Editorial: Divestment Anew; 350.org’s Campaign Seems Unpromising
The emergence of a new divestment movement targeting the fossil-fuel industry has invited comparisons to a previous one that took aim at companies that did business in South Africa, which then practiced apartheid. It’s an instructive but discouraging exercise: As much as we would welcome a tactic that forced meaningful action on global warming, comparing the two divestment campaigns raises questions about just how much the new one might accomplish.
The Upper Valley learned about the current campaign thanks to a group of Dartmouth students who want college trustees to purge the institution’s mammoth endowment of investments in companies involved in the extraction and sale of fossil fuels. Divestment is a nationwide movement spearheaded by 350.org, an anti-global-warming organization founded by Vermont environmental writer Bill McKibben. The message of 350.org is simple enough: Limited time remains to undertake the serious measures needed to reverse global warming and limit the enormous environmental disruption caused by climate change. That requires pumping less carbon into the atmosphere, which in turn requires leaving much of the Earth’s remaining fossil fuels untouched.
For those who recognize the threat of global warming and the importance of undertaking substantive action — we include ourselves in that group — the question is not the rightness of this cause, but the potential effectiveness of the divestment movement. Among the tactics available, is a divestment campaign a good use of activists’ time and energy?
Getting colleges and other large institutional investors to dump the 200 or so publicly traded companies that control the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves will “shake up the financial markets and show the big finance firms on Wall Street that fossil fuels are risky investments,” according to the “Fossil Free Divestment Tool Kit” distributed by 350.org. “The more we can reveal just how irresponsible these companies are and how irresponsible it is to invest in them — the better.”
Well, yes, but to what end? In the case of apartheid, the divestment movement had a tangible goal. It wanted companies that did business in South Africa to pull out. That was a realistic strategy because most of those companies could carry on absent that portion of their global operations. As it turns out, it was also an effective tactic. In conjunction with international boycotts, the divestment movement amounted to an international shunning of the South African government that, in tandem with internal resistance, helped eventually to undermine that system.
What specifically is the goal of the fossil-fuel divestment movement? Are we asking ExxonMobil to stop pumping oil? Massey Energy to stop digging coal? That’s precisely what they do, and asking them to cease doesn’t seem promising. If the goal is to demonstrate “just how irresponsible these companies are,” it’s a lesson that doesn’t really require divestment to deliver, and it’s a message that’s more than likely to fall on deaf ears among those who run energy companies.
Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson differentiated the two divestment campaigns by suggesting that the anti-apartheid campaign was a global movement with a “clear moral imperative.” Perhaps trying to keep the Earth a recognizable planet doesn’t qualify as a moral crusade (although the millions who could be displaced by an altered climate might disagree), but it definitely strikes us as an imperative. In that regard, though, we do see a clear difference between the two causes. In the case of apartheid, divestment offered not only a way to deliver a message to the foreign government that enforced and depended on racial subjugation, but also an avenue to keep a distance from it. Dartmouth students, for example, could argue that they didn’t want their institution investing in any way that might profit from apartheid or contribute to its survival.
Keeping clean hands in regard to fossil fuels is all but impossible. Sure, we can insist that our colleges, pension funds and institutional investors purge their portfolios. Meanwhile, we all continue to live in a way that creates demand for those companies’ products and allows them to extract not only fossil fuels but also healthy profits. It’s true that we don’t have much choice in the matter, but it’s equally true that our individual culpability makes it difficult to push for divestment with the sort of sustained righteous outrage that the campaign would need to be successful.
The problem is not that those 200 fossil fuel companies are making profits by meeting the demand for their products, but that the demand is not abating significantly. Overcoming the considerable political obstacles that are preventing meaningful change — including the enormous political influence of energy companies and voters’ instinctive resistance to pricing energy to accurately reflect its real cost — will be enormously difficult, but we don’t see a practical alternative.