I want to start off by saying I am not a member of Fossil Free MIT and don’t necessarily agree with the way that they have framed the issue of divestment. But as someone who is deeply concerned about future sustainability, and in light of Stanford’s recent announcement that it will divest from coal companies, I humbly submit a different perspective on the issue for MIT’s consideration. And I hope that MIT will realize: it is time to divest.
Divestment is a complex ethical issue, not to be confused with a moral issue. This is an important distinction; I am often frustrated by how divestment is presented as one-dimensional — moral (divest) vs. immoral (don’t divest) — when in reality, divestment involves many competing values within a matrix (I use the term matrix because these values cannot be ranked linearly).
Within this ethical framework, it is understandable that Harvard would decide not to divest. In a statement on divestment, Harvard President Drew Faust states, “Harvard is an academic institution. It exists to serve an academic mission.” Because Harvard prioritizes its academic mission above all else — and Faust argues, divestment could jeopardize the capacity of the endowment to support this mission — abstaining from divestment is a logical decision.
But MIT is not Harvard. When I applied to colleges, what set MIT apart for me was its undying commitment to serving the world. After I had visited almost two dozen colleges, MIT was the only university to emphasize its social responsibility rather than simply focusing on the breadth of its resources and the quality of its research. A drive to solve the world’s greatest problems has guided MIT’s activities even more so than the Institute’s responsibilities as an academic institution.
For instance, MIT was the first university to release a significant percentage of course materials to the public for free during a time when other peer institutions were concerned that such an action could diminish the value of their institutions and their degrees. But MIT recognized that the benefits of open source education dwarfed any such risks that might challenge its existence and proceeded to inspire hundreds of institutions to follow in its path.
With this in mind, divestment is the logical decision for MIT because although it has risks for the endowment that advances “the academic institution,” it would be a huge symbol of social responsibility that could educate the rest of the United States.
Here’s why. Science has enormous cultural authority in the US, which can be seen historically with major environmental political decisions. On top of that, MIT is considered as a scientific authority in the US (and also the world). And if, as the scientific authority, and therefore authority on climate change, MIT does not see any urgency to act or does not think the cost of action is worth it, then the rest of the nation will remain at ease. Similarly, if MIT does divest from fossil fuels, it will be a jarring wake up call to the public and to politicians.
Even taking a smaller step like Stanford to divest specifically from coal (the most carbon intensive fossil fuel) will come at a lesser cost but have the same magnitude of impact. Such an action would provide a much-needed sense of immediacy to climate change action. It will finally provoke a substantive discussion on climate change policy. But if MIT wants to provoke a national dialogue, it needs to act quickly. Stanford’s divestment has opened up a political window within which MIT can act to gain significant momentum; letting this window slide by will be a crucial lost opportunity.
It is true that from a quantitative analysis, MIT divestment alone won’t make much of a difference in carbon emissions, but I implore you evaluate the impact of MIT’s divestment within the large socio-political context. At MIT we often live within a political vacuum and turn to science and technology as the ultimate answer.
But an increasing body of evidence has shown that science and technology cannot stand alone in answering climate change problems because scientists have realized that the life expectancy of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dwarfs human time scales, because economists have shown that clean tech cannot compete effectively in the energy market, and because the nation’s energy demand will only increase over time. Thus it becomes clear that the science and technologies of climate change need comprehensive policy to really make an impact.
It is also true that divestment will risk losing funding for climate change and clean energy research. But strengthening climate change policy should take priority over improving clean energy technology because the former is significantly behind the latter. Improving the technology without creating a space for it to make an impact is not very helpful. Furthermore, if Stanford can do it, MIT can too. Admittedly, this is a simplistic argument, but I firmly believe that if MIT forges ahead, it can establish a new equilibrium around values that are compelled by the needs of a new era and align better with MIT’s core belief in serving society.
So as a member of the MIT community, I urge you to divest.
Karen Hao is a member of the Class of 2015 and is the Chair of the UA Committee on Sustainability, but writes on her own behalf.