The Weather

Bum Logic: Sinful Stock

This is the second installment in Peter’s “Bum Logic” series, about his investigation into our inadvertent complicity in climate change, continued from last week’s post, Investment.

I looked at an online dictionary. I’d searched the word “muckraker.” I’d been called that and I wanted to know the connotations of the epithet.

Noun – an agricultural rake for spreading manure.

Verb – to search for and expose misconduct in public life.

I grunted in recognition of my actions. Fuck yeah I was trying to expose misconduct in public life. What is bizarre is how little searching is necessary. It’s right fucking there! Right on the surface of things. Right before your eyes, NOW.

I looked back at my notes from my meeting with Don Matthewson. The dude had physical features, but they weren’t as remarkable as his intellectual acuity and interpersonal empathy. I hope he doesn’t resent me that observation.

At three pm I made his acquaintance. I asked him, “Is the endowment portfolio of this establishment a matter of public record?” He said, “Yes.” Then he produced a binder, which read on the cover Investment Portfolio Review. As he opened it he inquired, “Are you familiar with these things?” “Nope,” I replied. “Are you interested in finance?” he kept the ball bouncing. I stalled…  and eventually offered an affirmation, “Yes.” “Anything in particular?” Don continued in his quest for context, my pretense. I gave it to him, “I want to know if this school is invested in businesses that are extracting fossil fuels from our firmament.” “Which you are against?” he led again. The temptation to fuck around and play the satirist was great, but I successfully suppressed it and stuck to the straight and narrow, “Yes.”  Satisfied, Don proceeded to make numbers intelligible to a fiduciary neophyte, me.

The California Institute of the Arts has an endowment of $111,410,026. That chunk of potential energy is in the care of the Finance, Investment and Audit committee. Their members are trustees and bureaucrats. They are assisted in their duties by Angeles Investment Advisors L.L.C.  That tandem has deemed it wise to invest 46.9% of that money in various funds (statistics dated 30 June 2012).

Funds are like communities or organisms. They have different parts, different contributors, different cells. They are not singular, they are diverse and that is where, in theory, their strength lies. If any one component becomes toxic or insolvent, due to age or injury or illness, the other assets ought to be able to offset that tragedy’s impact, allowing for the fund, the larger community, to continue un-crippled. Now, to drop the metaphor, those funds’ parts are publicly traded corporations.

Corporations are people. Or that’s what Citizen’s United, a controversial and entirely sinister Supreme Court decision, asserts. But they function remarkably like funds. They take risks, yet they seek to mitigate those risks by recruiting components, that is, investors like the California Institute of the Arts and their funds, that will share the burden in the event of a calamity. When learning about this field of human activity, I find myself thinking of layer cake, or those massive buildings Stalin loved so much. Or of fools hoping to conceive a child but continuing to use prophylactics for fear of contracting the unseen illness of their accomplice in love, uncommitted, unexposed, immaculate, impotent, inconceivable.

Then, having given me the gist, Don gave me the grist. Through the cheesecloth of funds, the endowment—the potential energy of Cal Arts—is invested in Royal Dutch Shell, British Petroleum P.L.C., Chevron Corporation, Exxon Mobil Corporation, Gazprom O.J.S.C., Sinopec Limited, as well as Philip Morris Companies Inc.

Sinful Stock is a colloquialism in our pandemic lexicon.[1] It refers to stock in a company that practices and perpetuates what many people consider immoral, traditionally: alcohol, tobacco, pornography, payday loans, and weapons. This tradition is threatened. You cannot sin when you’re dead. Humanity as a species is not going to drink itself to death. It is not going to chain smoke itself to death.[2] It is not going to masturbate to death. It is not going to die of usury. Nor is it going to die of gun violence. Humanity as a species might die from pollution.

Once Don and I both enjoyed an equal awareness of relevant facts, we partook in a discussion about how they could be interpreted and what actions they should motivate. He spoke of “exposure.” I spoke of “apartheid.”

He was using the term exposure as a publicist would. He claimed that while yes it is shitty that Cal Arts is supporting evil, Cal Arts isn’t supporting that much evil relative to other academic institutions, say ones with larger endowments or greater percentages of their endowments speculating in the ongoing tragedy of the commons. He claimed that because of that there are more reasonable, potentially rewarding ways to “green” our campus. For instance, calling for Solar Energy.

Just as I’m not feeling obliged to support the assertion that the continued combustion of fossil fuels is evil, I do not feel obliged to support the assertion that apartheid was evil. I do though want to draw a distinction between those two evils: apartheid is no more. It ceased in the mid-1990s after roughly a half-century of injurious injustice. That terminus was an achievement attributed to intrepid souls who faced immediate retribution for their resistance, some surviving, some not, but it also was fertilized by students enjoying the imagined safety of their remote campuses. Those students demonstrated and demanded their endowments divest from businesses symbiotic with the abusive Afrikaners. Eventually, 155 campuses reallocated their stock. That action led to more than eighty cities, twenty-five states and nineteen counties taking some form of punitive action against companies in bed with the racist regime.

What I believe Don was grasping for when trying to tilt my efforts toward other on-campus actions, was a re-positing of the Gandhism “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Sadly, I think that platitude is no longer pertinent. Self-improvement was once a supportable theory, but it’s been abrogated by the urgency at hand. A catastrophic climate crisis will come. It has. And no one is safe. No one can anymore hope to establish an autonomous utopia that will spread its wisdom, like a light on high, over the ignorant and dark world. There is no more fertile soil, no more wilderness. The only hope, and it is a far fetched one, is to amend the rules of acceptable human behavior. Consensus is a must. But even that hope is not without precedent.


Bum Logic continues in tomorrow’s Weather.

[1] you’re reading, you’re infected, implicated.

[2] so let’s keep the Philip Morris stock.

Peter Nichols is a poet, rock climber, and vagabond originally from Toledo, Ohio.