you to join me in writing in support of Our Future, Our Choice.

Dear Colleagues,

I was very disappointed to read Principal Fortier’s letter to the McGill community regarding the decision not to support Divest McGill’s proposals regarding McGill’s investments.  While I am pleased to see both a respectful tone toward student activists (lacking in the Principal’s communications regarding the BDS movement) and an acknowledgement of the consensus among climate scientists, the conclusions of the CAMSR’s report utterly bizarre from a social theoretical point of view.

I will return to those in a moment, but I am equally concerned that the CAMSR and McGill administration consulted “experts” anonymously.  If they are claiming their consultants are experts, should we not be able to evaluate their expertise?  Are there experts on climate science at McGill who would sign their name to the CAMSR’s claim that

Climate change is an injurious impact primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels by end-users rather than activities of fossil fuel companies.

In general, if the CAMSR consulted experts on either climate change or the social impact of business practices, don’t we deserve to know who is willing to stand behind claims like this? If no McGill faculty members are willing to stand behind these kinds of claims, do they deserve to be in the CAMSR’s report?

Here’s where the social theory comes in.  Fossil fuel consumption does not simply exist because of consumer demand or research into possible uses of petroleum.  It also is a function of active work on the behalf of oil companies to limit research into and diffusion of alternative technologies: this is well documented in histories of public transit and electric cars.  It is also a policy matter, since oil companies (and other companies whose work depends on destroying the environment) routinely lobby governments against policies like Extended Product Responsibility, which would turn the environmental impact of disposing non-recyclable consumer goods, like mobile phones, from an externality into an economic factor in the manufacture, sale, and consumption of those goods.In my research on computer disposal, I found that companies intentionally designed disposal of environmentally hazardous materials into their business models. Of course, they don’t think in those terms.  They think in terms of product life-cycles and planned obsolescence, aka “upgrading.”  The environment is very much a part of modern business strategy, even when it isn’t spoken about in those terms.

Let us compare this to other areas of policy regarding things generally regarded to cause “grave social injury”: we know that smoking is bad for people, but the governments of Canada and the US (and other countries) have found that the companies were also responsible for the social injuries caused by smoking. We know that nuclear power is potentially quite dangerous, and in the case of nuclear accidents, it is the companies that are responsible, not just the end users of nuclear power. We know that trans fats are bad for us, which is why they must be labelled in processed foods sold to consumers, and why companies can’t claim foods high in “trans fat” are good for you.

My colleague Derek Nystrom, in his remarks to the Board of Governors, compared climate change to a ticking time bomb under the table.  It has not yet caused “grave” harm to millions of people by some definitions of “grave” — but it is highly likely to do so by any reasonable definition of the term.  In my letter from last October, I quoted anthropologist Stefan Helmreich’s claim that “the problem of the the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the water line.”

The just-reported climate predictions regarding the Antarctic Ice Shelf are a good example.  http://www. . Whether or not this particular climate model will turn out to be correct is not the issue. The issue is that if it is correct, the damage it predicts cannot be undone.  Even as the Times engages in a little fantasy work to “save” New York City, the impact on the oceans worldwide would displace millions of people at best, and at worse, have a much higher human cost.  It is not something that could be undone, but it is something we could help prevent by committing to alternative energies.

Yes, the CAMSR is right that many petroleum-based consumer products have brought about social good.  But in almost every case today, petroleum could be replaced. In fact, if we look at the diffusion of petroleum-based consumer products over the course of the last 100 years, we see that in many cases petroleum replaced other, less environmentally-damaging materials. Consider one example — the shift from shellac to vinyl records (as documented in Jacob Smith’s new book Eco-Sonic Media).  Vinyl was cheaper and more efficient, but it wouldn’t have been considered to be so if its environmental cost had been included in that calculation. Shellac’s virtues aside, researchers (and artists) all over the world have experimented with making records out of other materials, and many could work.

For these reasons, and many others, I echo Divest McGill’s three demands:

  • That the University hold public hearings on the discredited report of the Committee to Advise on Matter of Social Responsibility (CAMSR).
  • That CAMSR publicly discloses all expert testimony gathered in the course of its consideration of the petition.
  • That Principal Fortier makes a statement acknowledging what the CAMSR Report did not: the activities of fossil fuel corporations cause grave social harm, through the exacerbation of climate change and the devastating impacts on frontline communities.

In short, they are asking for informed public discussion (of the sort that should have preceded the Board’s decision), they are asking for transparency, and they are asking for reason.


–Jonathan Sterne

Read the review here:

This was a great read over breakfast. I want to leave aside the intra-Derridean sniping and draw some bigger lessons from this review:

1. It’s dangerous for scholars to cut corners: look at the text, not your notes on the text. Advice for students and super stars alike. (or rather, we are all always students)

2. Publishers are cutting corners more and more. This is equally dangerous. We need proper fact-checking, reference-checking and “continuity editing” to make sure references are consistent. As budgets for copyediting are slashed, this work is being outsourced to scholars, who are neither qualified to do it, nor able to manage it on top of all the other things that are now outsourced to them.

3. Deep expertise is still necessary to engage in high stakes humanities argument, whether it is linguistic, historical, philosophical, or “other.” The old-fashioned language learning evidenced in this fight, which is the part of the humanities probably most suffering from cuts to the humanities in general, is a great example of this. If you want to argue across traditions and national contexts, there is no substitute for language learning. 

4. Any kind of erudition takes time to do well. The calls to speed up humanities PhDs will insure our future work will be less intelligent and less sophisticated. Expect more misreadings, more mistranslations, and more corners cut for professional rather than intellectual reasons.

5. Whether you write accessible prose for broad audiences, or intricate prose aimed at specialists (or try to do both and other things too), you should be able to read, discuss and work through difficult texts. That’s part of the job description.

6. Ok, a little intra-Derridean sniping. I don’t have the French chops to take a position on the translation, but I’m still not sold on the reading of Derrida that takes his expansion of terms like “text” too literally, including Bennington’s.

2015 in Review

by Jonathan Sterne on January 2, 2016

Like most years, 2015 was mixed with both good and bad. It was a tough year for a lot of my friends, and lots of terrible stuff happened in the world, but I’m not one of the “good riddance to 2015” people.

On a personal level, I have a lot of good memories. My travel experiences have been SO good and so whirlwind that I haven’t said too much about them here. Delhi, Paris and Berlin were intellectual highlights. Maui was, well, Maui. Teaching was great as usual, and I am back to my own writing priorities, more or less, after digging out from having said yes to too many “small” projects that took me away from my own work. I probably read more finished books in 2015 (as opposed to student writing and work in progress) than in a long time, which was also immensely satisfying. As usual, I gave too many talks and did way more service than I probably should have. I didn’t swim enough — only some of which can be blamed on injuries. Carrie finished 4 years’ heavy admin and I finished 1 year’s heavy admin. Good riddance to admin.

Cancer-wise it ended well, with me being demoted to every-six-month scans (from every 3 months).  I’ll take it.

Probably the most important change in my life was musical. My 2015 New Year’s resolution was to spend 15 minutes a day (when home) with a stringed musical instrument, which was a way to get my head back into playing. I have done a lot of electronic stuff in recent years, which is fun but lacks the instant gratification factor of playing bass or guitar. It is without question the best resolution I ever made and the only one I’ve kept. A year later, I have six months of guitar lessons under my belt, which have in turn improved my bass playing in entirely unpredicted ways. I am in two bands that practice regularly and will gig (and MAYBE even record) in 2016. and in a related development Carrie is finally learning drums after a couple decades’ worth of my not-so-subtle suggestion and playing in one of them. I am absolutely certain that there is nothing else I could have done that would have been better for my general happiness and well-being.

My friend Loretta posted on Facebook that what you do on New Year’s Day says something about the year to come. Mine was spent watching the outdoor NHL hockey game, playing bass and guitar, doing a little gear maintenance, reading the paper, hanging out with Carrie and the cats, and eating leftovers and catching up on TV series we neglected while in Europe.

Given that I’m teaching two new courses and doing a ton of service this winter, I’m not sure that it’s an accurate picture of what’s about to come, but I’ll take it.

Paris Report

by Jonathan Sterne on November 17, 2015

Greetings from Paris.

Here is your fucked up Paris update for a fucked up world (pardon my French). My experience of Paris at this point has completely diverged from my social media feed. For those of you not here, here is what I have experienced.

In my social media feed, and reading the news, France is locked down, in a state of emergency, under martial law, and curfew. People are struggling to figure out what to feel and say. And people far from the events are freaking out. “Grief-shaming?” Wow. But that’s how terrorism works: it exists as a media phenomenon. It depends on the press and now social media.

In my privileged bourgeois leftist-intellectual intellectual bubble (related to but different from my social media bubble), Paris is going on about its business.

Friday night my plane took off right after I got a New York Times update that said “PARIS CLOSES BORDERS.”  I thought I might be taking two flights. But I landed, and passport-control was predictably insane.  The wait was somewhere between 2 and 3 hours–I didn’t exactly keep track.  They turned off the electronic passport machines, so all the locals had to go through a person. But the people might as well have been machines. They were stamping passports as fast as they could. The only people who seemed to take any time to get clearance had darker skin than me. Draw your own conclusions.

Saturday WAS weird, and people weren’t out in as much force. My dinner companion that night saw empty busses going by on a Saturday night, which is more or less unheard-of. It was kind of spooky, though our restaurant was full.

Sunday started to be more normal. There was brunch, drinks, dinner at a friend’s place. There was a lot of talk of the attacks but people were out and about. Dinner party conversation quickly turned to other matters.

I awoke yesterday to the sounds of construction (AirBNB classic!). When I went outside the city, or at least the 2nd arrondissement, was in full force. Yesterday evening, the roundtable event went off at the Centre George Pompidou without a hitch, except that now people empty their pockets and go through a metal detector like at the Library of Congress (my hosts tell me that’s new but that the Centre has been increasingly securitized over the last 10 years). It was classic security theatre, like at airports and elsewhere, perhaps designed more to make it look like something is being done than actually doing anything. I expect to be searched tomorrow at the Philharmonie, as well.

After the event, which was still about the subject of a special issue on the politics of sound, we went out to dinner. There has been talk of course about what happened, but everyone is circumspect, trying to figure out what the right thing is to think and do, and concerned about the kinds of violence and police state the French government will now put in place.

They have good reason. I am pretty sure French airstrikes in Syria will kill more civilians than the ISIS attacks, especially if they are as “pitiless” as Hollande says they will be.

Smart things local friends have said (paraphrased from memory):

“Stop and frisk was already a way of life here; we are way ahead of the US on the police state front.”

“Left intellectuals need to organize and get out in the press to get another perspective heard.”

“I don’t like the talk of France’s 9/11. Charlie Hebdo was already ‘France’s 9/11.’ People in other parts of the world deal with this all the time.”

I have no brilliant solutions or insights to offer. Just a request to consider: journalistic and social media accounts of a place are not the place. They are their own place.

That is my report.

Canada: Where the 4th Best Election Outcome is Kind of OK

October 20, 2015

Possible 2015 Canadian Election Results, Ranked NDP Majority NDP Minority, propped up by liberals Liberal Minority, propped up by NDP Liberal Majority Liberal Minority, propped up by conservatives. Conservative minority, propped up by liberals. Conservative Majority. By my count, a liberal majority was the fourth best outcome I could have hoped for from last night’s election. […]

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An Open Letter in Support of Divestment

October 14, 2015

For the past few years, Divest McGill has been working to get McGill’s endowment and retirement funds out of the business of supporting fossil fuels. They now have a petition they want to take to the Board of Governors. Divest McGill is organized and run by students. There is a group of faculty and librarians […]

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Thanks for the franchise!

October 12, 2015

It’s thanksgiving 2015 and this is my first federal election as a Canadian citizen. I am grateful to finally be able to vote in a federal election here.  We just missed the 2011 election by a little bit.  I am not thankful for some kind of cold-like bug, but I am voting today, since the […]

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