“Virtue-signaling” is the art of posing as admirably virtuous while doing nothing in particular. Think of Mark Zuckerberg pledging that Facebook will “welcome” all Muslims in order to stem Islamaphobia. Or Leonardo DiCaprio chiding, as he accepted his Oscar, that we ought to rate global warming the “most urgent threat facing our entire species.”
When you tweet to “raise awareness” about poverty but neglect the local homeless shelter, or “like” the Red Cross on Facebook but never donate blood, you are virtue-signaling. You can signal virtue in person, too. Conspicuously shunning bottled water does nothing to save the planet from plastic, but a lot to boost your image as a conservationist. Needlessly dropping into conversation your disdain for Donald Trump secures your image as a reasonable, non-racist, civil citizen, as does casually mentioning your support for the minimum wage. Virtue signaling assumes, of course, some common idea of what counts as virtuous. Often, in a left-leaning media industry, that means showing your progressive credentials.
Whole industries are built on virtue-signaling. Don TOMS shoes or a Twice as Warm jacket and you announce your sympathy and charity toward the poor. Shop at Whole Foods and everyone who sees your grocery bag will know you buy organic. Proponents of virtue-signaling, like the Boston Globe and the Guardian, are appalled to see the tactic criticized. So it’s even a kind of virtue-signaling to denounce the criticism of virtue-signaling.
Colleges can virtue-signal, too, such as when they establish multi-million dollar Offices for Diversity that do little more than announce “We Care About Minorities.” They also strike postures of purity when they divest their endowments from fossil fuels.
The fossil fuel divestment movement, now active at a thousand campuses, asks colleges and universities to get rid of all investments in coal, oil, and gas companies. Colleges that comply strip these energy companies from their endowments—which are investment funds that support staff and faculty salaries, infrastructure and maintenance, and student scholarships and financial aid. So far about 40 American colleges and universities have divested—along with churches, local governments, pension funds, and nonprofits.
Responsibly using natural resources is important. Cleaning up pollution and protecting the environment ensure that future generations can enjoy and draw on natural reserves. But divestment does little more than turn the endowment into a billboard for scrawling the college’s commitment to environmentalism.
Why? Pulling investments from, say, BP or Shell, simply allows another investor to buy them. It doesn’t make BP drill any less oil or sell fewer barrels of crude. It doesn’t stop people from burning gasoline in their cars or heating their homes. Divesting does nothing more than put up a “Keep-Out” sign to any blacklisted companies.
Supporters of divestment often counter that eventually, after enough divestments, public backlash will convince politicians to regulate fossil fuel companies out of existence and replace them with heavily-subsidized wind and solar energy companies. But, for now at least, that’s a pipedream. Solar energy comprises only four-tenths of one percent of the country’s total energy usage. Wind provides 1.8 percent. Add in hydropower, biomass, and geothermal energy, and you’ll find renewables supply only 10 percent of the energy our nation needs each year. Because the sun doesn’t always shine or the wind forever blow, energy from renewables is less reliable, harder to store, and harder to transport. Cutting off investments in fossil fuel companies—many of whom are exploring renewable energy—does nothing to speed that transition or solve those problems.
Using the endowment as a political advertisement can compromise its value and hurt those who rely on it. Screening out companies for social reasons raises the riskiness of the investments, because they’re spread among fewer companies. It can also lower the returns, meaning scholarships, program expansions, or staff wages might suffer. Right now oil, coal, and gas companies are not performing well, thanks to the inexpensive natural gas that fracking has released. Supporters of divestment say that means investors should pull out now, before the prices dip lower. But most advisers think the market price will rise again. And investors prefer to buy low and sell high—not sell at rock-bottom price, as they’d be doing now.
Colleges should resist the siren calls for fossil fuel divestment. Political posturing is inappropriate to institutions of higher education—which should be politically neutral—and it doesn’t help the environment, either.
Rachelle Peterson is director of research projects at the National Association of Scholars, and the author of Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels.
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