Enviromental film prompts tough questions on divestment
On Sept. 5, Brandeis Climate Justice hosted a screening at the Wasserman Cinematheque of the 2016 climate change documentary “To the Ends of the Earth,” directed by David Lavalle. The feature tells stories spanning North America, from Denver, Colorado to the town of Clyde River in the Canadian Arctic. Aross the continent, public outcries against oil expeditions generated lawsuits, jumpstarted political careers and united communities against family displacement.
The documentary focuses on the futility of fossil fuel production from an economic standpoint, along with the usual commentary on its environmental impact. I attended this event for an arts review. However, once I observed the post-screening discussion and discovered that BCJ’s true purpose in hosting the screening was to convince the invited head of the Board of Trustees, Meyer Koplow ’72, to divest University funding from fossil fuels, it seemed there was a more important topic to address.
The documentary told three major stories to roughly 30 audience members, only half of whom were students. The first story was about the use of seismic cannons in Canada’s Baffin Bay for the purpose of discovering oil deposits beneath the sea floor. These cannons use deafening sound waves that disrupt the lives of the underwater mammals that live in the bay, such as narwhals and right whales.
The second story addressed the impact of the construction of a hydroelectric dam in British Columbia that would be used to power tar sands refineries. The documentary explained that the project will displace farmers and indigenous peoples due to predicted flooding. The third discussed the protests surrounding the placement of a pipeline by a company called Kinder Morgan, an aggressive energy firm that specializes in controversial pipeline projects. Locals in Denver used peaceful protests led by a local chemistry professor to voice their concerns over the project, which would displace farmland and potentially pollute the local drinking supply.
As important as all of these issues are, the documentary focuses unsatisfactorily on a few consequences of these fossil fuel efforts. For one, it is littered with lax displays of scientific data. There are tacky pi and infinity symbols floating across the screen when discussing scientific calculations. None of the graphs shown contain a labeled y-axis! As a student of the sciences and the Economics departments, mistakes like these not only hurt me on an academic level, but also show me that the filmmakers had spread themselves too thin in terms of chosen subject matter. In one scene we see an in-depth look at the economics of fossil fuel consumption, in the next we learn about geology, and they are followed by a one-minute segment featuring six different interviewees. The feature’s effort to combine scientific, economic and social commentaries comes across as scattered and disjointed. With barely any opposing perspective on the matter, much of the documentary’s messaging is not fleshed out, giving it an unfinished feel. Emma Thompson’s soothing and authoritative narration can’t fool me into thinking this was good.
Luckily, the post-screening discussion of the film was much more interesting and informative. It lasted roughly 40 minutes, more than half of which Koplow spent answering questions about the Board of Trustees’ stance on fossil fuel investments. According to him, “The reaction from a lot of the trustees is [that] we need, as a society, to resolve to use a lot less [energy].” He argued that divestment from fossil fuels is a costly request to make of a college with a tuition-based endowment and that “if there were an apparent willingness to address both sides of the problem, the demand as well as the supply, [Brandeis] would see a whole lot more willingness to treat the supply-side issue with the kind of seriousness that [Koplow] certainly thinks it deserves.”
He continued to explain that there are two types of investments Brandeis could make: The Un could participate in a partnership to own interest at an energy-producing field or well, or hire managers who have demonstrated the ability to achieve good returns at low risk. Koplow stressed, “If there’s one thing that Brandeis can’t afford, it’s the kind of aggressive investing that you can do if you have a larger endowment.” One option the Board has considered is not investing in the aforementioned fossil fuel partnerships, but “the University would take a significant loss if it left [them]. There is no real market [for the current investments], so [the Board] would sell at a fairly steep discount.”
While all of these financial reasons are agreeable, I believe we must move away from this mindset. When the audience suggested investing in renewable energy companies, Koplow disputed that, saying, “If you take a look at the returns in major solar companies in the U.S., unfortunately you find bankruptcies, you find companies overloaded with debt.” However, according to a Jan. 23, 2018 Forbes , renewable energy costs are decreasing at a rate that veers fossil fuel companies away from profitability. The article quotes Tom Sanzillo, director of finance for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, who said, “Clean energy is now cheap energy.”
If this is the case, why can’t Brandeis divest? Renewable energy is growing at a rapid pace, and the upfront costs involved are going down as well. While Skyline is impressive with its geothermal heating/cooling system and the solar panels covering the roof, there is always more to be done. One member of the audience suggested minimizing our reliance on single-use plastics in our dining halls. Another pleaded for more solar panels on the roofs of our buildings. As the green energy industry skyrockets, there are many methods to introduce renewable energy into our daily lives.
Mr. Koplow seems to relegate the burden of initiative to the individual, but it’s our country’s institutions that point the way. We live in a society that is unfortunately heavily influenced by funding provided by these institutions, so any divestment would be a push in the right direction. There were some in the theater who argued that we are too far gone to prompt significant change. This sentiment is why we are in this mess in the first place. Though our climate trajectory for the coming decades is not optimistic, we can still take strides toward minimizing the inevitable damage. Mr. Koplow insists that the Board has “taken a look at the rosters of universities out there” and that “there are really not a lot of U.S. universities that have gone ahead and divested.” Just because other institutions have not does not mean Brandeis should not.
While “the trustees have a fiduciary obligation to maximize returns for the University at the lowest reasonable risk,” Koplow informs, sometimes the best course of action requires some risk. If Brandeis were to lead by example, or at least convince neighboring institutions to divest, managers would observe these trends and find it less risky. Universities are responsible for setting an example for the rest of society. If you have suggestions or want to make your voice heard by the Board of Trustees, join an environment protection club or the Senate Sustainability Committee, which talks to the manager of Brandeis’ Sustainability Program, Mary Fischer. Universities need to guide their best and brightest in order to address and solve what may seem to be insurmountable hardships;positive change is always inhibited by those who wait.
Instead of getting a small piece of a large pie, publishers could be getting the whole cut of a non-existent reader base.