This is the thirteenth installment in Peter’s “Bum Logic” series, about his investigation into our inadvertent complicity in climate change, continued from his last post, If This Sounds Apocalyptic, It Is.
“Excuse me, Steven,” I said. The dependably flustered, jowled and spectacled President of the California Institute of the Arts, Steven Lavine, met my gaze. I immediately felt sorry for the man. He was wearing a necktie, a symbol of shame.
“Steven, could I share this with you?” I gestured to the supine scroll next to me.
“Well, please make it quick,” he said. A nibble. “What is it?”
We again locked eyes, and I thought of how dogs will test each other’s continence by sniffing butts. I knew myself as dominant.
“Steven, this is a petition, with over 300 signatures. It calls on Cal Arts to divest its endowment from fossil fuel stock. Our scientific community has reached an overwhelming consensus about the existence and causes of climate change. That consensus implicates 200 companies listed in this study.” I tapped a printed copy of the Carbon Tracker Initiative report, Unburnable Carbon. “We currently have holdings in corporations that are actively undermining the integrity of the product this institution provides. We must not profit from our own destruction. Will you sign this paper as a symbol of your commitment to a just and sustainable future?”
Earlier in the day, upon making a similar invitation to one of the Institution’s other executives, I’d been blessed with the response, “Executives don’t sign petitions; we sign legislation.” Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist swinging for the fences, assuming the positive.
“Well, I can’t do that,” came the expected reply. “And I don’t think divesting is as simple as you make it. We are invested through mutual funds, not individual companies.”
“Steven,” I responded, feeling oddly paternalistic towards a man more than double my age, “I am aware that we have an endowment of roughly 111 million dollars, forty-seven percent of which is invested in publicly traded companies through the cheese cloth of co-mingled funds. Only 6.9% of our stock is in companies named in this report.” Again I tapped the stapled booklet. “This petition is not a radical request, it is a reasonable one.
“Also,” I continued, “this is not a movement operating in isolation. It is a descendent of similar collegiate divestment movements that successfully altered public policies towards South African apartheid and big tobacco. Other folks like me are active at over ___ different schools across America, and with a large coordinated divestment, such as the one I foresee, more mutual funds will divest themselves in hopes of catering to a burgeoning constituency. But since markets are driven by consumers, we must first assure those funds that we will purchase their product if they provide it.”
“Hhhhhmmmmmm,” Steven hhhhmmmmed, visibly trying to plot the quickest path to his Lexus without losing any perceived dignity. “You’ve done your homework.”
“I have. Do you have any questions?”
“Wouldn’t it be simpler for us to green our campus?”
I felt like I was playing t-ball.
“Given the urgency of the situation, the Ghandi-ism ‘be the change you want to see in the world,’ is no longer meaningful. Pollution and climate change are all pervading threats, their blows felt in the form of catastrophic storms such as Hurricane Sandy, which is in the end going to cost over seventy billion dollars. So unless America actualizes an unprecedented and dramatic behavior shift, perhaps only comparable to the abolition of slavery, I don’t think token ‘green’ improvements such as installing solar panels or minimizing café waste will matter a hill of beans. Besides, it makes no sense to green the campus and not green the portfolio.
“What’s more, Steven, is this isn’t simply a moral mater; it’s a financial one. It turns out there is no such thing as peak oil. We have more than enough fossil fuels to ruin our global habitat. There is, however, such a thing as peak oil profits. And that is where we are now. Last year over 1,200 people were arrested outside the White House in an act of civil disobedience protesting the President’s support of further fossil fuel infrastructure. Currently there is a blockade in Eastern Texas where folks are literally putting their bodies between in-ground resources and refineries. Acts like these will become more prevalent, and will raise the operating costs of fossil fuel companies, eventually stripping the companies of their ability to lobby our politicians, and therefore ending the absurd subsidies we currently grant them.”
“Tell you what, Peter, can you send me more information on this whole thing?”
I, poker-faced, tried to ignore his crooked, stained teeth.
“Gladly, Steven. Thanks for speaking with me. One more thing: I understand you feel professionally prohibited from signing this petition, even if you feel sympathetic with its cause. But you could look at your own personal investments and consider selling any coal, oil, or gas company stock.”
As the man ambled away, I wondered how he’d managed to remain at the helm for more than twenty-five years. I wondered why he’d wanted to spend his life in a necktie; those things strangle all rational thought. I wondered when he would grow up.
Peter Nichols is a poet, rock climber, and vagabond originally from Toledo, Ohio.