Opinion — Should NMU divest from fossil fuels?


Kinomoaage translates to “education” or more directly, “Earth shows us the way” in Anishinaabemowin. (Joleigh Martinez/NW)

Katarina Rothhorn

As we celebrate Earth Week at NMU, I am proud to participate in the various activities that help us appreciate and give back to the land. Even if this is just picking up trash or going on a hike to learn more about invasive species, we are taking steps to reconnect with Mother Earth. 

There is also the climate march today at 12:30 p.m. where Northern students, faculty and community members will raise their voices in support of Mother Earth telling us things need to change. The main way she is letting us know seems to be through global warming as temperatures rise, drought gets worse and natural disasters become more frequent and more devastating. Many people are listening to her as they advocate for a reduction in fossil fuels and an embracing of “green” energy. 

Divest NMU is one of the groups on campus that cares deeply about the planet and is urging NMU’s Board of Trustees and administration to divest their money that is supporting oil and natural gas companies and reinvest it in “renewable” technologies. 

But this also has me thinking, will divesting from fossil fuel companies actually do anything to better our future? After all, reinvesting that money into “renewable” technologies still means supporting big companies that care more about profit than the planet. Mass-produced “green” energy isn’t going to solve our crisis. 

Many technologies that advertise as “green” or “renewable” energies are really only sustainable on a small scale, and that is not what the current alternative energy movement is advertising. 

Take solar power, for example. Despite the claim that “Solar energy technologies and power plants do not produce air pollution or greenhouse gases when operating” by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, this completely overlooks the high energy inputs, pollution and environmental destruction that goes into producing them. 

Solar panels are made primarily from quartz and coal. Both of these materials require mines and heavy machinery to extract them from the earth, or super high energy to produce from more impure materials. Mining is one of the largest consumers of energy (equivalent to roughly 80% of the world’s electricity use) and it produces huge quantities of toxic and semi-toxic waste, not to mention habitat destruction, noise pollution and burned gasoline from machinery.

Once the solar panels are actually made, they have to be assembled and installed (with more gas-powered machinery), hooked up to a battery (made of rare minerals that have to be mined, usually in unsafe working conditions) and then they usually have to be replaced after 25 or so years. Most solar panel arrays are also hooked up to the main energy grid (usually powered by coal-burning power plants) just in case the sun goes behind the clouds for too long. 

After all of that, can solar power really be considered all that “renewable” and “green” of an energy source?

Wind energy has a similar unsustainable dilemma with deep concrete foundations that disturb ground ecosystems (or aquatic ones if they are in marine habitats). They also have an extensive need for metals and rare minerals that require more destructive mines, short-lived batteries that are by no means sustainable (even with advanced technology) and a lifespan of only 20 years. Oh yeah, and they also need to be hooked up to a coal-powered energy grid “just in case.” 

While I could get into the dark sides of biomass, geothermal and hydropower “renewable” energies as well, for the sake of time I’ll just recommend you watch the documentary “Planet of the Humans” by Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs. It’s a free, 2019 documentary that provides a more in-depth look at how corporate environmental “green” energy movements are not always intentional and authentic in their quest for a better world. 

Of more interest to me is the answer to the question, how do we actually solve this climate crisis? If fossil fuels are part of the problem but “renewable” energy is just as unsustainable, what options do we have that will work?

If I was to identify the root of the problem, it wouldn’t be so much about the type of energy we are using, but rather how much. It isn’t about whether our cars run on gas or electric lithium batteries (which also require fossil fuels and extensive mining to extract and build), but the fact that we have so many cars in the first place. 

We are addicted to energy on such a massive scale that our search for more power sources is what is killing Mother Earth. 

Somehow, we need to reduce our energy demand — from both fossil fuels and otherwise. It feels impossible because we have become so dependent on technological solutions and energy to power nearly every aspect of our lives that letting go of this comfort of technology feels like moving backward. Honestly, I’m not sure I’m ready to do it myself. 

But technology and constantly “advancing” “solutions” for our increasingly industrial world are what got us into this mess in the first place. A technological solution isn’t going to get us out of it, as much as we would like to think we are smart enough to do so. 

This isn’t about how smart or capable we are as humans, this is about how kind and empathetic we are towards our fellow humans, living beings and Mother Earth. We cannot continue at this pace forever.

So, I come back to the question that prompted my initial rambling: should NMU divest from fossil fuels?

The answer is, I don’t know. What I do know is that I support movement toward a better world and Divest NMU has that same goal. I know making small sustainable choices are still steps in the right direction. 

I know we can’t continue consuming energy — fossil fuels or otherwise — at the same rate that we are. We need dramatic change, and we need it soon, otherwise Mother Earth is going to choose for us.  

Editor’s Note: The North Wind is committed to offering a free and open public forum of ideas, publishing a wide range of viewpoints to accurately represent the NMU student body. This is a staff column, written by an employee of the North Wind. As such, it expresses the personal opinions of the individual writer, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the North Wind Editorial Board.