Bring Back Divestment

The fossil fuel industry has an unwavering grip on our political system, our environment and, in the most extreme of scenarios, is leading the decline of sustainable life on Earth. This is about more than just living in a world without polar bears. This is a very real existential threat. We must fight back — and college campuses are the perfect place to start sending this message to the fossil fuel industry: Your profits do not take priority over our planet.

A couple days ago, I was scrolling through National Geographic’s portal on Snapchat. I was shocked to see that their articles were sponsored by Shell Oil Company. National Geographic, whose content consists mainly of nature photography, being sponsored by a fossil fuel company that regularly places nature in danger’s way? I was outraged. So I decided to contact National Geographic to express my shock and disappointment. My letter to National Geographic, and their response, are below:

Dear National Geographic,
I am an avid reader of your magazine and watch your television program regularly. I, however, also have a Snapchat where National Geographic posts videos and articles. I was severely disappointed to see that your organization was sponsored by Shell on Snapchat a couple days ago. Shell, along with many fossil fuel companies, is one of the main contributors to climate change. Shell, along with numerous other fossil fuel companies, such as Exxon, have regularly misled the public about their supposed “humanitarian” work in attempting to come up with cleaner energy. This propaganda sponsored by the fossil fuel industry helps mislead the public of two things: first, that these fossil fuel companies are actually doing something about their environmentally hazardous practices (which they are not — their profits form a conflict of interest), and second, that companies can find a technological fix to save climate change. These perceptions are both incorrect and are harmful to be spreading to the public, but especially to youth via Snapchat.

I was particularly disappointed because I always saw National Geographic as a relentless defender of nature and of the environment. To allow such a company to sponsor your broadcasts is hypocritical. You urge individuals to aid in the mission to reduce climate change but then allow one of the main offenders against the environment to sponsor you. Shell clearly knew what it was doing when it asked you to sponsor it — they are using you to build a public perception that they are the “good guys,” when in fact, they are not.

The fossil fuel industry has been funneling millions into misleading the public and lobbying our politicians in order to prevent climate change legislation (the very thing your organization is trying to promote!). The animals that you photograph are in danger, but instead you are teaming up with a corporation that is slowly and successfully killing them off. I know that morals become flexible when money is involved, but I, as a reader and fan of your content, was disillusioned by this. It certainly caught me by surprise. All the best, Eddie Rego”

National Geographic’s response:
“Thank you for sharing your comments, Eddie … Shell has been a terrific and highly collaborative partner on every endeavor in which they have engaged with us to date. They have consistently offered support, constructive feedback and access to resources while never attempting to insert themselves into our editorial processes. We are very comfortable with their stated approach to managing their activities going forward, working to ameliorate the impact of their exploration and production business as they research and invest in future energy strategies. Thank you for the opportunity to address your concerns. Kind regards, Julie Crain — Press Relations Representative.”

Dirty energy interests are currently profiting off of public misconception (the latest Gallup poll reveals nearly a quarter of all Americans are mildly to extremely skeptical that climate change is actually occurring). This is due in part to fossil fuel companies using their corporate revenues to create advertisements and team up with organizations (like National Geographic) that the public believes to be reliable, trustworthy and environmentally friendly in order to present themselves as the “good guys.” They are using their revenue to lobby Congress and help elect representatives who will prevent climate change legislation. Fossil fuel companies make billions annually. But instead of using excessive profits to start finding cleaner energy solutions, they are handing their CEOs hefty bonuses and inflating their profit reports in order to keep stockholders content.

Sure, fossil fuel companies aren’t the only ones to blame. Our global economic system is largely at fault here as well. We continue to want everything, everywhere, faster. This phenomenon makes me recall Julius Caesar’s famous words: “Ambition’s debt must be paid.” In other words, our ambitious desire to industrialize every inch of our planet has accumulated a debt: a climate debt. However, consumers’ wants are also at fault. When Jimmy Carter gave his renowned “Crisis of Confidence” speech, he urged Americans to notice that climate change is “the moral equivalent of war” and that our excessive material wants were endangering our environment’s needs. In the 1980 presidential debate, Ronald Reagan politicized and rebuked Carter’s speech: “[Jimmy Carter] has accused the people of living too well … that we must share in scarcity, that we must sacrifice and get used to doing with less.” Carter went on to lose the election. In 1979, Carter installed 32 solar panels on the roof of the White House. In 1980, Reagan hastily took them down. Consumer wants triumphed over climate needs. The fossil fuel industry blossomed under Reagan. And even today, the power that fossil fuel corporations possess is merely the power that consumers and voters have given them.

Clearly, they won’t start changing until we demand that change. In lieu of the Paris climate change talks (COP21), let’s start out by demanding that change from major college campuses (which are billion-dollar companies themselves). Just as I was outraged with Shell’s sponsoring of National Geographic, let us bring back the public outrage. Let us bring back the call for action. Let us bring back the call for divestment. But more importantly, let’s start that calling here at Amherst.