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George Will Misses the Mark on Divestment

Campus sustainability movements are no more fundamentalist than Will’s unbridled faith in the free market

Last week, Washington Post columnist George Will took a swing at the campus divestment movement that is spreading across the country, arguing that sustainability has “gone mad” on college campuses. 

Divest from Fossil FuelPhoto by Light Brigading, on Flickr The environmental movement doesn’t fit into the stale boomer-era narrative of left versus right.

Will started out predictably at first, claiming that divestment from fossil fuels is ineffective. It soon became obvious, however, that the divestment movement may indeed pose a serious threat to Will’s worldview. His rhetorical license crescendoed as he compared those committed to sustainability and divestment to religious fundamentalists. But thinly veiled name-calling is the surest sign of a weak argument.

More important than what Will wrote in his column is what he left out. Although Will criticized sundry other divestment movements inspired by “involvement with Israel, firearms, tobacco, red meat, irrigation-dependent agriculture, etc.,” he conveniently omitted apartheid from that litany. Why omit the largest example of a successful divestment movement? This isn’t the first time Will has been on the wrong side of history: Decades ago he criticized the “moral Hula Hoop” of sanctions against the apartheid regime, an amazing campaign that proved to be much more than a passing “fad.” Maybe his recent criticism of the “flamboyant futility” of the fossil fuel divestment movement stems from the fact that the strategy can serve as an effective catalyst. 

Will also summarily dismissed the fossil fuel divestment movement as an indulgence in “progressive gestures” and incorrectly characterized the environmental movement as a left-wing revival. Nothing could be further from the truth. The environmental movement doesn’t fit into the stale boomer-era narrative of left versus right. Many environmental thinkers question the assumptions of the philosophers of plenty — whether Karl Marx or Adam Smith. 

Indeed, most greens are critical of the environmental degradation hidden behind the banner of progress in both capitalist and planned economies of the past. Today, what difference does it make if carbon emissions are coming from a tailpipe in a capitalist country or a smokestack in a socialist one? Will is wrong to assume that environmentalists are motivated out of loyalty to leftist ideology and that the movement is a “green tree with red roots,” as he has written in the past. Perhaps it is not green but gray that bothers Will. 

Will is a “conservative” columnist who ironically misses the fact that environmentalism is the only truly conservative force in American politics today. Where else in America do you see such passionate efforts to preserve the “permanent things,” to borrow arch-conservative Russell Kirk’s phrasing? Where else do you see the conservative impulse towards stewardship and conservation, one that used to guide Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and even Richard Nixon? Where else do you see the desire to preserve a slice of nature from the insatiable appetite of “progress?” Where do you see anyone standing “athwart history, yelling stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so,” as William F. Buckley, Jr. classically defined a conservative?

You see it in the impassioned struggle of youth today who have the moral imagination and scientific curiosity to look beyond quarterly GDP growth and past the prior century’s tired political narratives. This movement is something truly different from leftist student movements or counterculture theaters of the past. The divestment movement may look revolutionary in form, but it is conservative in substance. As Bob Dylan once penned, “times they are a-changing,” and Will has criticized something he clearly doesn’t understand.

Yet, in the face of epic market failures — such as ocean acidification, sea level rise, desertification, habitat loss, and climate change — Will regularly preaches redemption through markets. His brand of faux conservatism embraces a radical and utopian view of history that is just as dreamy and dangerous as anything cooked up by Marx and Engels. The politics he regularly defends in print and on air give solace to his followers that there is no problem (created by free markets) that a free market can’t solve. This is the same George Will who in 2009 mocked then Energy Secretary Steven Chu for warning that climate change would melt snow packs in California, causing severe agricultural complications. “No more lettuce?” Will jested, not even a decade before Chu’s warning proved prophetic. The joke is on Will, but no one is laughing.

Ironically, Will’s recent column criticized the sustainability and divestment movements for using apocalyptic rhetoric and succumbing to religious “fundamentalism.” Yet his career has been devoted to a free market worldview that displays many of the patterns of religious thought. The idea of unlimited progress through unbridled capitalism is a hopeful belief that comforts, simplifies, redeems, explains all, and automatically addresses future scarcity. Free markets — in this apocalyptic worldview — are omniscient. Although Will has described himself as a “low-voltage atheist,” his thinking on economics is inherently faith-based. Coming from a cleric in the free market orthodoxy, Will’s attack on the campus divestment movement rings as hollow as an echo in an empty cathedral. 

In last week’s column, as in previous columns, Will accused environmentalists as subscribing to a fixed “catechism.” But Will clearly embraces a catechism of capitalism, one where metaphysical theories are exempt from the scrutiny of biophysical reality. He charged that the “divestment impulse recognizes no limiting principle” while his own politics float untethered from the limiting principles found in the laws of physics and ecology, revealed through the wonders of peer-reviewed science. Apparently, these wonders were lost on Will: In a widely criticized 2009 column, he inaccurately asserted that “global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”

In sum, the free-market eschatology that George Will defends with the pen is neither conservative nor realist, but instead radical, utopian, and — in the strictest sense of the word — apocalyptic. Divestment campaigners aren’t using environmentalism as a means towards the ends of a planned economy. Rather, divestment campaigners seek to sustain civilization and the vital ecological systems upon which it depends. Fossil fuel divestment isn’t a “righteous pose;” it’s a crucial first step at this late hour.

Björn Philip Beer
Björn Philip Beer is writer, in Charlottesville, VA. Follow him on Twitter at @BjornPhilipBeer

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