Posted by: ericgrimsrud | May 22, 2019

What exactly is that “seat at the table”

In attempts by myself and others to get my alma mater, St. Olaf College of Northfield, Minnesota, to divest itself from fossil fuel dependent industries, the president of that institution has countered with the argument that being so invested provides St. Olaf with a seat at the fossil fuel CEO’s table. Apparently what President Anderson is asking you to believe is that he and Board of Regents at St. Olaf College support action against global warming and that their partial ownership via their modest investments in fossil fuel companies will induce them to take appropriate actions against climate change.

I will admit at the onset that I view this “seat at the table” argument to be laughable and even insulting to the intelligence of the St. Olaf community. Don’t the President and the Board of Regents at St. Olaf College realize that the purpose of fossil fuel industries is first and foremost to make money for their investors by the production, sale, and use of their product? Wouldn’t any CEO of such an industry who does not promote the continued use of fossil fuels be replaced immediately by those investors. So why would the administration of St. Olaf College be so naïve as to think that they could decrease fossil fuel production simply by their presence at fossil fuel board meetings. And, why would the fossil fuel industries pay any attention to a party that talks the talk concerning the fossil fuel reductions but, in fact, is thoroughly addicted to them themselves and is promoting increased fossil fuel use.

And the logic behind this “seat at the table” nonsense gets worse. St. Olaf College is actually a major consumer of fossil fuels even though, like many other businesses and even private residences, they are also increasing their use of alternate means of electricity generation (wind mills and solar panels). These latter changes are relatively easy to make because they are now financially competitive with electricity generation by fossil fuel combustion. The net carbon footprint of St. Olaf College remains very high, however, due to other functions dependent of fossil fuel, such at the heating of their campus facilities and their unusually high level of international travel associated with their studies abroad programs.

By their own admission the studies abroad programs of St. Olaf send more students, faculty, alumni and friends to the far reaches of our planet than any other college or university of its size. In addition, a major goal of the college is to increase the fraction of their student body that take advantage of these travel programs. In addition, St. Olaf aggressively encourages alumni and friends to join these excursions. Without question, studies abroad programs have considerable value for those who can afford them. At the same time, however, does St. Olaf College not realize that all unnecessary activities leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions must now be rigorously reexamined as never before with respect to their environmental impacts. And does St. Olaf College not know that long distance travel by aircraft is among the greatest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions today. Does St. Olaf really think that its seat at the headquarters of Delta Airlines will lead to a reduction in the number of Delta flights while St. Olaf’s own promotional literature strongly encourages increased enrollment in their extensive travel programs. And why would St. Olaf’s plea at that table for an aggressive attack on global warming be viewed as credible when its own behavior is not in that direction.

If St. Olaf College is the center of intellectual activity and moral conviction it claims to be, it should consider standing on its own against the forces of climate change and not float the silly notion that it is doing its part by occupying some sort of poorly defined seats at various of fossil fuel related industries. It appears to me that St.Olaf College could learn a bit from the history of its Norwegian founders. Vidkun Quisling was the Prime Minister of Norway during its occupation by Germany from 1942 to 1945. By his cooperation with the Nazis, he claimed to he providing Norway with a seat at the Nazi table, but in the end was perceived to be a traitor to his country. When dealing with issues that are of central and determining importance to a given institution, one should first and foremost clearly decide which side of the issue you want to be on – even if that decision might require going up against the powerful. Cozying up to the fossil fuel industries today might be a short-term winner for St. Olaf College but is sure to eventually become a long-term looser that future Ole’s will become ashamed of.


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