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Why divest?

Published: April 19, 2013
Section: Opinions

I better just come out of the closet and say it. I am a divestment campaign skeptic. For those of you who don’t know, the divestment campaign is an effort by a group of students to get Brandeis to stop investing in fossil fuel companies. This, supposedly, will pressure the oil companies to invest in greener technologies. Personally, I think this is a tall task. College investments in the energy sector make up such a small part of the whole sector overall, that divestment would barely have any effect on the industry. The combined endowments of every single college in the United States are equal in value to only around 6 percent of the cumulative value of the global energy sector (90 percent of which is gas, oil and coal).

Endowments, though, only allocate approximately 8 percent of their money, on average, to the energy sector. This shows the relative size of the industry compared to the global economy. By my calculation, the value of all the Exxon Mobil stock traded each month is greater than the total amount colleges today have invested in the entire energy sector.

Furthermore, if a large number of people decide to sell a stock for reasons not related to a stock’s fundamental earning power, reducing the price of the stock, value investors who will inevitably buy the stock will raise the price and in effect putting a floor on the price of the company. Combine this with the fact that even if the stock drops 10-20 percent during a period of a year or two, management, in all odds, would not be incentivized to cut back on fossil fuel production. But by all means, if you are passionate about divestment, prove me wrong. Perhaps this idea catches fire and fossil fuel companies do change their ways and the world does become a better place.

The divestment campaign has succeeded in raising awareness about the issue of climate change, but if you are serious about preventing global warming you need to think about what you can do beyond asking the school to express their disapproval to the oil companies. You could bike places instead of driving, buy local produce, or drink tap water instead of bottled water. I would like to highlight one green idea that I notice few people in the Brandeis community practice. Recently, I have started using plastic take out boxes instead of the paper boxes when getting food to go at Usdan. I think that students using any of these green initiatives will have a higher impact than divestment by the university.

I’m not saying protesting is wrong, be it through the divestment campaign or any other form. It is important to convince the people who have the power to make a significant impact—the congressmen, scientists or oil executives—to act. I think it would be hypocritical, however, to spend all of your time protesting when there is an opportunity to make a difference with your actions. Fighting the problem doesn’t mean you have to become a tree-hugging hippie. I’d hope that if the divestment campaign succeeds, the members will move on to other noble efforts like making the signs for locally produced foods more visible, or campaigning to use tap water instead of bottled water. It would be deceptive to pat yourself on the back for divestment when even modest changes in your lifestyle could have made an even greater impact.