Several decades ago, the movement to divest funds from South Africa played an important role in helping to defeat apartheid. This was in part because of the direct effects on the South African economy and companies invested in South Africa, but also because it provided a path for a great deal of public education on the issues, and because it gave many people in many parts of our country and many parts of the economy a tangible way to become engaged.
A new divestment movement is just picking up steam, a movement to divest pension funds and other public monies, and the funds of both public and private universities and colleges, from fossil fuel companies – oil, gas and coal. Called Fossil Free, it features the motto: “It’s wrong to profit from wrecking the climate.”
This movement, just starting to have an impact around the country, will be important for some of the same reasons as the apartheid divestment campaign. It switches at least part of the battlefield from national and international struggles where money and political power hold sway, onto smaller battlefields. That is where moral persuasion and moral shaming, local organizing, and political campaigning can have a larger impact.
The campaign, initiated by 350.org and its founder Bill McKibben, author and activist, has already had several successes. As McKibben said in a recent interview with Fortune magazine, “In 10 months since the 350.org campaign started, seven colleges have already divested including San Francisco State, Hampshire, and Unity College. They have been joined by, among others, religious organizations like the United Church of Christ and the cities of Seattle, San Francisco, and Providence, who say they have plans to divest. The biggest action will be in the states, which control big pension funds. Bills are moving through the Massachusetts and Vermont legislatures to do just that. Internationally, the movement has spread as well. A number of big pension funds in Australia are offering fossil-free portfolios.”
This new divestment struggle has already started on many more college campuses, in several cities, and with campaigns directed at boards in charge of public fund and pension investments. It provides a specific way for millions to understand the issues and how they are impacted, and provides a path for people to have a real-world impact. It can take place on a single campus, in a town, as part of contract negotiations, as part of a more general public education campaign. It gives people a handle to grasp, when often the issues related to climate change seem too impossible to do anything about.
The campaign targets the political and economic power of the fossil fuel industry, which funds climate change deniers and much of the ultra-right in the U.S., and which has a huge vested interest in business as usual. ExxonMobil is the most profitable company anywhere at any time in history, and wants to keep it that way. That requires them to keep their public image as clean as possible, keep people buying their stocks, and keep investors from understanding that much of their “inventory” of fossil fuels (which their corporate worth is based upon) must stay in the ground if humanity is to keep climate change from becoming a total catastrophe. As McKibben notes “It is not a flaw in the business plan, the flaw is the business plan.” Profiting from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels is profiting from harming the future of all humanity.
Photo: Fossil Free Facebook page