New York Times Hit Piece on Tom Steyer and Fossil Fuel Divestment

By Bill McKibben, a well known environmental author and activist, is the founder of, an international climate change campaign. is named for the safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 350 parts per million. Cross posted from EcoWatch

Word came recently that both the Philadelphia Quakers and the Unitarian General Assembly have decided to divest from fossil fuels. It followed by a few weeks the news that the Roman Catholic University of Dayton and Union Theological Seminary, the home of many a great thinker, had done likewise.

In each case I felt a kind of surge of joy, that these historic institutions were helping transform the political and moral landscape, redefining for our time what’s right and wrong. Destroying the climate, they were saying, is incompatible with our evolving ethical sense. We used to think investing in fossil fuel was okay, but the new science has convinced us, and we don’t think that way any longer.

I could, I guess, have felt anger that they waited so long—that for years their investment portfolios had helped drive the expansion of coal and gas and oil, in turn driving up the temperature of the planet for decades to come. But that didn’t occur to me. It was joy only.

It did, however, occur to the New York Times, which for a while last Friday had at the very top of its website a strange story excoriating an investor named Tom Steyer, who more than a year ago divested his holdings in fossil fuel companies, and when he couldn’t and when he knew he couldn’t square his new personal beliefs with the investment mandate of the firm he’d founded, he quit his job.

Even so, the Times noted, “the coal-related projects his firm bankrolled will generate tens of millions of tons of carbon pollution for years, if not decades, to come.” Which is both true and obvious: How could it be any different? Tom Steyer’s decision to divest couldn’t shut down the coal mines he’d helped build; it could only help insure no new ones would be constructed. None of us have the power to travel back in time.

The Times story was a transparent hit job. It drew on the work of a partisan connected to the Koch brothers and writing for the rightwing blog Powerline, which had been insisting for months that Steyer—who not only divested but went on to devote a sizeable portion of his fortune to fighting for climate action—was a “hypocrite,” in fact an “epic hypocrite.” One of the two reporters on the story—Coral Davenport—has in her brief tenure at the Times regularly disdained the grassroots climate movement for action against projects like the Keystone pipeline. (My confident prediction is that when we march in record numbers for climate action in New York City on Sept. 21 she’ll figure out some way to make it all seem small and silly.) The piece on Steyer, that she co-wrote with Michael Barbaro, was not a skeptical but a cynical piece of work: It built a strawman, bent him into an impossible position, and proceeded to light him on fire.

But if the Times should never have run it, the piece does nonetheless allow all of us to think through this question of hypocrisy. Every one of us in the Western world has contributed to climate change. We drive, fly, cool, heat. Perhaps we went to (or, like me, work at) colleges whose endowments are invested in fossil fuels, or perhaps we draw pensions from funds that back Exxon and Shell. If we don’t mine coal ourselves, we likely work for companies that belong to the Chamber of Commerce and hence are active in the fight against climate legislation. On and on it goes, since fossil fuel is knit into the fabric of our society. If, as the Times puts it, Steyer is “shadowed by coal,” so are the rest of us.

That means that if we are going to make the transformative change away from fossil fuel, we need thousands of institutions and millions of individuals to make the same choice that Steyer and the World Council of Churches and the University of Dayton trustees made: to look at the emerging science and to understand that we can’t go on as we did before. What used to be okay no longer is. Hypocrisy is when you say one thing and do another at the same time. Growth is when you weigh new information and then change your thinking and behavior.

Not everyone will have Steyer’s freedom to make climate action their life’s work, though the scale of the crisis demands that we all do something to help change not just our lightbulbs but the system. And what’s amazing is how many people are taking on this greatest of challenges with everything they’ve got, and discovering in the process that when we join together as movements we’re big enough to stand up to the bad guys. The fossil fuel resistance is very real, and it doesn’t depend on billionaires: consider the Pacific Islanders currently building canoes for the trip to Australia to block coal ports, or the doctors arrested outside those Aussie mine gates last month; the native Americans who just finished a Healing Walk across the tar sands country of Alberta and the college students arrested this spring at Harvard and Washington University demanding divestment; the environmental justice advocates who stick it out in one community after another blighted by refineries, and the entrepreneurs pioneering community-funded solar power, and the scientists who hunker down on the dwindling ice sheets trying to understand how much margin we still have. Together we’re not yet winning, but together we’re giving the fossil fuel industry a run for its money.

None of us, as I’ve said, are perfect. Actually, a few of us are. If you’re looking for people who can never be accused of any hypocrisy, it’s the Koch brothers that you want—if you deny science and disdain democracy, there’s no way for anyone to hold you intellectually or morally accountable. While the Times was busy trying to shame Steyer for the crime of changing his mind, real journalists at the Toronto Star were completing an investigation into the extent of the Koch holdings in the far north. Piecing together all the scattered data, they found that they control an astonishing 1.1 million acres of the tar sands, and that they are huge contributors to all the “thinktanks” and campaigns trying to build Keystone and other pipelines. And there’s nothing even remotely hypocritical about it—it’s just disgusting.

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  1. Gaylord

    I would ask also, are they divesting from the nuclear power industry and major defense contractors? Because, those are killing the planet, too. In fact, capitalism is bound to kill every living thing on it. What viable options are there for “climate action” when we’ve already passed the critical tipping points? What use is there in advocating minimal changes in financial policy when the whole system is corrupt and entrenched, and when even total collapse of industrial civilization will take global average temperature beyond habitability? If we’re going to face facts, lets look at the whole picture which is very bleak indeed.

    1. Foppe


      What viable options are there for “climate action” when we’ve already passed the critical tipping points? What use is there in advocating minimal changes in financial policy when the whole system is corrupt and entrenched, and when even total collapse of industrial civilization will take global average temperature beyond habitability?

      Given that governments will likely keep doing nothing to “hamper industry” until they can no longer politically afford to do so, and considering the biggest line item on the list of GHG producers is the livestock industry, it seems to me that the most ‘viable’ option that we have available is to adopt a vegan diet. As a recent HuffPo article put it,

      As the economic, political and personal costs of doing nothing to mitigate climate change skyrocket, there’s one lifestyle change that slashes dietary greenhouse gas emissions in half: Veganism.

      Now, to preempt any “health” objections, it seems to me useful to point out this statement, from the biggest North-American professional body of nutritionists and dietitians, the AND:

      It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.

      (A consequence of this is that all the abuse that we inflict upon livestock animals is just as unnecessary — and unjustifiable — as harm inflicted on pets (think Michael Vick), and that we have no justification for eating animals and animal products, but only excuses — such as the pleasant taste of their flesh or milk/eggs, habit, or convenience. If you want to read more about this, I would recommend Eat like you Care; if you want info about a vegan lifestyle, see Vegan Kit.)

      And even if you only care about the environment in the abstract, veganism is still your best option.

      1. Milquetoast Honey

        No the best option is to return to small farms that use something like biodynamic principles, where waste is actually an input. The problem is CAFOs and factory style farming in general. Yes, cows would still fart all day long, but we wouldn’t have 10s of thousands of acres on monoculture grains growing just to feed animals that actually do better on grass. The soil, healthy soil, is a carbon sink, and I think one that would make up for emissions of our bovine and porcine brethren, if one takes the historical descriptions of ‘plenty’ describing the New World at somewhat face value.

        The problems with GHG emissions are systemic. Switching to vegetarianism isn’t going to solve the problem. The problem is that we have things like cities and large monocultures. Modern civilization is the problem. What we need is land reform and trust-busting, breaking up multi-nationals like ADM and Cargill, and the development of distribution systems that don’t rely on the IC engine. And serious education for new farmers about best practices i.e. shorter “Waste not, want not.”

        The culture at large comes from agriculture. We have CAFOs, we have modern prisons. We have monoculture, we have cultural homogenity (sprawl and big boxes). We have soy, wheat, and corn as 70% basis of calories (and the attendant metabolic syndrome and diabetes) and we have lowest common denominator entertainments that don’t require critical thinking. Of course, these are correlations, but I’m not trying to be scientific, just rhetorical.

        1. Foppe

          Leaving aside the fact that your comments are purely speculative, and that it a physical impossibility for biodynamic farming to grow much beyond its current size (this because the earth simply doesn’t contain enough land surface to feed even the current population in that way, never mind the people who currently aren’t consuming meat/dairy at Western levels yet), you are utterly ignoring the fact that there is no way to create the system you speak of. Capitalism simply won’t allow for supply-side thinking of the sort you espouse, and biodynamic farming exists primarily to make it possible for affluent people to distinguish themselves (morally and economically) from the rest of society. Lowering demand is the only solution that has any chance of working. And as I see it, the only way to change current practices — i.e., the killing of more than 53 billion land animals and a trillion fish per year worldwide — is to make people realize the fact that anyone who disapproves of unnecessarily harming *any* animal, should immediately stop consuming all animal products, because all animal (product) consumption is nutritionally unnecessary, and therefore all the harm and death that follows from our doing so is equally unnecessary. And since there is no moral difference at all between harming a pet because you derive pleasure from it, and paying someone to harm or kill a livestock animal because you derive pleasure from eating its flesh or its other ‘products’, this means that if you disapprove of the former, the only logical conclusion is that you should also stop contributing to the latter.

          Secondarily, the health crisis that we’re currently facing is largely caused by our consumption of animal products, so even if it doesn’t bother you to harm animals unnecessarily, there is still the fact that you’re also harming yourself by following a nonvegan diet.

          1. Milquetoast Honey

            There are more acres of arable land devoted to lawns than there are to farming. And meat comes in many forms. I supplemented my diet with a rabbitry in a small shed and egg laying chickens in my backyard in a city down south. It was fairly easy to feed the rabbits via alfalfa pellets and grass I harvested from empty lots. The chickens lived off of black soldier fly larva, kitchen scraps, compost goodies (bugs and what not), and garden excess. I turned my front lawn into a garden btw. That’s right I killed bunnies and ate their delicious livers and muscle. But my animals had a good life up until the day they died.

            We were thinking about getting goats for dairy (and a little extra meat), some aquaponics for fish and snails, and we did all of this on a tenth of an acre. Unfortunately, some terrible things happened and we were unable to continue the “experiment.”

            Biodynamic farming doesn’t exist for the rich, and Rudolf Steiner, the father of biodynamics, took generations of knowledge from French and German yeoman farmers in creating the system. Biodynamics is simply about seeing a farm as an organism, that the livestock provide the inputs (poop and their natural behaviors) for vegetables, orchards, etc. with a little bit of woo thrown in.

            As for taking the advice of American nutritionists and dieticians, I will kindly pass. Considering the bad science behind Ansel Key’s lipid hypothesis, statins, cholestrol and all the other nonsense regarding cardiac disease, when it is obvious the access to sugars and refined grains is the most likely culprit behind the chronic health crisis of the rich countries, I don’t think removing sources of animal protein are a panacea for climate change. I think the widescale adoption of eating insects would be a better choice than veganism, but I know, that’s icky.

            How about this, let’s make it a law that you can’t eat meat until you’ve killed and processed (that would be butchered) an animal. Otherwise it’s kale and grasshoppers for you.

            1. Foppe

              Biodynamics is simply about seeing a farm as an organism, that the livestock provide the inputs (poop and their natural behaviors) for vegetables, orchards, etc. with a little bit of woo thrown in.

              Yes, and biodynamic food is only sold in our version of WF, at much higher prices than regular food. As for the rest: I don’t care who invented it; I am talking about who is buying it in western society — and that’s the rich. You can have whatever feelings you like about your local ability to grow food and livestock, but it’s irrelevant for the world’s city-dwelling population.

              when it is obvious the access to sugars and refined grains is the most likely culprit behind the chronic health crisis of the rich countries,

              Talk about looking at the world with blinders on. Yes, sugars and refined grains aren’t particularly healthy; but the leading causes of death are *all* related to the diet change “enabled” by the rise of factory farming; yet it has nothing to do with the cramped status in which the animals are held, and everything to do with the fact that we are exceedingly bad at digesting large amounts of animal products.

          2. MtnLife

            I’m 95% vegetarian so I am for most of what you are saying. BTW, not trying to be an ass, just curious. How do you feel about bees and honey? What about eggs? One drops out of the backside of my chickens and ducks nearly everyday. Should I let that go to waste? Would you rather I sprayed chemical pesticides everywhere or are you okay with the chickens (beetle and grub assassins) and ducks (slugs, snails, plus ticks – health bonus!) doing that for me? Same with their waste, it really helps my garden grow, should I use petrofertilizers instead? Finally, what about at the end of their lives, should I let them die and be wasted or should I throw their tough carcass in the stew pot and give thanks, knowing they lived a long and happy life?

            1. Foppe

              Do you kill your old dogs and/or cats and feed them to your other pets? If not, why not?

              As for honey and eggs: I have no need for them, so I don’t see a reason to eat them. I disfavor continuing to breed chickens, and I would remind you that breeding chickens tends to involve the killing of male chicks; I cannot for the life of me imagine that chickens are the only species of bird capable of keeping your garden clean.

    2. Bruce Johnson

      Please separate the stupid siting of the Fukishima power plant from the nuclear power industry. Other than the energy required to build nuclear power plants and the care required to store the spent fuel rods, this method is much cleaner than shale oil and gas, let alone coal. A better solution is to quit opposing contraception because too many people on earth is the reason we are killing the planet’s resources. Many religious groups appear to prefer war, pestilence and famine (which also “kill the planet”) as the preferred means of population control.

      1. ambrit

        Dear Bruce;
        Well, since one of the primary needs of a nuclear power plant is cooling water, these stupid kinds of siting decisions are going to be very common. If you want to continue with nuclear power, something like a change over to pebble bed reactors is needed. As for nuclear power as a private business; it beggars description as to finding a worse system. A public utility with potentially catastrophic, world wide dangers, run by a bunch of … It’s just too funny and sad at the same time.

        1. Bruce Johnson

          So you prefer decisions made by religious organizations who desire to “go forth and multiply” in order to either control the world or provide enough troops to control their part of the world. Unlimited population is what is destroying the planet, not well run nuclear power power in France, for example. A “head in the sand” response from environmentalists who think wood stoves don’t add greenhouse gasses because they are “renewable”. I read recently that our midwest farming operations absorb more CO2 than the whole Amazon rain forest. It’s too bad that much of it is converted to alcohol, a very inefficient but renewable power source.

          1. Moneta

            Chicken or egg…

            I would argue that, just as highway expansions increase traffic, energy production increases population… I wonder if the population in the middle east would be what it is today if we did not consume as much energy as we do in the Western world.

            And anyways… nuclear reactors will probably proliferate in the most zealot areas. Double whammy.

            1. Bruce Johnson

              Wow, that is quite a set of syllogisms! How do you explain the huge population increases in areas where there is limited energy production and much lower birth rates in high energy countries?

              “Zealot areas” are not noted for having developed nuclear power plants, only nuclear weapons. Iran tried to develop a power plant to back up their oil reserves, but the west assumes this is a cover for nuclear weapons development.

          2. ambrit

            Mr. Johnson;
            I’ll not argue with you about the population issue; I tend to agree with you on it. As I mentioned just below, I’ve come to the view that events will solve that problem will we or nill we. Paradoxically, the old guard religious doctrine of maximizing the population of the faithful is a survival strategy for any of the probable, and most of the improbable, historical outcomes. If the population crashes, the extra faithful will have several advantages to boost their chances of continuing as a coherent culture. If it does not, sheer numbers will guarantee political predominance. The anti-abortion movement in the West is one example. (When have you seen crowds of pro abortion faithful crowding around clinics ready to mix it up with their opponents?) Immigration is another example. (Where are the immigrants coming from anyway?)
            What I’d like to start seeing is the rise of Eco-Jihadiis. Then we’ll have a chance.

            1. Foppe


              What I’d like to start seeing is the rise of Eco-Jihadiis. Then we’ll have a chance

              You mean something like this?:

              As the economic, political and personal costs of doing nothing to mitigate climate change skyrocket, there’s one lifestyle change that slashes dietary greenhouse gas emissions in half: Veganism.

              Note: if you eat red/white meat daily, then your dietary GHG-emissions are probably roughly equal to those generated by living in a house and using electricity/gas, so the reduction far outstrips any reduction someone could realize by installing solar panels or improving domestic insulation.
              Livestock GHG emissions are the biggest single contributor to AGW, and nutritionally entirely unnecessary because we don’t need any animal products in order to be healthy. (In fact, we would do well to avoid animal products entirely…. If you want to know more, ask.)

              1. Ping

                Our species could not be more disastrously disconnected from the environment that sustains us and I have no doubt a collapse will soon redefine the terms of survival.

                Our concepts of sustainable/healthy diet and lifestyle are ignorant and pathetic. Reliance on meat and factory farms has single handedly contaminated and destroyed much of the environment from clearing huge swaths of forest, water contamination runoff, the ratio of 40 tons of plant protein to produce one ton of animal protein, methane release. Hello…..creatures were not meant to be raised in confinement hence overuse and resistance to antibiotics….the list goes on. The inhumanness is atrocious and points to our utter corruption as sentient beings.

                There is no meaningful religious or political acknowledgment of gross overpopulation and our unsustainable course. Our institutions do not advance human responsibility and education about our place in the world around us. Religion has advanced that we are the pinnacle creation and thus we have carte blanch to ‘harvest’ – rather plunder all beneath us when instead we are trustees. Religion should be at the forefront in education about these deeply moral trespasses.

                Are we genetically designed like a deadly virus programmed to kill it’s host (only with the arrogance of superiority in tact) spewing contaminants and toxins like depleted uranium?

                The human species is beyond redemption at this point. We do not have the ability to reorganize ourselves or even recognize we face immanent demise on present course. Nature, karma, or whatever label fits will redefine the terms.

                1. Foppe

                  Assuming you practice what you preach, my only question (given that I’m not into despairing) is: are you vegan? If not, please go vegan; that way you at least minimize the harm you are causing to other sentient creatures through your dietary choices (as well as to yourself). And if you need a principle to hang your behavior on, pick this one….

              2. Vatch

                Some people are not willing to become vegan or even lacto-ovo vegetarians. I’m afraid I’m one of those people. However, I do have some meatless days every week, and on the days when I eat meat, I usually only eat it in one of my three meals.

                I recommend this procedure to others who are unwilling to become vegetarians. Eat less meat, and more vegetables. You will almost certainly improve your cardiovascular health, and reduce your risk of cancer.

                Eventually, I may decide to give up meat entirely. Meanwhile, broccoli, spinach, tofu, hummus, blueberries, and other meatless foods are important parts of my diet.

      2. Milquetoast Honey

        By cleaner, you mean only in terms of CO2 and methane. Granted coal and oil release some radio-nucleotides into the atmosphere, but nowhere near the multiple orders of magnitude greater via the handful of accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Oh, and the releases of radio-nucleotides by our weapons manufacturers.

        The amount of lying that has gone on with the continuing disaster a Fukushima (where are those cores? Nobody knows) is much greater than the denial and self-delusion that continues with the fossil fuel bugaboo.

        Nuclear is far more dangerous to life on this planet than even climate change. Our atmosphere (and magnetosphere) ostensibly keeps most of the radiation from space out, thereby giving life itself a chance to flower. Poisoning (more properly irradiating) our atmosphere and our oceans with all kinds of long-lived alpha and beta emitters (I would add gamma emitters, though most are too short-lived to be of any long term consequence on the environment) is not a long term strategy for life on this planet. And, honestly, Fukushima is one earthquake, one typhoon, or one poorly managed emergency away from being something orders of magnitude worse than it is already.

        As for the safety of other nuclear sites, that safety needs to be measured in geologic time, not in decades. WIPP’s exploding drums of waste should serve as a memento mori to the folly of nuclear energy. And I have a hard time believing that thorium style reactors are going to improve the situation, considering it’s more pie in the sky nonsense that has been a feature of the nuclear power industry since its inception (power for pennies). As it stands now, having a reactor in your neighborhood means agreeing to having huge amounts of “spent” fuel sitting in situ, having to be constantly cooled, otherwise some level of criticality will occur, which leads to atmospheric release.

        I know, it’s only a few bananas of radioactive exposure. We probably get more alpha-emitters inhaled through 2nd-hand smoke and from the combustion byproducts leaking from tailpipes. But what is good for us now, will not be good for future generations, especially as the myth of progress lives up to being a myth.

        1. Milquetoast Honey

          It’s nuclide and not nucleotide. Spell check error and poor editing on my part.

  2. bill

    As much as I have sympathy for the author’s point, the bloody glaring elephant in the room is that DEMAND drives the investment in new coal/oil/etc. That demand comes, as very briefly noted in the piece, from people using and often wasting energy. If you want to put the coal companies out of business then focus on a)reducing demand and b)funding alternative energy. Of course a) is key but not an easy sell to the American people (it is my god given right to use as much energy as I can pay for, damn the consequences), so the author instead focuses on supply. Well it is an effort unlikely to have much impact as long as demand stays strong.

    Want real progress? Make wasting energy really socially unacceptable. Tax the heck out of oil/coal etc so that alternatives become viable. There easy. That will work. Of course trying to get people to demonstarte int he street for this approach ain’t gonna happen so the author is left tilting at windmills.

    1. Milquetoast Honey

      Managing demand has worked well with the “War on Drugs.”

      TPTB are only interested in catastrophe. We are at a point where rational thinking can’t save us from the consequences.

  3. Moneta

    I am convinced that without fossil fuels we would not be 7 billion on this planet. So in my mind, we can’t cut fossil fuels quickly and drastically without generating a shock. The cut has to be gradual.

    However, we need to make our economies more sustainable and I commend anyone investing in projects that will help us realize this.

    1. ambrit

      I’m something of a pessimist about this. Stealing a trope from the Gaia Hypothesis; the Earth will move into a new balance no matter what we humans do. A lot of what is going on at the grassroots level today is survivalism, pure and simple. Most of the signs are pointing towards catastrophe for human populations. We humans have struggled through at least two bottlenecks before in our history. Google the Toba Eruption of 70,000 years ago and it’s impact on human populations for one. We’ll probably scrape through this upcoming bottleneck, but it won’t be Civilization as We Know It afterwards.

      1. Moneta

        I guess I’m optimistic that life could be good for the 1 billion or less that will remain… and they will benefit from our research and investment into more sustainable lifestyles.

        1. ambrit

          I’m hoping you’re right, but the getting to that billion or so human population is going to be horrendous. My mind just threw up “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr. as to our chances of managing a continuation of our present technological civilization through the bottleneck.
          The real kicker is the sense of helplessness that seeing the problem from any sort of less than optimistic viewpoint engenders. That’s when I envy the truly religious. They believe, and that belief sustains them. (I’m not limiting religion to just the supernatural sphere. Science is also a religion.)

          1. Moneta

            It’s going to be hard for the materialists. For those who love people, it will be just fine.

  4. William

    Divesting in oil and coal is an easy substitution for making real changes in one’s own carbon-based lifestyle. Same as buying a Prius. Accomplishes nothing except gifting oneself with righteousness. Most people and businesses cannot do the most utterly simple steps to reduce consumption, such as raising the thermostat on the A/C, eliminating unnecessary lighting and unused electronic device loads, learning how to drive right, and for homes, using a clothes line.

    Starbucks, for instance, has a company policy to keep the AC on a certain temperature setting no matter what the temperature outside is. In many Starbucks stores, people are cold and the staff wear sweaters and jackets in the summer. If the temp is 55 deg. at 7am, the AC is on full blast. The employees have no control over it. And most every office Ive worked in is kept a bit too cold, and I’m a rather hot-blooded guy who likes cold.

    1. MtnLife

      Actually the best thing to do would be to stop building homes above ground, preferably into south facing hillsides (for drainage, heating, and radon reasons). Heating and cooling costs drop far more than anything else you can do to an above ground home. My shop is 75% underground with a south facing, poorly insulated entrance. During 90 degree days outside it ‘might’ hit 75, during the depths of winter it rarely drops below 50 (would be better if the doors were better insulated) – all with zero energy input. We seem to think our homes are actually our castles and they need to cut some imposing image on the skyline to let our neighbors know how wealthy we are. Asphalt/tile/slate roofs only serve to increase water runoff/decreased groundwater penetration (increased flooding), act as heat storage devices in an age of warming, and eliminate any chance of food production or carbon sequestration in that area. Insulation has to be produced and transported, the earth is right at the building site.

      1. beene

        MtnLife, aside from going off grid, your building idea is probably the most reasonable for saving energy. The only limitation is location due to ground water levels; as you mention the basement is naturally cooled. Still its hard to sell people on the idea that underground living is really healthy.

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        I thought underground housing sounded very attractive until I took a closer look at the construction required. I admit to considerable ignorance in this area — so please correct my misapprehensions. Many of the underground house designs I looked at required very ample support structures. Steel usually comes to my mind for support, or reinforced concrete. I also worried about lighting them given my perception that most of the skylight systems were both expensive and tended to leak. It’s been a few years since I made my cursory investigation of underground housing. Have there been some advances in the designs that overcome the disadvantages?

        As far as divestiture is concerned — I feel I should at least mention it — I wonder whether it would have any impact at all on companies like Exxon or Shell Oil. Is a stock investment still related in any way to a ‘true’ interest and participation in a corporation like Exxon? It might sap a little — a vanishing amount — of the war chest set aside to drive Exxon shares higher for executive bonus time. What am I missing here?

        1. MtnLife

          They all depend on your geographical location. In the southwest for instance rammed earth is probably your best bet, the structure will be more underground, and the exposed area is the roof. In mountainous forested areas, using local materials, your best bet would be into the hillside, timber framed (material intense initially but extremely durable), and cordwood (or timberframe/cordwood infill) for the front wall. In designing the house you’ll want to put the rooms that need a window (bedrooms for fire exit purposes, main living area, greenhouse (?)) on the exterior wall and things that often don’t (bathrooms, pantry/in-house root cellar, office) to the interior.
          Another method of building and support that you might want to consider is ferrocement. I’ve gotten into playing with it recently and I really like it. It’s based on the principle that cement is strongest when within 1/4″ of the embedded steel. So you layer steel lath (or chicken wire, thin rebar, combination of all) in a thin layer of mortar. Maximum depth before being considered reinforced concrete is 2″. Ferrocement is unique in that it will flex (microcracking) and retain its strength. It’s used more in third world countries because it is low skill labor intensive (needs at least a semi-skilled mason as well) and was used a lot by artists in the 60’s for its ease in sculpting. I know there is at least one company doing it commercially in the US, especially in hurricane zones as microcracking can resist flying debris with less damage and remain structurally sound. They’ve been building barges out of it for over 100 years.

          1. Jeremy Grimm

            Thank you for the information. I live in the NorthEast and plan to move further North as soon as I retire. I’ll keep investigating underground building and look into ferro concrete. I think the way things are going I need to design for both cold weather and very hot weather. I’m among the pessimists who fear that nothing will be done about global warming. Besides underground housing I’ve also thought a very little about mining technology and rock cutting and wondered about finding a mountainside with of some sort of stone where I could make a dwelling a little like the dwellings described in “Red Mars”. But it’s something I know even less about than underground housing. I guess I would avoid granite because of the hornblende much of it contains — worry about failing the radon test. In any case, I need to get away from proximity to large urban areas and try to establish ties in a community somewhere.

    2. Carla

      I really think that industrial energy use, the military/police state, commuting in gas-guzzlers (SUVs) and industrial agriculture account for the greatest expenditures of fossil fuels in this country. We can delude ourselves into thinking that we make a difference at the household level, but that’s all it is: a delusion. Perhaps if the whole U.S. population stopped eating meat and dairy (gradually over the next decade, or it could cause a catastrophe–think of all those dead cattle and pig carcasses just rotting), if SUVs were banned immediately and a minimum 45-mpg standard were instituted for all autos sold starting tomorrow, and if good, cheap or free insulation were provided for every home, maybe that would make a small difference in 10 years. But mostly, I think we’re just kidding ourselves. All these things are do-able. Doesn’t mean they’re going to be done, or even that they would really matter.

  5. Jim Haygood

    ‘Word came recently that both the Philadelphia Quakers and the Unitarian General Assembly have decided to divest from fossil fuels.’

    It’s gonna take a good-sized wood stove to heat those meeting rooms, and lots of wood choppers. Plus somebody to run the treadmill to power the organ bellows.

    But that’s what congregations are for.

    Work day, brothers and sisters, followed by potluck supper!

    1. ambrit

      Oh come on now Jim. Don’t you remember helping Grandma card the wool to make the yarn to knit the sweaters we wear to keep us warm? (That’s for all those inhibited northern folks. We southrons still like a good old congregational copulation after the revival sermon has us all hot and bothered.)
      Why we idealize the Mennonites and other archaic communities is an interesting story all on it’s own.

    2. MtnLife

      You are conflating Quakers with the Amish. They are quite distinct groups. Here’s a little help. I would point out one error in the article in that it said Amish can only get in cars if someone else drives and that is false. Amish are not allowed to OWN any technology. You can hire an Amish farmer and he can drive your tractor all day long. He can even commute to work in a car if it isn’t his car.

      1. MtnLife

        My point, that my pre-coffee completion brain didn’t make, was Quakers aren’t Luddites dragging you into the 18th century. They are just as hooked on fossil fuels as the rest of us. Sorry for the assumption of much inference.

    3. diptherio

      Shorter Haygood: I can’t imagine how we could possibly go on without burning all of the fossil fuels we can lay hands on, therefore encouraging divestment in fossil fuels is silly.


    4. Rosario

      Well, we will all be doing that in short order if we don’t pull our heads out of the sand and start finding sustainable ways to live as comfortably as we do now.

  6. JEHR

    Recently in New Brunswick we had a foretaste of what is in the future for us when fossil fuel runs out. We were in the path of a tropical storm and so many trees were blown over that we were without power for a week. Mind you, some of that electrical power might have been generated by the near-by dam which is a better way to get power, but we learned to go without for that short period of time. And what did we do? We ran a generator run with costly gas that polluted the atmosphere worse than if we had had electricity!

    I can remember working on an Alberta farm in 1953 when there was no electricity there. Everything was horse power or man power including milking cows by hand twice a day. It will be a long while yet until the general population (including us) begins acting seriously about living in a totally different way with a far different, and perhaps lower, standard of living.

  7. Kim Kaufman

    Why don’t they go after Warren Buffet? He bought the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad in 2009 for about $25b+ and their biggest freight is hauling coal and oil around the country. Buffet’s investment makes it clear he does not expect decrease in use of fossil fuels anytime soon. Keystone pipeline would not be good for his business either.

  8. JustAnObserver

    Even here, in an article as strong and impassioned as this one I see:

    “… emerging science …”

    To phrase it like this is to accept the MSM/Koch/Fossil Industry framing and give the wingnut deniers continued scope.

    The science finished “emerging” decades ago, its now the settled mainstream (*). The paradigm change has happened at the scientific level and we’re now beginning to see this slowly diffusing into common discourse and its this that terrifies the Fossil Industry and its numerous, well paid, shills.

    Maybe Tom Steyer should just quote Keynes: “When the facts change I change my mind, what do you do Sir ?”

    (*) There was a long article I read (can’t remember the URL) that actually dates the first thoughts on the possibility of a CO2 mediated greenhouse effect to the middle of the 19th century. So we’ve already had 150+ years of “emerging” … quite long enough.

  9. Rosario

    Environmentalist need to distance themselves from McKibben. His (and 350’s) have your cake and eat it too environmentalist perspective has always been nonsense. Really improving our environmental situation will require a radical shift in politics, society, and economics. That means no more growth fetishism, and no more reliance on existing ideologies to transcend the problems caused by said ideologies. Divestment without political/social change and a perspective shift will just alleviate guilt for the acting party. I hope by now we have realized that the market does not do a very good job of purposeful change. Rather, its process is similar to biological evolution, random events that may or may not work in our favor. What will it matter if people remove fossil fuels from investment portfolios if our entire culture is structured (at its foundation) on high density, low volatility (to exclude most viable nuclear) fuels? Any slack left from those “divesting” will be picked up in reduced production or increased consumption or a combination of the two. Fossil fuel Capital will have the upper hand so long as society is structured in their favor, and that is via the channels of politics and its inherent power. A solution can only be fruitful if it is grown from the realms of politics and society.

  10. docG

    I don’t get it, Yves. Do you really want to see all production of fossil fuels cease? Do you really want to see the costs of electricity and heating soar into the stratosphere? And if not, then what exactly are you advocating? Nuclear power? That would seem to be the only feasible alternative. Is that what you’d really like to see?

    I’m a long time Democrat, in fact a socialist at heart. I have no interest in supporting the oil industry and I abhor the Koch brothers. But I’m sorry, I just can’t get behind the push to eliminate fossil fuels at a time when they are literally the only game in town. At some point we will run out, which is a very good reason for all the wealthier countries to support research and development of alternative power, climate change or no climate change. Alternative sustainable power is definitely the wave of the future.

    But the only power source that’s going to enable us to survive from now till then, like it or not, is fossil. If this really worries you then start a campaign to discourage people from flying, and promote small energy efficient cars (though NOT electric cars which are strictly for the wealthy and don’t really help the environment) and mass transportation.

    And by the way, as I’ve said many times (though no one seems to be listening), sea levels have been rising since the 19th century (actually long before that) and will continue to rise even if all use of fossil fuels is completely discontinued. We must learn to adapt, that’s for sure. But not engage in a mutual suicide pact, which seems to be what you have in mind. Please tell me I’m wrong.

  11. Foppe

    I would suggest you re-read the article by this guest author, as you seem to have rather fundamentally misunderstood the argument made in it.

      1. docG

        I reread the article and I have no idea what you’re talking about. The assumption held by the author is that we are all going to Hell in a handbasket unless the burning of fossil fuels is stopped. Along with the equally mistaken assumption that the only ones profiting from fossil fuels are the big oil companies and the billionaires who run them. If those profits are the problem then we should be advocating for the nationalization of these companies, which would suit me just fine. The inconvenient truth is more complicated. Without fossil fuels the great majority of the world’s population would soon perish. Even if production simply went down substantially, thus raising the price substantially (thanks to those magical “carbon credits) millions of the most vulnerable of the world’s people wouldn’t stand a chance.

        In a truly quixotic attempt to defer a bad situation that might not be upon us for another 100 years or more, by all means advocate for a situation that will produce a far worse catastrophe within ten years. Whatever makes you feel better about yourself.

        1. Foppe

          All the author says is that we should stop *investing* in carbon fuels, and instead invest in other things. It is a given that coal/oil barons will not do this, so he’s only talking to the rest of the population. Why is it bad to urge people to put more “energy” into this? Nothing of what you say logically follows from the article posted above, except by making something like a dozen additional assumptions about the intentions of the author. I consider that a rather fruitless exercise.

  12. PJKar

    Hit piece on Steyer?

    It’s only a hIt piece if you’ve never heard of a hedge fund or don’t understand how hedge fund managers operate.

  13. Crazy Horse

    Sorry folks, but this entire discussion reminds me of monks debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. If you really want to see where the human species is inevitably heading, watch the final scene of “Thelma & Louise.”

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