Fossil fuel divestment has been featured in the news a lot recently. Often discussed as yet another push towards a more sustainable energy system and economy, fossil fuel divestment is, essentially, a notably public, economic boycott. While 350.org and partners at gofossilfree.org have campaign resources and ideas for community groups, religious institutions, and local governments, the big push for divestment in the U.S. has been coming from colleges and universities–largely due to students backing the movement. While the push for divestment is not simply about affecting the bottom line of the fossil fuel companies (since the fossil fuel investments are profitable and they’re often bought back up by others once groups divest), it is useful in turning the attention to yet another way in which our economic system is geared towards unsustainable practices. The purpose of divestment is not, primarily, to financially tank fossil fuel companies, as it is unlikely to do so, but to make them a socially (and thus economically) unpalatable choice.
Having attended a university for undergraduate studies which has a very active student body, one which independently and within college programs focuses on environmental sustainability in both small (banning the sale of bottled water on campus) and large (divestment of funds from fossil fuel stocks) ways, I’ve kept an eye on the course of divestment at the university and college levels. This past year it seems to have received a huge push, with 256 universities and colleges, or rather their students and faculty, joining the campaign to divest. I was excited to hear that several students I personally know at my current university in Southern Oregon had taken up the cause at our university.
At the Oregon Higher Education Sustainability Conference (OHESC) for 2013, research by Shaun Franks was presented noting that together $1.53 billion in investments by schools in the Oregon University System currently exist, and the manner in which these funds are invested can have a huge impact (it is important to note, though, that often no more than 2% of a school’s investments will be in fossil fuel stocks). The question is: Will schools which often tout their forward thinking, environmental consciousness, and willingness to listen to students actually live up to these ideals? Southern Oregon University is a pretty small school. Still the students here have some great gumption. While best known for its theatre school and association with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, various smaller departments with a focus on environmental/eco studies and sustainability, both social and environmental, are growing in popularity and strength. The exciting part about the students at SOU is how focused and progressive their plans are for options of investment outside of fossil fuels.
This is not entirely surprising as, somewhat true to the stereotype of Oregon, “hippies”, the eco-conscious, and others who have chosen environmentally friendly lifestyles due to either deep-seated beliefs or the trendiness of it, abound. For instance, Portland, Oregon is one of the cities leading the municipal level push for divestment. However, it’s not just Oregon and it’s not just small schools with uniquely driven students. It’s also not just schools in eco-friendly communities with hearty idealists. This trend of a student and faculty backed push for divestment is happening at schools all over the nation, from well-known Ivy League schools, such as Yale and Harvard, to state schools both large and small across the U.S., to smaller private colleges. The map of currently up-and-running school campaigns at gofossilfree.org is, encouragingly, peppered with markers for universities and colleges participating. To date, colleges which have fully divested include Unity College in Maine, Hampshire College in Massachusetts, and Sterling College in Vermont, as well as the city of Seattle, divesting their pension fund of fossil fuels.
Why Does Divestment Matter?
If divestment won’t take down fossil fuel companies, which it won’t at this point, why so much attention? Several reasons come to mind. First, for schools, city and state governments, and other institutions and organizations which may want to start (or already are) trying to be more environmentally conscious and aware of their impact, there is this discord when these groups start programs to encourage less consumption, more walking and biking, better recycling habits, etc., and yet they still invest in fossil fuel stocks. Secondly, the awareness of how we buy and otherwise support unsustainable economic practices is important. Reducing consumption, staying local, supporting environmentally sound practices in daily life is good, great actually. But those practices end up being futile if we continue to engage in larger economic practices which are anything but environmentally sound. Divestment is about more than the public image of a university or city government claiming environmental awareness and sustainable practices. It’s about more than idealistic and spirited students, faculty, and other community members pushing for an action that might directly affect some of the companies represented by those fossil fuel stocks.
Ultimately, divestment from fossil fuels is about a widening recognition of how important it is to do more than sort out the recycling from the trash. Rather than keep the system as it always has been, built around this refusal to acknowledge not only the limited resources, but also the environmental impact of the use of carbon based energy resources, divestment forces us to confront how, at every level, we’re going to have to address the impact our choices have. It’s great that the universities I’ve attended thus far have comprehensive recycling programs. It’s great that both students and faculty push through actions like the banning of selling bottled water on campus. Still, the system itself needs to be reworked. We need to divest not to negatively affect companies via their stocks (although, admittedly I’m not against that), but to show that we want an economic system which acknowledges the environmental constraints, the reality of our environment, and the effects which come from having an economic system wantonly ignoring this.
While divestment is not a route to forcing fossil fuel companies out of business through economic impact, it is a route to widening the awareness of how damaging and dangerous the continuing use of fossil fuels is. Even economically, as a piece in Yale’s “environment360” publication noted, “analysis earlier this month by the credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s and the non-profit Carbon Tracker Initiative warned that oil companies are likely to become much riskier investments in the future.” It is more likely that companies dealing in fossil fuels will force themselves out of business, but rather than take the risk of the environmental destruction inherent in that, there is the choice to cause a social shift which refocuses the discussion to less consumptive uses of safer forms of energy. Amidst the discussion of peak oil, tar sands, issues with coal, from the detriments of mining to the air pollution caused by its use, divestment is one way to make voices heard a bit better. On campuses across the U.S., the rallying cry is to divest fossil fuels so that students studying for their futures will actually have one to graduate out into. Divesting fossil fuels is yet another step in guaranteeing that we all have a future ahead of us.