The growing calls by certain students and environmental groups for Australian universities to divest themselves of fossil fuel-related enterprises is typical of the feel-good grandstanding university students have long enjoyed. At a glance, the demands of these undergraduate eco-fascists appear sensible enough: universities have a privileged status in society as places of progress and innovation. They have a responsibility to embrace their as vanguards of social change and lead the fight against climate change. It is only right that they sever ties with companies that reap their profits by plundering the loins of Mother Earth.
Tempting, as it may be to accept this heartfelt concern for the planet’s wellbeing at face value, there are good reasons why the blossoming of this new species of eco-authoritarianism should be cut down at the roots.
First, while the image of greedy multinationals denuding the earth of its natural wealth in the name of billion-dollar profits might be emotionally arousing, it is grossly misleading. Fossil fuels are currently, and likely to remain, the number-one source of energy worldwide. For much of the world, this is a function of economic necessity rather than a conscious choice by a few individuals to make energy by polluting the planet. And as one would expect, this makes the work of digging up and refining fossil fuels a substantial slice of the world economy. Fortunately for us, it is also a slice in which Australia enjoys a sizable portion.
Importantly, reliance on fossil fuel is not uniform across different countries. While Denmark managed to meet 39% of its energy needs from wind alone, only 4% of India’s power was generated from renewable sources. Nigeria, the largest country in Africa and a nation with over 60 million people living in absolute poverty, relied on renewables for less than 1% of its energy production. That richer countries do a better job at using renewables than poorer countries is no coincidence. Rather, it underlines the empirical fact that for developing nations, the rise out of poverty is wholly dependent on the availability of cheap energy; namely coal, oil and gas. For these countries, opting to spend billions of dollars on renewable energy over cheaper, albeit dirtier, sources is not a choice about the morality of carbon emissions so much as it is about whether to continue living in poverty and destitution.
Whether we like it or not, the truth is that the standard of living enjoyed by the world’s seven billion inhabitants is made possible by fossil fuels. Nor is this likely to change for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, most, if not all of the crowning achievements of human progress since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution were only possible because of of cheap and plentiful energy. Most crucially of all, these same forms of energy continue to fuel progress for people such as the population of Nigeria, who stand among the billions in the world yet to enjoy many of the benefits of industrialisation that undergraduates in Australia take for granted.
The point here is not to deny that fossil fuels have damaging consequences for the world around us. It is simply to highlight that the popular depiction of fossil fuel as a destructive blight on humanity, however morally fulfilling it may be, lacks perspective. Harmful effects acknowledged, erasing fossil fuel from human history would leave a world few would wish to contemplate, let alone inhabit.
For those wealthy enough to tick the carbon offset option when purchasing tickets to rock fest Splendour in the Grass this week, clearly it is emotionally satisfying to heap scorn on corporations that deliver power to millions of people less fortunate than themselves. However, moral preening aside, a more honest question is whether companies that make money from fossil fuesl are any more immoral than consumers of this energy whose standard of living depends on such energy. Sadly, for large parts of the world, conscientiously objecting to energy that emits carbon dioxide remains an unaffordable luxury, however morally attractive it may appear.
Second, while it is fine and dandy to toss around lofty terms about universities as invaluable beacons of progress for the less learned in society, this changes nothing about a university’s obligations as an institute of research and higher learning. Put differently, even the most convincing moral pronouncements detract nothing from the university’s duty to spend and invest its funds in the best interests of the institution. In practice, this is likely to amount to making diversified low-risk investments to protect assets from inflation and shore up the university’s financial security for generations of staff and students to come.
However, it grants no license to make financial decisions in order to assuage politically active student groups, or worse, invest funds in the pursuit of some ideological agenda under the guise of social justice. Make no mistake, if universities acquiesce to the demands of these eco-warrior exhibitionists and rid themselves of fossil fuel-related ventures, it will amount to exactly that.
Behind all the grandstanding and moralising, opposing fossil fuel is not the epic battle between good and evil it is fashionably held out to be. It is a political position, and like all political positions, it is based on the subjective views and values of those who hold it. Once the rhetoric is stripped away, there is nothing inherently more virtuous about the views of those opposed to fossil fuels than those who are in favour of their continued use.
For instance, consider students studying degrees such as mining engineering or geology, whose future job prospects lie squarely in fossil fuel-based industry. Would it be fair for the views of these students to be ignored in order to satisfy the moral vanity of other undergraduates?
Finding consensus amongst university students on perhaps any political issue imaginable is worse than a pipe dream. Indeed, a campus with a healthy diversity in the political and social views of its students is likely to enjoy far more meaningful debate about current affairs than one without. The flipside to this is that reconciling the broad spectrum of student views with every investment decision or research project undertaken becomes impossible. That is why any concession to any group seeking to impose its agenda on how a university carries out its functions should be rejected outright on principle.
Protesting against fossil fuels is undoubtedly a soothing outlet for students looking for some kind of anti-Establishment cause in which to channel their delayed-onset adolescent angst. But in substance, ‘fossil free universities’ has no stronger claim to dictate the activities a university chooses to undertake than students who, for religious reasons, object to research into stem cells or reproductive technology.
Both are debatable propositions, each with its own costs, benefits and trade-offs. Both are founded upon different ethical frameworks which will never be agreed upon all people. More importantly, both are sectional viewpoints that should have no place influencing decisions that should be taken with undivided loyalty to interests of students, staff and researchers at large.
It is sometimes difficult when confronted with seemingly noble causes to sweep aside the woolly minded clichés and grasp the substance of what is actually being discussed. The increasingly authoritarian inclinations of environmental groups is a case in point. No belief system, especially deep ecology, has a strong enough claim on the greater good that it should be entitled to decide how other people or institutions of higher learning spend their money. Nowhere does this ring more true than with repeated attempts by leftists to hijack state-funded education in order to pursue their own frolics of moral vanity.