Divesting for a Greener Planet?

Critics say divestment campaigns won’t hurt polluters’ profits. But Bill McKibben and student activists say that’s not the point.

Rebecca Nathanson

On Oct. 10, 2012, Divest Ithaca College called on the school's board of trustees to dump fossil fuel funds. (Photo courtesy of 350.org).

We’re jump­start­ing a new move­ment, and we need your help,” announced author and 350​.org founder Bill McK­ibben as he launched a cross-coun­try tour in Novem­ber 2012.

“Obviously Exxon is not going to blink twice if a single university⎯or even 30 universities⎯divest,” says Sophie Lasoff, an organizer of New York University’s divestment campaign.

McK­ibben and 350​.org have long been at the fore­front of the fight against glob­al warm­ing, but the Do the Math” tour sought to enlist cli­mate activists in a new phase of the strug­gle. McK­ibben asked cit­i­zens to take direct aim at the fos­sil fuel indus­try, or, as he puts it, Pub­lic Ene­my Num­ber One to the sur­vival of our plan­e­tary civ­i­liza­tion.” Heed­ing his call, activists have launched a cam­paign to pres­sure uni­ver­si­ties, reli­gious insti­tu­tions and local gov­ern­ments to divest their hold­ings in oil and gas com­pa­nies — freez­ing any new invest­ments imme­di­ate­ly and dump­ing any cur­rent ones with­in five years.

With more than 200 such cam­paigns now under­way at col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties across the coun­try, stu­dents are tak­ing the lead.

Stu­dents are look­ing for a way to fight for change com­men­su­rate with the scale of the prob­lem,” McK­ibben tells In These Times. They’ve already con­vinced most of their schools to green the cam­pus,’ which is great⎯but every­one soon real­izes that an ener­gy-effi­cient arts cen­ter is not going to solve cli­mate change.”

The movement’s first suc­cess was at Uni­ty Col­lege in Maine, where the board of trustees vot­ed to divest in Novem­ber 2012. Two oth­er col­leges have since fol­lowed, but stu­dents at most schools face an uphill bat­tle. At Har­vard, where 72 per­cent of stu­dents vot­ed in Novem­ber to divest from the fos­sil fuel indus­try, Pres­i­dent Drew Faust oppos­es divest­ment. Instead she is start­ing an alter­na­tive uni­ver­si­ty fund, through which a por­tion of Harvard’s $30.7 bil­lion endow­ment would be invest­ed accord­ing to social­ly respon­si­ble criteria.

Obvi­ous­ly Exxon is not going to blink twice if a sin­gle university⎯or even 30 universities⎯divest,” says Sophie Lasoff, an orga­niz­er of New York University’s divest­ment cam­paign. But I think it is an edu­ca­tion­al cam­paign. It’s cre­at­ing a move­ment and it’s cre­at­ing awareness.”

Since the anti-apartheid move­ment of the 1980s, divest­ment and eco­nom­ic boy­cotts have become com­mon tac­tics for stu­dent orga­niz­ing, and they are now reg­u­lar­ly used in strug­gles against an array of tar­gets. At schools through­out the coun­try, stu­dents are also work­ing on cam­paigns to pres­sure their uni­ver­si­ties to divest from big banks such as JPMor­gan Chase, Wells Far­go, and

Bank of Amer­i­ca, which prof­it­ed from the 2008 hous­ing cri­sis and are lead­ers in home foreclosures.

Uni­ver­si­ties are big enough to mat­ter and small enough to be moved,” says Angus John­ston, a his­to­ri­an at the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York and the founder of the web­site stu​den​tac​tivism​.net. For stu­dents, divest­ment cam­paigns also have the ben­e­fit of focus­ing action around a clear tar­get: the trustees who gov­ern universities.

Since unveil­ing this cam­paign, McK­ibben and 350​.org have also faced crit­i­cism. In a Nov. 29, 2012 op-ed for the Huff­in­g­ton Post, author Chris­t­ian Par­en­ti argues that fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies respond only to their bot­tom lines — and that they make mon­ey from sell­ing oil, not stocks.

Par­en­ti is also con­cerned that activists are echo­ing a neolib­er­al assump­tion that only mar­ket forces can effect change, by dis­count­ing the pow­er of the state in curb­ing fos­sil fuel use. The Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, he notes, has laws on the books that would reg­u­late fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies if it would only enforce them.

If you actu­al­ly look at the details of pre­vi­ous strug­gles you will see that sym­bol­ic pow­er [of divest­ment] has to even­tu­al­ly crys­tal­lize as gov­ern­ment action,” Par­en­ti tells In These Times. Take tobac­co. The moral spec­ta­cle of dump­ing tobac­co stock was itself not eco­nom­i­cal­ly painful. But once that moral pow­er was crys­tal­lized as legal pow­er in the form of anti-tobac­co laws, then con­sump­tion of tobac­co and tobac­co prof­its began to decline.”

John­ston, how­ev­er, argues that even with­out gov­ern­ment action, a divest­ment cam­paign draw­ing atten­tion to an industry’s mis­deeds can even­tu­al­ly cut into its prof­its. A cam­paign that’s begun on the lev­el of sym­bol­ic pol­i­tics may rise to the lev­el of prac­ti­cal impact over time,” says John­ston. Bad pub­lic­i­ty can have a quite pow­er­ful effect on a company’s bot­tom line.”

McK­ibben stress­es that the Do the Math” cam­paign is one aspect of the larg­er cli­mate jus­tice move­ment. It’s all part of one big fight. … We’ve already done the biggest civ­il dis­obe­di­ence in 30 years,” says McK­ibben, refer­ring to the Sep­tem­ber 2011 sit-in at the White House in which 1,252 peo­ple were arrest­ed in protest of the Key­stone XL pipeline.

On Feb­ru­ary 17, cli­mate activists returned to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. for anoth­er mass action call­ing on Pres­i­dent Oba­ma to reject the pipeline. 350​.org was joined by the Sier­ra Club, which par­tic­i­pat­ed in an act of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence for the first time in its 120-year existence.

As Lasoff sees it, divest­ment cam­paigns are sim­i­lar­ly impor­tant. What we’re real­ly try­ing to accom­plish — shift­ing from a par­a­digm in which we’re depen­dent on fos­sil fuels to a par­a­digm in which we’re depen­dent on renew­ablesstarts with aware­ness,” she says. And then from aware­ness comes the action.”

Rebec­ca Nathanson is a free­lance writer in New York City. She has writ­ten for Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca, n+1, The Nation, NewYork​er​.com, The Pro­gres­sive, Rolling​Stone​.com, and more.
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