Divesting from ourselves

Those concerned with social and environmental justice must find a better way to protest

The Athabasca oil sands were the target of an unsuccessful divestment campaign at Queen’s last year.
The Athabasca oil sands were the target of an unsuccessful divestment campaign at Queen’s last year.

Like everyone else, I have opinions on political and social issues, but this is not a political article. I do not intend to attack groups or individuals who have views different from my own.

While I may have distaste for the groups I mention, my criticism is based on their means, not their ends.

Over the last few years at Queen’s, a new method has arisen for groups to further a political agenda. It’s called divestment.

Most people do not understand divestment, or what it entails. It means the University would withdraw all its funds in stocks, bonds, and other investments from an entity, for the purpose of protest and boycott.

I have nothing against protest, but I take issue with this form of boycott.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but why subject other people to your will? Why play with their future, or the value of their education?

As a student, you may ask how divestment affects you. I assure you, there are many ways.

I will start with a few grounded assumptions. Most students are strapped for cash, and as such they detest increases in tuition and student fees. And like students, Queen’s University is running a very tight budget.

Successful, large-scale divestment campaigns would spell financial ruin for this University.

For example, let’s take last year’s contentious divestment campaign targeting the Alberta oil sands.

If it had succeeded, the University would have withdrawn all its funds from companies involved in the oil sands.

In response, students would face more problems than they solved.

Putting aside the environmental impact of the oil sands, these companies are all very profitable, and contribute greatly to the Canadian economy.

They are also very stable, so they make good investments.

The money from these investments helps to ease the university’s financial burden.

If we pulled the rug out from underneath ourselves, we as students would either face substantial tuition increases, or drastic cuts to services and academic standards in order to cover the funding loss the campaign has created.

If divestment was successful, the University would willingly forfeit greater financial returns to support a partisan political agenda.

And regardless of where you stand on the climate change debate, a divestment of Queen’s capital would make little difference to the environment.

The Athabasca oil sands have been valued between $342.1 billion and $1.4 trillion, while the entire Queen’s endowment is worth less than $500 million. If the small portion of the endowment invested in the oil sands were removed, it would have an infinitesimally small impact on the overall capital investments of the project.

Any vacuum created by this would be quickly filled by other investors.

Destroying students financially is not an effective way to protect the environment and only amounts to a political protest against environmental degradation.

The oil industry and the environment would be left virtually unaffected.

The only real result would be a weak display of protest and damage to the student experience.

As long as the United States buys oil from the oil sands they will continue to exist and maintain profit.

Another example is the divestment campaign against Israel. It has become a heated issue at many universities across North America, thankfully less so at Queen’s.

The proponents of this campaign claim to detest collective punishment, but readily invoke it on Israeli businesses to criticize the actions of the Israeli government.

But it goes beyond questions of morality. Israel has a number of successful start-up companies that are very profitable, and stand at the forefront of various technological and medical advances.

As a Canadian, you should reject Israeli divestment because the technological advancements and medical breakthroughs that come out of Israel improve our country.

Divesting from Israeli businesses or the oil sands amounts to divesting from the whole economy, and the various profit it provides.

It helps neither us nor the world to divest from things that bring us direct and tangible benefit.

Quizzically, many of the same groups that are recklessly putting the University in a weaker financial position with their divestment agenda have the audacity to demand the University not cut programs in response to the drop in funding.

They demand the University continue to function as it did before divestment.

As any knowledgeable economics student will tell you, in the absence of investment returns, your options for raising revenue are taxation and spending cuts.

That’s why the proponents of divestment campaigns can’t be taken seriously.

They will put fellow students (and themselves) in a weaker financial position in order to further their own agenda, and hold student dollars as collateral.

Having said all this, there are some circumstances under which divestment may be necessary or beneficial, such as a reallocation of funds toward better investments.

And there are just grounds for limited divestment on moral or ethical grounds. It would be justified to divest from organizations complicit in terrorist activities which would confer a serious compromise in the national security of Canada, but this would need to be judged on a case by case basis.

Those concerned with achieving social or environmental justice must find better ways to achieve their goals than divestment.

Their cause would be better served by awareness campaigns, speakers or governmental advocacy.

In summary, the ends can’t justify the means.

While the proponents of divestment mean well, divestment schemes are harmful to us as students.

When considering divestment as a tool of protest, we must look past the political agenda to the cost the University and its students face.

And we must carefully consider the unintended financial and social ramifications of divestment before allowing it to be implemented.

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