Do you remember what it was like to live in a world that wasn’t threatened by environmental oblivion? I will turn forty this year. In the late nineties, when I started in undergrad at U of T, global warming was on my radar, I was careful about my consumption and voted with the planet in mind, but it still seemed like we might return to a world in which human beings nestled within endless natural cycles rather than depleting and destroying them.
In 1998, the world still seemed boundless. I still believed that I could spend a lifetime happily exploring it. In 2020, I still sometimes get a fleeting shimmer of that expansive joy when I look up at the clouds in the summer, but the nostalgic sting of that feeling only makes the pain of living on a dying planet that much worse. The younger generations, the ones who marched for climate all through 2019, the ones petitioning the University of Toronto to divest from fossil fuels, if they know this feeling at all, they know it only as childhood naivety, a pleasant illusion from before they understood the truth about the unprecedented destruction that their parents and grandparents allowed the fossil fuel industry to conduct.
I am reminded of this generational gap whenever I see the banners for the University of Toronto’s Boundless campaign. Although today’s U of T students may have many privileges and opportunities that others in their generation will not – their lives are certainly not boundless, they are tightly constricted by the quickly collapsing limits of our biosphere.
But the ‘Boundless’ campaign is merely clueless, the publicity campaign I am writing about today is downright evil.
At this point, we know that keeping below 2 degrees of warming can only be achieved through unprecedented disruption of our energy systems. There is no scenario in which we meet our carbon reduction goals and the fossil fuel industry remains profitable. If the energy transition actually happens fast enough, many, if not most, oil companies will go bankrupt in the next few years as their reserves are devalued. Investment advisors may tell you that the collapse of these companies is unlikely in that time frame, but that is only because it is unlikely that we will succeed in preserving a liveable planet for our children.
Investing in fossil fuels 2020 is a bet against the next generation. It is a conscious decision to sell out the future of today’s undergraduates for short term profits – or perhaps because of pressure from donors who are even more deeply invested in the ongoing collapse of our planet. Either way, it is evil. Although the university claims to be anti-racist, climate change will impact black and brown communities most severely. Although the university claims to care about its students’ mental health, environmental anxiety is spreading like wildfire. And how can we expect the university to take its commitments to climate action seriously in other spheres if the success of its financial strategy relies on the failure of climate action campaigns the world over?
If it is hard for you to see that this is evil, it is probably because you are trying not to examine your own complicity in the greatest generational betrayal in human history. And it is no wonder that you refuse to look. The banks, our government, most of our friends and relatives are all complicit and they are all telling us that it is fine, that our savings will be ‘eaten up by inflation’ if we don’t invest. Unfortunately, the more fundamental truth is that if we don’t divest, everything we love will be eaten up by climate change – including the ‘boundless’ futures of today’s undergraduates.
Although my parents have begun to divest now, and although their ‘diversified portfolios’ were normalized by society as a whole, I am still angry with them for funding the very institutions which have devoured my daughter’s future. My daughter – their granddaughter – and all of today’s undergraduates will live through environmental horrors unprecedented in human history – all because their parents, grandparents and great grandparents couldn’t resist the hefty dividends being paid out to anyone willing to sell out future generations.
Unlike my parents, the University of Toronto is still invested in the fossil fuel industry. This is evil. It is an abstract evil to be sure, but that is hardly an excuse in an academic setting. Unlike my parents, President Gertler cannot claim that he hasn’t thought through the ethical complexities of those investments. The University of Toronto, and Meric Gertler in particular, have resisted multiple divestment campaigns with wide support from students and faculty alike. And now, in June of 2020, instead of owning up to this decision, the University is announcing a new “responsible investment charter” initiated by U of T and McGill – perhaps the only other Canadian university that has been as steadfast in its refusal to divest as U of T. McGill’s commitment to its fossil fuel investments could not be shaken even by the resignation of a tenured faculty member sickened by the university’s refusal to divest. This ‘responsible investment’ proclamation, relentlessly promoted on U of T’s social media and email lists, is not unlike China and North Korea declaring that they are leading a new coalition to defend human rights around the world and trumpeting this achievement across all of their state-controlled media outlets. The university can stand by its decision to prioritize its balance sheet over the future of its students if it wants to, but it must own up to it. Relabeling this evil as ‘responsible investing’ is a pathetic lie which will not deceive a generation that has been carefully trained in critical thinking.
A Note on the Technical Aspects of the Plan: I actually see some merit in the plan to reduce the carbon footprint of its entire portfolio rather than specifically selling off oil companies, but the timeline of that decarbonization is far behind what the world needs. A 40% reduction by 2030 doesn’t even meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. In fact, if world governments are succeeding in their decarbonization the U of T will have to buy more fossil fuel intensive stocks in order to avoid accidentally achieving a 50% reduction by that time. A responsible investing plan must promote positive corporate action, not trail behind it. A reasonable target, which might actually have a positive impact, would be a 50% reduction in the next few years and a completely carbon-free portfolio by 2030.