Felix Beilin and Zack Lori
Hey everyone, today we’re trying something new. The two of us (Felix and Zack) are going to briefly summarize our disagreements over a recent development on campus: ASG’s resolution opposing the Adani Carmichael coal mine in Eastern Australia. The Adani coal mine has come under significant scrutiny for its gargantuan greenhouse gas output--it is projected to release 200 million tonnes of CO2 over 60 years through excavation and transportation alone, and then a further 130 million tonnes yearly through combustion of its “low quality, high ash” coal. The mine will also be located on historically indigenous land in Australia. Northwestern’s president, Morton O. Schapiro, is a board member at Marsh & McLennan, a multinational services firm that is currently employed as the insurance broker for the coal mine project. Dozens of other companies have already revised their support for the venture and Marsh & McLennan will announce a new position on May 21st.
All of the views expressed in this post belong to the authors, and not to Political Union as an organization.
Felix: I wanted to start off by saying that I agree with you, Zack, that the coal mine is despicable. It’s a truly disastrous blow to the environment, and we have no disagreement there. But something that hasn’t sat well with me ever since this issue came to my attention, and since the ASG passed its resolution, is the fact that we’re taking Morty’s personal career ventures, done with his own money and his own time, and we’re putting the authority of the entire student body behind their condemnation. Could you lay out for me why you don’t see this as heavy-handed--and why you think it’s our business at all to tell Morty what to do?
Zack: In my opinion, the issue is simply that the insurance company’s decision to back the establishment is unethical. I won’t get into the philosophical details, but I don’t think the actions would be proper under most prominent theories of normative ethics. As the legislation notes, many companies (including insurance companies) have already pulled out from the project. As a member of the board of directors, Morty has some influence over whether or not the insurance company backs the mine and thus, whether the mine gets built. I mean, let’s say Morty was on the board of directors for a tobacco company. You probably would want him to resign from that position. The analogy isn’t to say Morty should resign from his position with the insurance company but to say that the president’s personal decisions are of interest to us as students, especially when they could have many negative consequences such as if Morty helped support the creation of the coal mine.
Felix: That’s precisely the thing--I’m not sure that the president’s personal decisions are always of interest to the students. As students here, we aren’t doing anything wrong when Morty sits on the board of Marsh & McLennan. This is another way in which I think the ASG resolution is well-intentioned, but somewhat misguided: its title references “NU involvement in the construction” of the mine, when it really should more specifically target Morty’s behavior and own it. I understand that if Morty were to stand idly by and watch his board of directors make the mistake of supporting the mine it would be a bad thing--you and I can agree on that too. I’m just not convinced that it has anything to do with Northwestern, and it certainly doesn’t constitute involvement by the university itself. This is why putting the weight of the student body behind the resolution is somewhat troubling for me.
Zack: Yeah, I mean, I would not have characterized this as Northwestern’s involvement, but I still think it is important that students try to persuade Morty. I don’t think Morty should listen to the petition primarily because he is NU's president, but because it’s unethical for him as an individual to back it in the first place. Obviously, Northwestern students don't have personal access to the other people who have some sort of influence over the project, but we can somewhat pressure Morty. I think the rationale is simply, "This is a bad thing, and we know this guy who has influence over it, so we should tell him to use his influence in an ethical way." Arguably, we as students have a moral obligation to use whatever influence we have over Morty who should, in turn, use whatever influence he has to try to stop the mine from being built. In this sense, if we knew we could possibly do something to stop the mine from being built but did not exercise this power, we would be complicit in its creation. (Even if it’s only a tiny amount of influence.)
This being said, as the president of the university, Morty does have some responsibility to the school that others don't. He represents the university publicly, and if he is involved in something awful, then the school looks bad.
Felix: I’m glad you bring up the optics perspective because, in my opinion, it might be the best argument in favor of supporting the petition. It makes sense to me that some things look so bad that a president, as a public face for the university, simply cannot be allowed to continue doing them. But if it’s possible to divorce Morty’s personal behavior from his capacity to lead the university, then I think we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt and allow him a private life. In this case, he can be a perfectly good admin on Friday and help Northwestern invest its institutional money into renewable energy, and then he can make unfortunate mistakes with his own money on the weekend. He might be a hypocrite, and it might make him look bad individually. Nevertheless, I think we wouldn’t be giving the public enough credit if we assumed they would see it as a poor reflection on the institution as a whole.
Something else that I wanted to mention is what I perceive to be a significant hypocrisy on the part of what I assume must be a significant portion of the students who signed the petition that accompanied the ASG resolution, as well as the students who supported the initiative without signing it. Though of course I can’t prove it, I would assume that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of students here on this campus who have either educational or personal savings invested in ETFs or mutual funds. Some of the most popular ones, run by management groups like Vanguard, hold billions of dollars of holdings in fossil fuel companies--a percentage of that in coal. If Morty is being maligned for his profiteering from harmful initiatives, isn’t it simultaneously wrong to profit from similar sources, when alternatives are readily available?
Zack: I mean, personally, I would not knowingly invest in a fossil fuel company, but I believe there is a rationale one could use to simultaneously support the petition and hold fossil fuel investments. For the time being, fossil fuels are a necessary component of modern life (though we should have started taxing carbon decades ago, so they wouldn't be). However, coal is much more carbon intensive than other fossil fuels like oil and natural gas. If there is one thing we should not be doing right now, it's opening up (huge) new coal projects when we could use less carbon intensive fuels instead. Additionally, this project in particular will have considerable other environmental impacts on the Great Barrier Reef and on long term water reserves in the area. So, the creation of this mine is not morally equivalent to investing in an ETF that doesn’t hold coal investments. This being said, I don’t think someone could adequately reconcile indirectly holding coal stocks through an ETF with signing this petition. Side note: I am going to plug this great website for people who want to invest in ETFs without fossil fuel holdings.
Felix and Zack: That’s all the time we’ve got! Thanks so much for reading, and hopefully you enjoyed our first foray into opinion-based content. We’ll keep experimenting, and bring you more content like this again soon.
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