Todd Gitlin ’63 Responds To Faust’s Commencement Speech and Advocates for Divestment

To: President Drew Faust

From: Todd Gitlin

Date: June 8, 2013

 

Dear President Faust:

I am impressed and pleased that you took the time at Commencement to underscore that the life of Harvard, its community, and the larger world deeply depend upon  our collective ability to address the immensity of the climate change that is unmistakably upon us.  You recognize that the accelerating crisis of climate change requires the most special attention because a global economy built on fossil fuels—and therefore built on the hell-bent release of carbon into the atmosphere—threatens the future of all.  A world has emerged in which the heating of the atmosphere and the seas leads to an upsurge of extreme weather, not only melting the glaciers but engulfing low-lying regions from Bangladesh to Rockaway and Revere Beach.

How shall Harvard react in this emergency? This is the question.  What is appropriate action?  As one of those alumni happy to have reached the half-century anniversary of my graduation this year, I am happy to add a small note of support for your celebration of Harvard’s contributions via research, study, and problem-solving.  As you say, we who earn our keep through thought, research, and synthesis are charged to focus our vocational attention.  As you said with respect to the Boston Marathon bombings and aftermath, “our broader and ongoing responsibility as a university is to ask and address the larger questions…: to prepare for the next crisis and the one after that, even as we work to prevent them; to help us all understand the origins and the meaning of such terrible events in human lives and societies. We do this work in the teaching and research to which we devote ourselves every day.”

It is only realistic then that Harvard should do what Harvard does best:  teaching and research.  So far, so good.  Who among us is not for realism?

But realism requires a sharp-eyed appraisal of reality—including, not least, the political and social forces at play in moving the world along its path.  And this is where matters get more complicated for all of us and in particular for Harvard–an institution whose centuries-long business is the business of learning.  For a crucial dimension of the current reality is that the nation’s chief institutions of power, investment, and legitimacy have largely defaulted.  The authorities have, in combination, forfeited their authority.  Leadership is abdicated on every front as global warming runs rampant.  Collective consequences are enormous—and appalling.

In other words, to say that the challenge of climate change is upon us is also to say that our political, economic, administrative, journalistic, and religious authorities have failed.  They have failed individually, and they have failed in combination to prevent a climate crisis.  They have failed by purpose, by misdirection, and by inadvertence.  This is because they actually succeed in the performance of their distinct projects when those projects are defined by conveniently narrow criteria of success–criteria that ignore the well-being of our planet.  They have been tailored to perform their respective forms of business-as-usual. Central investment decisions are made by corporate boards so committed to the maximizing of shareholder value as to be deceptive or indifferent to the “negative externalities” that make life overall less sustainable.  We have a political system that is fundamentally crippled, in particular by a major political party that constitutes, with respect to climate change, a veritable Flat-Earth Society.  We have a regulatory system living in a bygone world.  On every front, unrealism–or what C. Wright Mills memorably called “crackpot realism”–prevails.

It is in this context that the campaign to divest Harvard from fossil fuel companies arises.  Harvard is, like it or not, not only an illustrious center of research and education–it is also a symbolic center.  The larger culture—indeed, throughout the world as a whole—assigns it a moral meaning.  (So it is that ethical transgressions at Harvard—the cheating scandal and so on—become fodder for national scandals.)  The totality of our social-political-economic setting assigns Harvard a calling that must extend beyond its everyday activity.  Whether or not the institution chose this calling all by itself is, in the scheme of things, irrelevant.  Harvard as an institution is obliged to take the next step because of a combination of cynical denial, ruthless myopia, regulatory capture, political timidity and stupidity on the part of the institutions one might have expected to act in behalf of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Given the commitments of the fossil fuel complex to its dreadful practices, which have brought us the developing climate emergency, we require unusual actions.  And this is where Harvard comes in.  Its decisions—and its refusals to decide—carry substantial symbolic weight.  To recognize this is also realism.  And to refuse to recognize it is to be blinkered.

Those among Harvard’s present-day students and faculty who have been calling for fossil-fuel divestment are not empty idealists.  One of them, Eva Roben ’13, wrote to you recently:

The fossil fuel industry is primarily responsible for this terrifying inaction. As the situation grows increasingly dire, the crucial research produced by Harvard’s faculty has been obscured by the fossil fuel industry’s misinformation campaigns. In the political realm, the solutions proposed by Harvard’s innovators have been defeated by the Goliathan advocacy efforts of the fossil fuel industry. The industry devalues Harvard’s research by blocking its practical applications, yet the Harvard Corporation continues to invest our endowment in the fossil fuel industry. This inconsistency between Harvard’s important research and its backward investments challenges our university’s stated commitment to addressing the climate crisis.

The advocates of divestment understand that realism requires a sharp-eyed appraisal of the political and social forces in play.  You have admirably stepped up on one front.  But more is required.

Harvard must declare in its investment policies that fossil fuel companies are killing the world and that civilized conduct requires forthright renunciation of the profits that accrue from their doing so.

Respectfully yours,

 

Todd Gitlin ‘63

Professor of Journalism and Sociology

Chair, Ph. D. Program in Communications

Columbia University

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