STANLEY KURTZ IS AUTHOR OF OUTSTANDING BOOKS ON THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION:
Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities by Stanley Kurtz (Aug 2, 2012)
Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism by Stanley Kurtz (Oct 19, 2010)
Slowly but surely, America’s free-enterprise system has been bleeding cultural support. To be sure, Occupy Wall Street’s open anti-capitalism flamed out, and direct challenges to the system are few. Yet appearances are deceiving. Just prior to the 2012 election, a series of polls showed the millennial generation (ages 18–30) about evenly split between positive attitudes toward capitalism and socialism. We needn’t take that support for socialism literally in order to recognize that America’s free-enterprise system is facing a legitimacy crisis, especially among the young. The manner in which millennials resolve their generation’s uncertainties over capitalism will likely determine the fortunes of the Republican and Democratic parties for years to come. The millennials were pivotal in 2012, after all. So we need to keep an eye on them. Consider an issue that has so far gotten only limited media play, and yet offers a ready glimpse of free enterprise under cultural pressure: the campus movement to divest from fossil fuels.
In a referendum held in November of 2012, 72 percent of participating Harvard undergraduates called on their university to sell off the stock in any large fossil-fuel company held in the school’s $32 billion endowment, by far the largest in the nation. That vote drew significantly higher student turnout and support than a 1990 measure pressing Harvard to divest from South Africa, when apartheid was still in force. Indeed, the avowed purpose of the divestment campaign now sweeping America’s colleges — it was active on 256 campuses at last count — is to make this nation’s leading energy companies as repugnant as apartheid was. Ultimately, the goal is to drive America’s energy producers out of the fossil-fuel business.
Cue the eye-rolls. Oil companies may not win popularity contests these days, yet few of us want to prevent them from selling us fuel, much less to treat them as virtual holocaust perpetrators for doing so. Some might even suspect America’s big energy producers of performing the occasional public service — like, say, powering the economy, strengthening the middle class, and reducing income inequality by creating hundreds of thousands of well-paying blue-collar jobs, securing our energy independence and thereby stripping rogue states and big-power rivals of the capacity to blackmail us with oil, and correspondingly reducing the need for American military intervention on foreign shores.
Never mind. Growing numbers of students are convinced that oil companies are, in the words of author and activist Bill McKibben, “reckless like no other force on Earth.” After all, in the face of global warming, our energy giants persist in extracting and selling us a seemingly endless supply of carbon-based fuels. The divestment movement aims to jolt into action a public allegedly in denial about catastrophic global warming. Once aroused by the academy’s urgent warnings, voters will supposedly compel Big Energy to abandon its massive oil, gas, and coal reserves and leave the vast bulk of them forever unused in the earth.
Silly as it may seem, we need to pay careful attention to what these young people are telling us. Fossil-fuel divestment is economics Lena Dunham–style: an embarrassingly naïve and apparently futile stance by those who nonetheless hold the power to swing elections and shift the culture. When nearly three-quarters of voting Harvard undergraduates elect to treat the companies that power our economy as pariahs, it’s time to take notice. Energy is so fundamental — in a sense, fossil fuels are the economy — that our climate wars increasingly serve as proxies for a battle over the status and even the existence of America’s free-market system. Look carefully at the fossil-fuel divestment campaign and you’ll find a new and potentially more damaging incarnation of Occupy Wall Street.