Divestment: A Small Part of Harvard’s Failure to Lead on Climate Change

Last week, President Drew Faust announced that Harvard would not be divesting the endowment from fossil fuel investments. While this is a disappointment, it is a small one compared to Harvard’s broader failure to sound the alarm on climate crisis, and to take an active leadership role in the social movement that must fight back against the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. I agree with Dr. Faust that there are “more effective measures, better aligned with our institutional capacities,” other than divestment that Harvard can contribute to fighting of climate change. Harvard is, after all, an academic institution; Harvard can contribute more to fighting climate change in knowledge, scholarship, and commitment than it could possibly contribute economically. But I firmly disagree with Faust’s implication that Harvard has met, or even come close to meeting, this obligation.

The last time human stability and civilization was imperiled, Harvard reacted with courage and fortitude. Before the Pearl Harbor attacks on 12/7/1941, the national mood was strongly isolationist; Americans were in denial about the magnitude of the Axis threat. They knew that war would involve much sacrifice; so they told themselves that the Axis powers weren’t “that bad” and that it was a foreign war that didn’t concern them. In May 1940, President Harvard President James Bryant Conant delivered a national radio broadcast urging the United States to prepare for war through rearmament and aiding our Allies. This speech earned him harsh criticism from isolationists. That same year, a group of faculty launched the “American Defense-Harvard Group,” advocating US support for the Allies. Harvard scientists shifted their projects to focus on militarily relevant work: radio technology, explosives, and military medicine. This was Harvard at its best, fully utilizing its institutional capacity in the face of a grave threat. The Harvard faculty and administration knew the magnitude of the Nazi and Axis threat, and they stood firmly for that truth in the face of widespread ignorance and denial.

Once war was declared, Harvard transformed itself almost entirely into a war-college, training officers, developing relevant technology, and dedicating itself to victory. Harvard made huge shifts to best facilitate the war effort for example adding a third semester, conducting massive amounts of war research mainly in the sciences, but also through the business school. In 1944, only 19 people graduated from Harvard’s “regular” (ie non military) course offerings.

Once again, civilization faces a great threat, and once again the national mood stands against an effective, appropriate response. We are in collective denial; not able to fully grasp the magnitude not immense of the threat, or the magnitude of the necessary response. Our politicians are hopelessly, laughably gridlocked and our media shamefully minimizes climate change, reporting it as an “environmental problem for our grandchildren” and not an immediate global crisis that threatens all of humanity and is already claiming hundreds of thousands of lives through ever-increasing droughts, floods, failed agricultural yields, superstorms, wildfires and vector borne disease.

Once again, humanity is at a crossroads- facing a fearsome enemy but mired in denial about the scope of the threat. This is no ordinary time.

To actually fulfill it’s responsibility to society in this planetary crisis, Harvard must make fighting climate change central to the institutional mission. Harvard showed courage in the face of the Axis threat. Where has it gone? We used to fight for the truth when society was mired in denial and ignorance. But now Harvard has become part of the Lie, pretending that the our climate is not collapsing, that the status quo can continue, with token changes (for example, hiring a new “vice president for sustainable investing”).

President Faust, how about following President Conant’s example and give a televised speech, as a private citizen about the imminent threat of climate change and the need for a massive US and global response? Or faculty, how about forming a “Human Climate Defense- Harvard Group.” Harvard scientists are already working on projects relevant to fighting climate change, and these excellent projects should be expanded and increased. But Harvard should also engage the rest of the faculty as well in studying and contributing to the scholarly project of fighting climate change. Climate change is a human problem, not a “science” problem; it will affect all of us, and all of us have a responsibility to fight against its threat. Historians, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and theologians have important information they can contribute to the question of how humanity should mobilize to fight climate change. The humanities can help us narrate the struggle, and put it in the context of the art and stories of past human struggles.

Harvard’s responsibility in this time of peril is much, much greater than divestment.  Harvard must speak the terrifying truth of climate change and mobilize in its name. This is Harvard’s moral obligation as arguably the most respected university in the world—one that claims to value truth above all. The cold, hard Veritas is that climate change poses an imminent threat to human civilization, posing a greater threat than the axis powers ever did.

Come on, Harvard. Enough foot-dragging and responsibility shirking. Gather up your courage; its time to lead.


  1. Dillon Culbreth

    A couple of links encountered today, http://lasthours.org/#respuesta with a link to declaration on climate change;

    http://tcktcktck.org/tck-action The Global Call for Climate Action

    • Margaret Klein

      Oh wow– these are great. I am especially excited by last hours! I will try to contact them this weekend. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Any institution as dedicated to “conservation” and bio-fuels as Harvard is bound to have conflicting, monetized interests. Which raises a whole ‘nother can of worms – Research One facilities and funding sources, biased results and ecologically illogical timescales for implementing research. All of this makes me think of how direly we need to rethink economic paradigms.

    Just this year, “The Journal of Political Ecology” did a series of case studies called “Ecologies of Hope”. You can obtain a synopsis by googling the title. The synopsis is authored by Rajan and Duncan. It is funny that you always bring up WWII, because they discuss the change in economic scale and systemic regulation of market economies subsequent to the war and consider the various warnings issued by thinkers of the time, specifically by individuals like Polanyi who was way ahead of his time in warning that belief in a self-regulating, over-arching economy is not conducive to ecological principles; it can’t be sustained from a provisional standpoint when consumers are not autonomous individuals producing what they consume. Further, non-self-sufficient consumer behavior demands sophisticated infrastructure that delivers goods and services that are not normally readily available to particular communities.

    This reminds me also of your last post where you discussed Ezra’s ideas for a social movement. I had basically gently suggested that our movement should operate on a smaller scale than the systems we are seeking to change. Firstly, it makes most sense to deviate from systems that are broken since these systems rely on a paradigm of organization that is ecologically illogical. I would cite the bioregional approach here, which explicitly points out how civil, municipal, state and federal lines as well as socio-political ideologies are inconsequential to the ecological principles that govern our Earth’s physical systems, which make the public resources that we rely on.

    Ecological boundaries are defined by things like trophic level interactions, watersheds, and population dynamics, to name just a few. Of course it has been mentioned elsewhere that political decisions are often made by scientifically ignorant individuals, and that is a real shame considering the heart of politics, in the etymology of the word, is a discursive praxis on the most logical subsistence practices that can be fathomed. I would argue that Polanyi was right, and here we are basing every decision regarding the environment on monetized incentives, and what’s worse is that, as opposed to Polyani’s day, today we operate off of a fiat currency backed by nothing since 1972, so he would probably be even more appalled at the “political process”.

    I digress…the point(s) being that the scales that our current socio-political systems seek to operate on are too large and are not conducive to rudimentary ecological principles. For example, what works in rural Nebraska will not work in Manhattan; what works in tropical Hawaii will not work in the Cascades of Oregon or Washington State. And furthermore, consider that Hawaii, has over forty climatic gradients within its eight islands due to the volcanic topography, and then extrapolate that to the continental United States and all of the beautiful terrain that comprises those states, and you start to understand how scale is tantamount to making logical ecological decisions.

    State and national borders are irrelevant and inconsequential to climate change and the people who live in affected communities have the requisite ecological knowledge to make the most informed decisions for their communities and their ways of life (whether in urbanized areas or more agrarian/rural ones) – not some disengaged lobbying politician in the District of Columbia. Further, our consumer subsistence confounds our ability to logically solve eco-crises, because we are so motivated by money in terms of how we frame problems and understand them as well as how we think up ways of solving them. Ecological value should not be the same as economic value – in fact, the two cancel each other out. You can’t be a servant to both of these masters – you must pick one over the other if you are to think adequately about solving eco-crises.

    So, my point is that we can’t go along with the rusty, broken clockwork that have become socio-politico-economic systems. We have to realign our thinking to a smaller, more ecologically logical scale. And we can’t value the environment in an economic way – it has to be in an ecological way.

    Wow, this is much longer than I intended for it to be, but hopefully it makes sense to someone out there.

  3. Margaret Klein

    Tori thank you so much for your comment!

    (For the past 4 or 5 days, I had installed an over-agressive spam filter that was rejecting virtually all comments. When I realized this, I e-mailed people, such as Tori, who I saw had had comments blocked, and asked the them to re-post. So I really appreciate you taking the time to type your thoughts out, again! Please to all readers/ commentors– let me know if a comment is rejected. Unless you are a spam-bot, it is a mistake.)

    As for bio-regionalism, its very interesting. Bill McKibben would agree, at least in part, that climate change is putting large scale projects behind us. As climate change wreaks havoc on infrastructure, and on global capitalism, the local will be everything.

    But you know the saying, “Think global act local….” I think the movement has to function along those lines– though I think that the internet has redefined “local”– if my best friend lives across the world but we Skype once a week, there is a “localness” or should I say a “closeness” to that relationship that is maintained across a great distance…. What I mean is, the Human Climate Movement that I envision involves activists first and foremost working within their own networks (the new “local”), while feeling very much connected to a larger struggle, which I think is critical for morale.

    I think to fight a change a hulking system, a movement operate on a large-scale…once the system has been changed (and a crisis response to climate change has been instituted by the USFG and other governments) then maybe its time to move in a more localized direction……

    My apologies again for the deletion, and thanks for re-posting these valuable thoughts!

  4. My pleasure. :o) Thank you for the opportunity to share ideas and experiences on your blog.

  5. This is an excerpt from David Abrams’s book “Spell of the Sensuous”. I felt that it was fitting for an elaboration on my original comment in this discussion. Enjoy! http://www.mysticmamma.com/respond-to-the-subtle-logos-of-the-land/

  6. Maybe in WW ll the enemy was the other. With climate change it is us. Different level of emotional and moral maturity required. Not sure.

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