The Dangerous Bargain Harvard’s Dr. Faust Has Made With Fossil Fuels

CREDIT: Josh Reynolds / Boston Globe

Harvard University President Drew Faust.

Harvard University President Drew Faust.

Harvard President Drew Faust

CREDIT: Boston Globe

Harvard University President Drew Faust released a letter earlier this month explaining why Harvard will not be divesting its endowment from fossil fuel companies.

Faust’s reasoning has been thoroughly debunked , but I’d like to focus briefly on one of her arguments in particular:

I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day. Given our pervasive dependence on these companies for the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances, it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.

Well, purely as a matter of finance, Harvard should divest from those companies because their stock prices must inevitably collapse. Since we must leave most fossil fuels in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change, “the carbon bubble is going to burst,” as Al Gore has put it.

Faust’s argument boils down to “we shouldn’t divest from companies with products and services that are destroying a livable climate for our students because we use those products and services.” OK, how about if Harvard goes off fossil fuels at the same time it is divesting? By Faust’s logic, the only time to divest is after it no longer matters.

Clearly, humanity has made a classic Faustian bargain with fossil fuels, though at the time the world became addicted to fossil fuels, we didn’t know that — we didn’t know the end result would be Hell and High Water. Now we do.

Now we do know that humanity has constructed the grandest of Ponzi schemes, whereby current generations have figured out how to live off the wealth of future generations.

Thus, much like the original Dr. Faust, we know we are trading our moral integrity for worldly gains (see Jefferson’s “Brilliant Statement Of Intergenerational Equity Principles“). The irony — and the tragedy — would appear lost on Harvard’s modern-day Faust.

For more on why Harvard should divest, see the Divest Harvard student group’s response to Faust (here), and this letter to Faust from Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, the first mayor to order divestment of his city funds from fossil fuels.