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:http://divestmcgill.com/ .

I just sent the following letter to Principal Suzanne Fortier (suzanne.fortier@mcgill.ca), Chairman Kip Cobbett (stuart.cobbett@mail.mcgill.ca), and Secretary-General Stephen Strople (stephen.strople@mcgill.ca), copied to mfl4divestment@gmail.com.

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.http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/31/science/global-warming-antarctica-ice-sheet-sea-level-rise.html . 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.

Sincerely,

–Jonathan Sterne

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