New Years Resolutions for the Divestment Movement

524036_10152700099860065_2032712218_n-1.jpgWhatever your opinion on the tactic, it’s hard to argue that in 2013 fossil fuel divestment campaigns spread like wildfire around the globe. One of the fastest growing, and probably most talked about climate campaigns in the last year (if not decade) divestment is a new front in the climate movement. 

Despite (or maybe because of) divestment’s rapid growth, victories - especially large ones - are still few, setting 2014 up as a big year for campaigns both on and off campus.  Like any campaign, we still have a long way to go, and so with that I came up with some person reflections on divestment and resolutions for 2014. 

Celebrate our roots. It can’t be ignored that the meteoric rise and growth of the fossil fuel divestment campaign has been pushed thanks to the work of 350.org. While their work supporting the campaign launch in the US and providing support around the world needs to be recognized and celebrated, it has also blurred out an important piece of the story of fossil fuel divestment.  

Contrary to the main public and media narrative, divestment from fossil fuels as a tactic did not begin with the publication of Bill McKibben’s now famous Rolling Stone article, nor with the Do The Math roadshow across the US (but both of these were central to spread of campaigns). Divestment began first at a school called Swathmore College in the United States, launched by a group called Swathmore Mountain Justice as a way to stand with frontline Appalachian communities fighting mountain-top coal removal. From this first campaign a handful of others were launched following the same the model, and the work done by these early adopters laid the tactical groundwork that campus divestment organizers around the world are following. 

This is not meant to question or undermine the amazing work that 350.org has done in spreading divestment, but to call on us to commit in 2014 to remember that the origins of divestment are to stand in solidarity with those on the frontlines of extraction and environmental injustice. 

Divestment movements of the past, like the South African campaigns, drew much of their strength from students and investors recognizing their privileged position, and the power that they could leverage – often by risking that privilege – to force change through institutions. As the fossil fuel divestment movement has grown, it feels at times like that commitment to solidarity has faded in the face of more popular narratives of the carbon bubble, and I for one would like to see us celebrate these roots more in 2014. 

In order to do this we also need to commit to recognize that divestment is a tactic of privilege and build meaningful relationships of solidarity with frontline communities. It’s not enough simply to acknowledge that our campaigns are in solidarity with communities facing down the same companies we are calling for divestment from, in 2014 we need to resolve to reach out and become real allies to communities. Many projects have attempted to weave these conversations together already from the G.R.O.W. divestment meet-ups in the United States to the Tar Sands Reality Check tour in Canada. These started to bring together organizers from frontline communities with divestment campaigners, but we still have a long way to go. 

As divestment organizers we need to reflect on the impact our campaigns are framed and how that impacts frontline organizers. In most cases the same companies we’re pushing for divestment from are responsible for environmental injustice in communities near campuses, and campaigns will be that much more powerful if relationships are forged.

Take the University of British Columbia for example, which holds millions in Kinder Morgan stock and sits on the same stretch of Pacific Ocean that the Tsleil-Waututh Nation are fighting to protect from the Trans-Mountain tar sands pipeline. 

Building these relationships is necessary to ground divestment in climate justice, but it also makes sense strategically. Throughout 2013 the spectre of the “carbon bubble” has been raised again and again, and in 2014 the economic risk of fossil fuel development are poised to jump again. Much of the “unburnable carbon” left across Canada lies underneath the traditional territory and lands of Indigenous peoples, and challenges to developing these resources are on the rise. Between legal challenges like the ones being brought by the Beaver Lake Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations and direct land defense like the Unis’to’ten camp or the Elsipogtog blockade, communities are taking actions to prevent extreme energy development, and it’s costing companies. As the events in Elsipogtog were unfolding last fall the stock price of SouthWestern Energy, the company responsible for the fracking project, dropped and has yet to recover. 

During last year’s PowerUp conference in the United States a mantra emerged that “divestment is a tactic, but justice is the goal”, but one of the challenging pieces of adopting a justice framework in divestment is bringing that commitment to justice into re-investment narratives. It’s not enough just to move money out of fossil fuel investments, we need to commit to push for solutions and reinvestment strategies that are transformative. 

Climate change is not simply a problem of pollution, but something rooted in economic and social injustice, and that means that true action on climate change needs to be rooted in a systemic approach. Within divestment it’s easy to explain the idea of re-investment as moving money from what we don’t want, dirty energy, to what we do want, clean energy, but it’s not that simple. 

Divestment has the potential to move billions of dollars out of the fossil fuel industry and seriously erode their social license. This is no small feat, especially given that fossil fuel corporations are some the wealthiest on the planet and that the exploitation of these resources has historically been one of the worlds greatest wealth generators. Investing in a renewable energy future is not as simple of simply replacing coal fired power-plants with wind farms, it requires a complete restructuring of how we produce, transport and consume energy. With this transformation is the potential for significant economic transformation, if we democratize energy production we also remove one of the most powerful sources of wealth centralization on the planet - fossil fuel exploitation. With this comes an opportunity not just to create self-powered homes, communities and cities, but also to push for economic and social justice through re-investment in community driven programs and solutions. 

Throughout 2013 the carbon bubble became a central theme in divestment narratives. A useful and powerful sentiment, it has created unlikely allies in the financial industry and even the energy industry, but in these allies also lies the greatest chance for co-optation of this movement energy, which is why pushing for transformative solutions is so important. If we can forge a narrative that connects the carbon bubble to struggles for economic justice divestment can become a truly powerful transformative force. To do this we also need to recognize that being right isn’t enough, we need to take action and build power.  

Arguably the greatest downfall of the climate and environmental movement has long been the belief that having the best facts will lead to action, and with the strength of the carbon bubble argument we run the same risk in divestment campaigns. In some cases it may be true that simply presenting a water-tight argument in favour of divestment will lead to action from an institution (as has been the case with some cities and schools) but even in those rare cases it would be a mistake to miss the opportunity divestment presents to build power. 

Unlike most traditional environmental and climate campaigns divestment is not targeting a government or single corporation, it’s taking on the entire fossil fuel industry and targeting institutions that people are directly connected with. Divestment presents an opportunity to build movement power that lives longer than a single campaign, the kind of power we will need to push for legislative changes and to stop fossil fuel expansion projects in their tracks. As a youth and student led campaign it also offers the chance not typically found in mainstream environmental organizations to engage in reflection, training and praxis to build a more justice centered movement and campaigns based in creative, engaging and powerful action. Of course this is not an argument against using the power of having a strong economic case in the carbon bubble, but a recognition that that alone is not enough. 

Divestment is only one piece of the climate movement, but it is one that has taken off in 2013 and shows no signs of slowing down. It’s also one with the momentum and new energy to shape how the climate movement evolves and grows. I don’t know how to meet all these resolutions but I’m looking forward to figuring it out with you in 2014 and starting to see the big wins rolling in. 

Have ideas for how we can achieve some of these resolutions together? Comment here or email us at divest@gofossilfree.ca 

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