In Response to: An Irrational Gesture

In last week’s PAW, Clark Irwin attempts a haphazard assault on fossil fuel divestment. His ad hominem criticisms of the broad and burgeoning divestment movement careen from pseudo-scientific psychobabble (“irrational,” “zealots,” “obsessive compulsive,” “pathologically interesting”) to condescending paternalism (“hobby,” “trendy,” “tantrum-driven”). I wonder whether Mr. Irwin has considered whether words like “irrational” and “tantrum-driven” might apply more aptly to a certain former U.S. president who has denied the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.

At any rate, Mr. Irwin eventually turns his attention to accusations of hypocrisy. No one, apparently, has informed him that petitions are typically signed online nowadays, not with “a plastic-cased pen,” and that few of us still wear “polyester shirts.” But never mind that. It’s true that the proliferation of fossil fuels touches nearly every aspect of modern life, just as slavery’s economic impact was once inescapable — even for white abolitionists in their starched white cotton shirts.

What’s also true, as I write this on a 70-degree day in late fall in Astoria, New York, is that Mr. Irwin utterly fails to address both the severity of the worsening climate crisis and its underlying causes. In 1965 — the year before Mr. Irwin entered Bowdoin College — the American Petroleum Society told its members that carbon dioxide would produce “marked changes in climate” by the year 2000. The fossil fuel industry has known for more than half a century the havoc it would wreak on people’s lives.

In those fifty-odd years, the industry has not only sought to hide its own culpability, but waged a relentless public relations campaign, full of spurious arguments much like Mr. Irwin’s, against the growing number of concerned citizens it considers its enemies. Twenty years ago, for instance, when British Petroleum began heavily promoting the term “carbon footprint,” the company did so to deflect attention from corporate malfeasance and to shift the blame to individual lifestyle choices.

Note that BP is unfortunately and inexplicably missing from the list of companies from which Princeton has committed to dissociate. For alumni truly committed to the “service of all nations” — and for anyone worried about famine and drought, fires and hurricanes, rising temperatures and rising seas — we need to keep fighting.

Ben Beckley ’03
Astoria, N.Y.