The members of the Community Editorial Board are independent of the Chronicle’s editorial staff.
This past week, Duke University hosted Duke Energy Week, a week that “brings students, faculty, and industry professionals together for a week of energy events to promote collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and professional networking.” One might assume that, given the grave and worrisome series of climate disasters currently unfolding, the week might focus on the global relationship of energy to climate-change. However, the language of the event’s theme—energy evolution—clearly takes a different tack: businesses need to “adapt quickly in order to capitalize on new opportunities, implement effective strategies, and avoid being disrupted by others.”
Some means of new capital could include more ‘energy-efficient innovations’ (a phrase which the organizers use often), but the overall messaging is clear: climate-change might be a disaster, but it also opens up the possibility for new opportunities to invest and profit. This framing posits the climate crisis as a commodity, a belief that reinforces and maintains the current operation of the fossil fuel and non-renewable energy industry as the status quo. This is emphasized by Duke Energy Week’s corporation-studded sponsorship list featuring Chevron, DTE Energy, NRG, ExxonMobil, and Duke Energy, all of which face accusations and lawsuits for severe environmental degradation, some on a global scale.
This commodification isn’t limited to this event, but rather is intrinsic to the history of Duke long before climate change came into the public discourse. Despite being a separate entity from the University, Duke Energy was founded by James B. Duke after his cigarette companies went under. Ever since, the company has produced millions of tons of coal ash that have leached into North Carolina’s water supply and poisoned communities. The company has explicitly attempted to deny responsibility for clean-up. At the same time, members of the Board of Trustees throughout Duke’s history have invested in environmentally-damaging practices, from Aubrey McClendon whose fortune was built on fracking to David Rubenstein’s investments in oil-and-coal through the notorious Carlyle Group.
As the climate crisis initiated by these kinds of profit-seeking ventures grows, so to do the wallets of those that extract dollars from desperation. In our September editorial we highlighted the scramble over dwindling freshwater sources, but examples of such cynical investments, from flood-wall construction to air-conditioning, abound.
For as long as the primary historical relationship between profit and environment-as-commodity is maintained and not decoupled, it seems likely that such profiteering will continue. Dr. Lawrence Baxter, chairman of Duke’s Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility (ACIR) succinctly addresses this contradiction: “some investments are quite profitable [for Duke], even though they are borderline uncomfortable for us.” This, alongside the fact that ACIR has continuously rejected student demands for fossil fuel divestment, brings us to the conclusion that it is this relationship itself that must be critiqued and addressed.
This relationship isn’t merely an abstraction. Its language, even when expressed in marketable buzzwords of conservation, obscures the actual impacts it has on the livelihoods of people. While students convene for Duke Energy Week, the California fires rage on. While words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘innovation’ are thrown around by keynote speakers from companies like Chevron, our livelihoods burn as a result of the decisions of those same companies. This is not an exaggeration, but merely a reminder that this relationship is real and it is lethal.
If discourse on climate change and sustainable energy opportunities remains limited purely to a paradigm of profit, then the discourse is missing the point, whether ignorantly or maliciously. The company and environment may momentarily come in line together, but only insofar as it is a profitable venture. Profit does not care about livelihoods nor the climate—it only cares about its opportunities to expand itself. The only sustainable way out of this is to treat this relationship critically: tomorrow’s future not as a commodity, but a world that needs to be secured.