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Our Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign's Math Is Sound

(Photo: Swarthmore Mountain Justice)Christian Parenti checks the math of the growing fossil fuel divestment movement on college campuses in his piece, "Problems with the Math: Is 350's Carbon Divestment Campaign Complete?," published recently at Common Dreams. While his critique on the strategy behind this historic effort is important to acknowledge, it overlooks some of the on-the-ground realities of the fight for climate justice that we as a campaign have been discussing for the past year and a half.

The primary critique leveled against our efforts is that 350.org's analysis of divestment as "hitting [the industry] where it hurts” is too limited to affect change. We'd like to clarify our strategy and explain the intentions behind our work, and how we see it tied to a broader vision for change in the months and years to come.

Despite Parenti's referral to the fossil fuel divestment movement as "350's current campaign", the first campaign began at Swarthmore College over a year before 350.org became involved. Although we are happy and grateful for 350.org's involvement, and the megaphone that it has provided for our message, this movement does not speak with one voice or have one person as a leader or spokesperson. In fact, throughout 2011 a number of in-depth planning conversations took place between students at Swarthmore and UNC-Chapel Hill and organizations including the Energy Action Coalition, As You Sow, Sierra Student Coalition, the Sustainable Endowments Institute, the California Student Sustainability Coalition, and the Responsible Endowments Coalition. At that time, after discussion of the very concerns that Dr. Parenti now raises, we concluded that even a wildly successful divestment campaign would not financially kneecap the industry; we recognized that the realities of investment were more nuanced than simply defunding these fossil fuel companies.

However, what we also came to recognize that a mass mobilization to change the way universities invest could and would have a profound impact on the way young people, investors, and society more broadly view the fossil fuel industry. If it sends a signal to the market, that's fantastic. Moreover, we believe it will send a message to civil society, and to our politicians as well. Activist groups were talking about the American relationship with apartheid South Africa for decades without success, but once divestment went from a trickle to a wave in the mid-1980s, the congressional hearings started and the Reagan White House began to take notice. A powerful divestment campaign can and will act as a movement-building tool to develop the network, the skills, the leaders and allies that will allow this escalation of the climate movement to grow stronger every day.

We must be circumspect about how, as a movement, we approach our goal of climate justice. The state alone can't bring down big oil and fossil fuel companies. We have already seen that the tragedy of capitalism in its current form is that allowing these companies to grow so large and powerful has rotted out our governmental system. Furthermore, the past 30 plus years of mainstream environmental campaigns have focused on government regulation. Divestment is an escalation precisely because government regulations have proved elusive, ineffective, and even dangerous. We needn't look any farther than the acres of monoculture biofuel plantations created by cap and trade to see that "off-setting" a culture of exploitation with market-based solutions is not the answer. We need solutions that emanate from our own contexts—from colleges to impacted communities—not false solutions from Washington or Wall Street.

Divestment is an escalation precisely because government regulations have proved elusive, ineffective, and even dangerous.

Talking about fossil fuels solely within the sphere of the policy approach or as a "good" or "bad" investment ignores the realities of extraction on the ground. Swarthmore students began campaigning for fossil fuel divestment as a way to work in solidarity with impacted communities on the front lines of coal extraction, such as those affected by mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia and hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania that we've had the opportunity to visit. Try telling people in West Virginia and Kentucky that the only way to deal with King Coal is through the government action. Coal has deeply corrupted state houses in Appalachia, who flaunted the Clean Water Act by issuing new permits for mountaintop removal coal mining.

We don't live in a frictionless world where the government can be relied on to dole out climate justice, as much as we wish this were true. The responses to Katrina, Sandy, and environmental activism in Appalachia have demonstrated that for many communities, especially those on the front lines of environmental injustice, the state has not only failed them, but failed to get anywhere near the roots of the problem—particularly, the avaricious pursuit of profits by the fossil fuel industry, at the expense of our health, functional democracy, and the future of our planet.

When we face policy inaction, we organize. What that organizing looks like depends on your context, your community, and the resources you have at your disposal. So what we see in coal communities in Appalachia, on the front lines of Tar Sands extraction in Alberta, and elsewhere is community groups forming in opposition. And what we're seeing more and more on college campuses—over 150 campuses, at last count, a surge not seen since the South Africa in the 1980's—is students demanding that schools divest the endowments from these activities. Grassroots organizing can win victories, too. Patriot Coal stopped mountaintop removal coal mining after communities mobilized and organized when the state, time and time again, failed to step in, even as the communities it purported to speak for were being destroyed. This divestment movement is built on these successes. Future progress—like the potential divestment of the City of Seattle's pension fund alluded to recently—will likewise be built on this movement as well.

We recognize that Dr. Parenti is an ally to our efforts at heart, and we are happy to hear that he is "all for dumping carbon stocks, if for no other reason than a sense of decency and honor." We are surrounded by the greed and destruction of fossil fuel extraction, and the ever-worsening crisis of climate change. Our neighbors and friends in impacted communities face them today, and so will we before too long. There are more reasons now than ever to do the decent and honorable thing.

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