The antidote to cranial rectal insertion in the academic world

I’m an unethical investment, get me out of here!

I have to admit to being disappointed by my University’s stance on divestment. The story continues to murmur on a fortnight after the decision was announced.   I actually tend to agree with the University’s basic argument — that the issue is not an easy black and white discussion — but the problem is that I believe the University misses the key points in its justification not to divest in a simple and overarching way.

Of course we should recognise that we are all complicit in the problem of climate change. Each of us contributes, in almost everything we do, to degrading the global environment.  In many cases this is because we have no choice.  Many of us may attempt to minimise our footprint, or offset when possible, but when circumstances offer no alternative, it is not possible to avoid fossil fuels completely.   But that doesn’t make me a hypocrite if I choose not to profit from the stranglehold that fossil fuels have on modern society.   And it is that little word — profit — that is conspicuous in its absence from the University’s paperwork on divestment.

When do values limit the profit you are willing to make?

When do values limit the profit you are willing to make?

Let’s not kid ourselves here:  investment is about profit.  When you invest in a company, you give them money, and you aim to profit from their endeavours.  When you invest in a PLC you are not only effectively giving them spare cash to work with, but you are also relinquishing control over how that capital is spent, and as a consequence you will profit indiscriminately from all their activities, however unsustainable or unethical you might consider them to be.

This is quite different from collaborating with or accepting research funding from such companies, because in such cases you can be discriminate — you can choose which projects do or don’t meet your own criteria.  Note that in such cases Universities are not engaged in this research for profit — the funds typically cover the costs involved, without any surplus.  Investment, though, is only about profit and nothing else.  I am confident that most people recognise the difference between being funded by companies to do research, and indiscriminately profiting from the totality of their business activities.

The University claims that they will use their investment portfolio to leverage better behaviour from the major oil and gas companies, but this exposes another problem with their argument — on the one hand I am told that divestment would have no real impact on the companies involved anyway so its not really worth while, yet on the other I am told we can use the threat of divestment to leverage their business strategy.  Which is it?

My last point of contention is the rather cynical claim by the University that divestment would be “the easy privilege of the developed world in calling for an end to fossil fuel use after we have used them for centuries to ensure the supply of our basic needs and power our economic growth.”  In the history of the Developed World we also used subjugation and slave labour to “power our economic growth”, but we would never try to justify their use now.

According to Vice Principal Charlie Jeffery, the decision made “is about taking a measured, balanced approach to a complex, multi-layered issue, and coming up with a solution which most closely chimes with our values as a university.”  Well, what are our values, I wonder?   If you look at our Mission Statement we aim to “Make a significant, sustainable and socially responsible contribution to Scotland, the UK and the world, promoting health and economic and cultural wellbeing”.    I’m not convinced that profiting through investment in the fossil fuel industry meets those values.

The alternative?  Well, I would much rather see a robust ethics policy applied across the whole portfolio of investment. If The Co-operative Bank can do it, I don’t see why a University full of clever people can’t do it too.


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This entry was posted on May 25, 2015 by in Ethics and tagged , , , , , .


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