Fossil-Fuel Divestment — Part 2
The target is fossil fuels, but the goal is an end to economic growth.

Horse-drawn plow at the Mother Earth Farm in Orting, Wash.


Stanley Kurtz

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part 2 of a three-part series. Click to read part 1 and part 3.

You may not have heard of the fossil-fuel divestment movement yet, but you will soon. While the campaign to have universities sell off any stock they may hold in large fossil-fuel companies is still in its infancy, the effort has spread to hundreds of campuses in just the past few months. This ambitious crusade to save the planet from global warming by crushing the world’s fossil-fuel producers is the brainchild of Bill McKibben, arguably America’s foremost environmentalist, and leader of the campaign to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. In the first installment of this three-part series, I traced the origins and development of the movement. Now it’s time to uncover the troubling ideology that stands behind the fossil-fuel divestment campaign.

Bill McKibben is against economic growth. America is flirting with another recession, and the agony of unemployment continues — especially among the millennials. That students should in such circumstances be flocking to the banner of a man who is hostile to the very idea of economic growth is extraordinary. McKibben breaks here with mainstream liberals as well as with conservatives. The core message of his 2007 book, Deep Economy, as well as 2010’s Eaarth, is unmistakable: He seeks not growth, but “controlled decline.”

As McKibben sees it, “our whole civilization stands on the edge of collapse.” The last couple of hundred years of human history, he points out, have been “a very atypical time. A giddy time, high on oil.” Since the fundamental arrangements of modern life depend on fossil fuels, McKibben is convinced that averting global warming requires a winding-down of modernity. And that means trading our ideals of economic growth for a new ethic of economic retreat. McKibben is selling the idea that decline is good.

So does he want his student supporters to languish unemployed? Does he crave a new Great Depression? Not exactly. He is arguing for a return to relatively self-sufficient local communities, especially when it comes to food. Modern agriculture feeds huge numbers of people at a very low price. Yet industrial farming is carbon-intensive, from the fertilizers, to the combines, to the planes and ships that transport all that produce around the globe. McKibben wants to undo this system with a large-scale return to the land. Labor-intensive (rather than carbon-intensive) agriculture would form the nucleus of a new, quasi-peasant society. Relatively self-sufficient local farming communities would be protected not only from global warming, but from capitalism’s cycles of boom and bust.

It’s a sweeping vision, encompassing not only a return to rural areas, but a new, decentralized food-production system extending from the rural farms to suburban backyards to urban rooftops. Americans would consume pretty much only locally grown food. Many would go vegetarian, while the rest of us would use meat more as a garnish than as the center of our meals. Food would cost more, choice would be drastically reduced, and putting meals together would take a great deal more effort than it does today. Automobiles would become rare and expensive, and transcontinental and transoceanic air travel would largely be replaced by Internet-based video chats and cyber-tourism. McKibben even wants to develop local forms of money designed to keep goods close to their points of origin.

De-linking localities from national and global economies would reduce growth and spell the end of the consumer society. The fabulous array of choices provided by modern capitalism would disappear. Yet this unwinding of modernity and the associated sacrifice of economic growth are the prices we must pay to save the planet from catastrophic warming. Or so McKibben says.

Although he sometimes presents his back-to-the-future vision of an economically static and agrarian America as something we all need to adopt, his larger body of work suggests that this is the society he actually wants to create, global warming or not. McKibben is a communitarian leftist. He’s fine with wealth redistribution and reshaping the economy via regulatory decree, but what he’s really angling for is not Keynesian pump-priming but rather a government-primed revival of pre-industrial communal life. That world of tight families and interdependent neighbors, says McKibben, was far more satisfying than our hyper-individualist, consumer-driven, tech-saturated present. He explains that his attraction to this pre-industrial social model long predated his encounter with the “greenhouse effect” in the Eighties.

Knowing that McKibben is profoundly hostile to modernity on entirely non-weather-related grounds raises a question. Might his climate catastrophism have more to do with his yearning for a post-carbon communitarian utopia, and less to do with sheer physics, than he now lets on?

The Rolling Stone article that launched his fossil-fuel divestment movement gives no hint of what sort of society McKibben actually wants, or why — other than countering global warming — he might favor it. In the article, it’s all about “math,” and only one side of the equation at that. These days, McKibben has plenty to say about all the industry he wants to shut down, and yet he tells us virtually nothing about the economic and social consequences of that loss.