News and Commentary

Oxford Students Demand School Sell Fossil Fuel Shares, Administrator Fires Back Hard.
Protesters hold placards and a banner that says divest from fossil fuels during the demonstration.
Stewart Kirby/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

It’s so much easier to protest when you aren’t the one having to make any sacrifices.

Oxford students learned this the hard way when they demanded St. John’s College sell off its investments in BP and Shell. Two students wrote to bursar (the man in charge of financial affairs) Andrew Parker demanding the college “declares a climate emergency and immediately divests from fossil fuels,” The Times of London reported. The two students claimed the college has about $10 million invested in the two oil companies.

Parker responded by presenting the students with a philosophical dilemma.

“I am not able to arrange any divestment at short notice,” he wrote back to the students. “But I can arrange for the gas central heating in college to be switched off with immediate effect. Please let me know if you support this proposal.” From the Times:

Ankit Ranjan, a biomedicine undergraduate, wrote back saying that he was willing to put the offer to the students but he suspected the bursar was being facetious. He added: “I think [the offer] will reflect poorly on the college.”

Professor Parker replied: “You are right that I am being provocative but I am provoking some clear thinking, I hope. It is all too easy to request others to do things that carry no personal cost to yourself. The question is whether you and others are prepared to make personal sacrifices to achieve the goals of environmental improvement (which I support as a goal).”

Fergus Green, who is organizing the wider protest at the school, responded harshly to Parker’s offer.

“This is an inappropriate and flippant response by the bursar to what we were hoping would be a mature discussion. It’s January and it would be borderline dangerous to switch off the central heating,” he told the Times.

Green is a graduate student at Balliol College, which last week said it would reduce its investments in fossil fuels “as far and as fast as is practicable.”

Parker told the Times that his offer was “more of a rhetorical question” and that more could be done to help the environment “if everyone stops and thinks before emitting slogans.”

“Internally we are actually having the analysis and debate that is needed. On disinvestment, there are arguments both ways. As soon as we disinvest, we lose any shareholder pressure that we might have had,” he added.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board called Parker’s response “a worthy lesson applicable far beyond the colleges of Oxford.”

“When most people think of Oxford, what comes to mind are images of bright minds debating quantum physics or the existence of God. But even the brainiest sometimes need a lesson in common sense,” the editorial board wrote.

One sees this as a common thread among climate activists, who so often insist others change their lifestyle drastically while they themselves so nothing. Celebrities are the worst at this kind of dialogue, taking private planes around the world to tell others — those less fortunate than they — to cut back on their carbon footprint.