I’m passionately concerned about the environmental catastrophe that is already upon us and only getting worse. We need to reverse climate change as soon as possible, and ending our dependence on fossil fuels is a key step. There seems to be a groundswell for the idea that the best way to do so is to divest from fossil fuels. So I have been reading up on divestment, and finding that no one, least of all Bill McKibben in his article “Divest from Fossil Fuels. Now,” has explained to me yet how this movement would further the goal of reducing fossil fuel use. I’m frustrated, because his organization, 350.org, and Naomi Klein, who’s also working on divestment, have been two bright lights in the environmental movement in recent years. I would love to be convinced that they are not wasting everyone’s time and a whole lot of activist energy on a project that divestment supporter Isaac Lederman, a Princeton student, says ” is attractive primarily because of the symbolic weight it carries.”
Granting that divestment helped end apartheid in South Africa (which is of course debatable, but I think the evidence is strong that it did), is this situation analogous? In one crucial way, it is not: it comes accompanied with no demands. And I fear that that dooms it to being merely symbolic.
In the South African divestment campaign, the message was simple. To corporations: cease operations in South Africa and we will re-invest in you. To the South African regime: end apartheid and we will support you and the return of corporations’ capital to your country. I strongly supported this movement, which was at its peak during my college years. I not only urged my university to divest its Shell holdings (on one occasion, by leading the crowd outside a trustees’ meeting in singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” I cringe to recall), I stopped buying Shell.
But I can’t stop buying fossil fuels and the energy they produce–not yet. I use them to get to work, to do my laundry, to keep my food cool, to power this computer. (Unlike Mr. McKibben, I can’t afford to convert my home to solar power, though it’s on the list of improvements we’d like to make.) So if I support divestment, I’m asking people to stop funding Exxon’s oil exploration, while I’m pumping its gasoline. While I’m not advocating purity as a moral stance, this is too much cognitive dissonance for me. You scum, stop drilling! And give me that gas!
McKibben argues that these companies have so much political clout because of the value of their stock. That may be true in part. But no matter how low their stock drops, they’ll still drill, because we’re still buying their products, and they’ll still have political clout, because the economy can’t continue without them. Again: yet.
A change movement has to ask, what change are we hoping for and what’s the leverage that will bring it about? In South Africa, the answers were clear. With the Divest from Fossil Fuels campaign, I don’t get it. It seems to just be saying “Fossil fuels companies are horrible” (no argument there) and “If they extract and burn everything they’re trying to extract and burn, the warming of the planet will accelerate” (again, I agree). But as long as we are so dependent on extracting and burning them, nothing will change. A heroin junkie might be completely justified in demanding the arrest of all the heroin dealers, but if it were to happen, he’d be up a creek. He still needs his fix. I still need to get to work, 35 miles away.
The situation is too dire for symbolic gestures. We need to take real action. I love the idea of putting economic pressure on these companies, and the first question to ask–the question their directors and executives will surely ask–is “Pressure them to do what?,” a question that not even McKibben, the man who started the divestment movement, has answered. One colleague of mine has–thank you, Earl Koteen; he suggests that what we are asking fossil fuel companies to do is to switch their operations to sustainable sources and become (alternative) energy companies, as the savvier ones are beginning to do. That sounds promising. Now if only the movement, and not just one of its fans, would make a concrete demand like that, then it might make a difference. Even better, we could do the much more difficult work of funding alternative infrastructures that would allow us to break our fossil fuel addiction.