The Tale of a Divestment Convert

As a super senior, I have watched the development of Swarthmore’s fossil fuel divestment campaign from its very beginning. While I am now writing to encourage my classmates and professors to support Mountain Justice as it pressures the Board of Managers to divest from fossil fuels, I have not always been an ardent supporter of divestment.

At the start of MJ’s campaign, I struggled to understand the logic of fossil fuel divestment. Climate change is bad, yes, but what would this campaign achieve in terms of real reduction in carbon emissions? Wouldn’t it be better for MJ to focus their efforts on reducing fossil fuel consumption on our campus, or lobbying in Washington? Surely the “Swarthmore Bubble,” with its rampant elitism and theoretical orientation, would be a terrible launching pad for a national movement relying upon mass mobilization for success. And in the farfetched case where divestment was able to rattle fossil fuel companies financially, big oil and coal would still never choose to go quietly into the night. How, then, would divestment drive change?

It seemed to me that MJ’s choice of tactics implied a greater desire to generate a radical leftist critique of global financial capitalism than to actually combat climate change. And while a frank conversation about how the accumulation of wealth often comes at the expense of social justice is important, I chafed at the opacity and conceit I perceived in MJ’s mission. Now, nearly four years later, a new understanding of the need for and logic of divestment has wiped away my skepticism.

The first cracks in my opposition to divestment emerged as the result of Political Science and Environmental Chemistry seminars that forced me to reconsider the origins of political reform and the relationship between government, market, and individual behavior. In the face of a legislature paralyzed by the entrenched power of fossil fuel lobbyists and partisan gridlock, I slowly warmed to social mobilization as the primary means of fighting climate change. Looking at climate policy from both a scientific perspective and from a political understanding of how the relationship between fossil fuel companies and the US government perpetuates an economy built off oil and coal, I realized that any effective action on climate change could not solely rely upon reducing consumption.

Fossil companies currently have five times the amount of carbon that is safe to burn in development. They plan to burn all of it. To avoid climate catastrophe, we must enact supply-side reforms that ensure fossil fuel companies leave this excess carbon in the ground. Yet, the reality is that Plan A for fossil fuel companies and the US government seems to be unchecked climate change and so-called “adaptation.” That the cost of adaptation, both in financial and human health terms, would be borne on the backs of US taxpayers and the world’s most vulnerable people, deeply troubles me. I dream of a different “Plan A,” one that contains efforts to reduce both supply and demand for fossil fuels. As I spent more time at Swarthmore, it became obvious that there were already many groups among the students, faculty, and administration devoted to demand reduction. However, with the exception of Mountain Justice, mobilization for supply-side reform was conspicuously missing.

I still wasn’t convinced, though. How exactly was divestment going create supply-side reform? Here, I dug into the history of the 1980s South African divestment movement and theories of social change. I discovered that the purpose of divestment movements is not necessarily to disrupt financial markets, but rather to raise awareness of how our investments, at a personal level and national level, legitimate injustices [1]. In this light, MJ is choosing to speak truth to power when it notes how Swarthmore’s investment policy perpetuates our dependence on a fundamentally unsustainable industry, prevents the passage of high-impact climate change legislation, and undercuts the development of our alternative energy industry. In doing so, it has begun transforming public perceptions of how we can fight climate change not only at the point of fossil fuel consumption, but at the point of production. As an Oxford University report on this divestment movement argued, “The outcome of the stigmatisation process poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies. Any direct impacts pale in comparison.”

Divestment is a demonstration of our community’s unwillingness to support the fossil fuel industry’s unsustainable business practices. It makes visible the clout of a Climate Justice movement that seeks to transform the political conversation from how to more efficiently burn five times the carbon the planet can support — to how to not burn it at all.

Following this line of reasoning, the logic of Swarthmore’s divestment movement began to make a lot more sense to me. But I still questioned the ability of the movement to scale up. As Professor Burke observed, social movements succeed only “when they are truly multi-sited, when they come from civic institutions, from within households, from education, from popular culture, from personal experience and everyday life.” MJ members tended to responded to this concern as most organizers do, by reminding me that multi-sited movements must begin somewhere, an argument I found unsatisfying.

But while my skepticism made sense when MJ was a small, lonely campaign operating out of one of the most liberal colleges in the United States, times have changed. Today MJ is one branch of a much greater divestment movement and a much greater Climate Justice movement. There are now 500+ fossil fuel divestment campaigns, originating not only from “elite institutions of higher education,” but also from churches, municipalities, and civic institutions. The United Council of Churches, which has more than 500 million members, and over 30 municipalities have already committed to divestment. Divestment has also broken into popular culture, as Natalie Portman, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Jon Huntsman all publicly promote the cause.

At the individual level, when Professor Burke cites the need to “go forth more humbly” as many “households and communities often live with a different real relationship to fossil fuel companies than what commonly prevails in academic institutions,” he is talking about my Midwestern family. Allergic to elitist moralizing rhetoric, living in a suburban environment structured around cheap fossil fuels, and in a conservative state where coal and oil are the foundation of the economy, my family is the type that, according to Burke, MJ’s campaign most fails. Yet, the campaign has generated an ongoing discussion in my home about socially responsible investing and the unsustainable nature of the fossil fuel industry’s business models.

Amidst all of this, I found my resistance to the divestment movement melting away. One day in early 2013, I returned to my room after class. My roommate was engrossed in her Shakespeare reading. Undeterred, I let out an exasperated breath: “My goodness, is our Board of Managers stubborn, or what?” She looked up. “Huh?” “The divestment thing,” I filled in. She raised her eyebrows at me, remembering an argument I had with a member of Mountain Justice the year before. I blushed. Had I “evolved” on divestment? Awkward. “I’m not saying that I have always liked the tone used to frame the divestment issue, or even that I think it’s going to work….” I raised my gaze to meet hers, “But that doesn’t mean divestment isn’t the right thing do.” “Yeah,” she breathed out. We went back to work.

My evolution didn’t end that day. I no longer stand by what I told my roommate. I do believe that divestment can work. Passionate, devoted Swatties have nurtured on this campus and internationally, for over four years, what Oxford’s Smith School calls the fastest growing divestment campaign ever [2]. Momentum for fossil fuel divestment shows no signs of slowing. This spring we will have the opportunity to demonstrate our strength, to support the significant efforts our classmates have put forth towards climate justice, and to demand substantial action on climate change. Come join us.

We > Fossil Fuels.

You can support Swarthmore’s fossil fuel divestment campaign by signing MJ’s petition, or by pledging to join hands with Mountain Justice and fossil fuel divestment campaigns across the country as they take nonviolent direct action this spring.

[1] For more information on the strategic logic and impact of the 1980s Apartheid divestment campaign see Teoh, Welch, and Wazzan’s 1999 article “The Effect of Socially Activist Investment Policies on the Financial Markets: Evidence from the South African Boycott” in the Journal of Business.

[2] See Oxford Smith School’s October 2013 report “Stranded assets and the fossil fuel divestment campaign: what does divestment mean for the valuation of fossil fuel assets?”


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3 comments

  1. 0
    waitaminute ( User Karma: 11 ) says:

    Climate change is THE issue of our times. The author claims that she is now convinced that energy companies will be so embarrassed by the divestment movement that they reduce supply. Does this really work? The author uses the South African disinvestment movement as an example. However, this comparison is extremely flawed.

    First of all the stakeholders in these two situations are vastly different. The impacted economies in the case of South Africa were mostly South African, and therefore most investors felt less obligation. However energy companies, like it or not, are essential drivers of large and powerful economies, and they permeate every corner of modern civilization. For a divestment process to be truly viable, large powerful entities have to be involved, as the federal government was in the case of South Africa. This will almost never happen in fossil fuel divestment, there is just too much economical, and political, repercussions at stake.

    Also, the morality in this case is more ambiguous when compared to the case of South Africa. Climate change is real, and we should take a stance against it. But are fossil fuel companies really the immoral ones? We might believe so because we as a people tend to attribute our own failings to a scapegoat. Sure, the energy companies are digging up excess fuel, but how exactly is the word “excess” arrived at in this situation? Is it in comparison with current demand? Please acknowledge the fact that energy demands will only increase with developing economies and growing populations. Of course they plan on burning the fuel they dig up, because they have anticipated it from the market. Energy companies have no reason to spend money on obtaining additional resources if it doesn’t make economical sense. They are definitely not moral institutions, but I will more readily attribute amorality before immorality. The companies are dictated by the economy, and tailor their business as such. The same could be said for every industry which is out there to make money. Will the government be so ready to denounce capitalism? I do not think so.

    Like I said, I am not against the principles of divestment, climate change is a huge issue and things should be done. But we are wasting precious time and resources doing it this way. It may not hurt if we divest (if the economical claims of MJ is true), but it’s not going to do much either.

    Instead we should have greater governmental support, monetary investment and talent attraction for renewable energy research and development. Once renewable energy becomes truly viable and economically attractive, demand for fossil fuels will drop, the market environment will change and energy companies will adjust their policies accordingly.

    Also, investment in infrastructure upgrading is crucial, by increasing the efficiency of our energy systems, we can reduce the amount of fossil fuel we need. It is somewhat frightful to see that incandescent are still used in Sharples. What is this? The 1990s? The author claims “how to more efficiently burn five times the carbon the planet can support” and “to how to not burn it at all” are two separate issues, but I dissent. By efficiently burning carbon, we are going to burn less of it.

    1. 0
      Christina says:

      I would just like to mention that divestment *is* also about reinvesting in sustainable options of energy. By diverting our resources from fossil fuels, we can reinvest in sustainable, community-based solutions. But divestment is important as a first step because it changes the conversation and focuses our attention and resources on the solution. Reducing consumption is great, but it cannot be the end solution because these fossil fuels need to stay in the ground and we cannot burn it if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.

    2. 0
      alum says:

      You raise an important point on the importance of “efficiently burning carbon”.

      One suggestion that I raise to the MJ divestment campaign is to expand their message beyond just divestment of Swarthmore’s endowment from fossil fuel companies to include, as “waitaminute” points out, environmentally sound and carbon-efficient renovations of existing buildings on the campus and of future buildings, such as the new science center and the hotel. Basically, Swarthmore should strive to make every building on campus LEED-certified if possible.

      I applaud MJ’s campaign for their efforts but I hope they don’t tunnel vision themselves and forget the bigger picture of the future Swarthmore we want to create. A multi-faceted, multi-pronged, multi-issue approach would be ideal.

      And I agree with the author, the board of managers have strangely been stubborn on this issue….Swarthmore’s endowment is not very large compared to many other US institutions–I don’t know how much of the endowment is exposed to fossil fuel companies but it can’t be like 50% of the endowment right? The board of managers is probably holding their weight over something like 1-5% of the endowment….I dunno, if anyone has facts, please inform me.

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