Divestment Is about Consciousness Raising

This keynote address was delivered in tandem with a supplemental lecture given by Dr. Cindy Ross Friedman at Thompson Rivers University on March 31, 2016, as part of a student-led forum on divestment.

Michael D. Mehta, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies
Thompson Rivers University

Divestment Is about Consciousness Raising

It is time to end the romance with fossil fuels – a spring breakup for a summer fling is needed. In this case the summer is symbolic of our future – a future based on the possibility and necessity of a zero emissions, carbon-neutral world.

When one of more than 200 major carbon producers comes up on your screen, swipe left. We no longer have the luxury of time to play a distinctly human game of monopoly with our future. Climate change, and the destruction and inequality it brings, cares little for business-as-usual rhetoric that justifies an implicit – and wholly fabricated – trade-off between economy and environment.

This is the existential question of our time, and it is essential to take a stand and divest from fossil fuels.

Divestment is one of the fastest growing social movements in the world.

As of today, 509 institutions on a global scale have pledged to divest more than $3.4 Trillion in holdings. Faith-based groups and foundations are numerically the largest players in this divestment movement representing respectively 27% and 25%, while colleges, universities and schools represent 12% of the total pool of organizations divesting from the fossil fuel industry.

More than 100 organizations in Canada are involved, and the number is increasing. Cities like Victoria have pledged to divest, and notable divestments have been made by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the World Council of Churches, the Canadian Medical Association, and the City of Oslo. Oslo was the first capital city in the world to make this commitment back in 2015, and they are divesting pension portfolios worth more than $9 Billion from coal, oil, and gas.

The principles behind divestment are simple.

First, divestment is about removing holdings in industries that harm our common future. With respect to climate change, “keep it in the ground” arguments predominate. If one looks at existing, known reserves of fossil fuels, it becomes quickly apparent that liberating those 2800 GT of carbon into the atmosphere will exceed by more than five times the safe limits needed to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Second, fossil fuels have become the quintessential conflict commodity of the 21st Century. Like “blood diamonds” which are mined in the war zones of Angola, the Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone – and their role in funding bloody rebellions that took many innocent lives – fossil fuels through the actions of climate change create profound social justice issues on a global scale. Those who suffer most from the effects of climate change, are those least responsible for creating it. Divestment is about building a moral framework to address these and other issues. Desmond Tutu stated, “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.”

It worked in the case of Apartheid in South Africa, and in weakening the stranglehold of the tobacco industry in the United States. Divestment is about exerting pressure to stimulate change, it involves shaming and brings into the open many questions about the role of the fossil fuel industry in subverting democracy, its undue influence in the regulatory state, how agencies like the National Energy Board have been captured and corrupted, and how the billionaire-class – including the Koch Brothers – have funded climate change denial and their own selfish and immoral interests for far too long.

Third, divestment is a tool of empowerment. It takes back the power from the industrial elite and positions it in the hands of those who have the most to gain and lose from the pathway to the future that we pave. We are at a fork in the road, and the decisions we make today will determine more than ever what our planet looks like in your lifetime, how healthy you and future generations will be, how much biodiversity and ecosystem integrity will exist, and how wide a gap we can tolerate and allow between the rich and poor of the world.

Many of the industrial elite are still trapped in the old ways of doing things based upon exploiting natural resources and externalizing costs to future generations. They work on a simple principle that I call private benefit/public risk. These companies not only cause the problem, but often block solutions.

Divestment is a grassroots social movement led primarily by young people. It helps us align our investments with our values. If we know that climate change is doing significant damage to our biosphere, then we know that profiting from it is patently wrong.

Thompson Rivers University has made great strides in recent years towards sustainability. We have new policies to move these goals forward, strong language in academic and strategic plans, high levels of expertise, novel initiatives on campus to include sustainability education and technologies into programming and infrastructure. But a huge gap exists with respect to closing this loop by aligning the university’s investments with these values.

We need to close the loop and not fuel climate change and not support non-renewable resource economies – and we need to divest from these sectors while re-investing in other sectors including renewable energy like solar farms, community co-ops and housing, local agriculture, innovative start-ups, and other projects that maximize the impact of our university on our local community. This is responsible investing, and it allows your money and interests to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem.

Students are the largest shareholder at TRU. Combined, your tuition and fees fund more than 50% of the operating budget of this university. With your support and activism – to be honest a form of shareholder activism – we can collectively send a signal to the Board of Governors, Senior Administration, fund managers and others to sharpen their pencils and to make triple bottom line accounting a priority where sustainability comes at the top of the list, not the bottom of it.

TRU should also consider in all programming, scholarship development, and external partnerships these values. Relationships with pipeline companies like Kinder-Morgan and mining companies such as Imperial Metals and Ajax are inconsistent with this approach, and should be carefully scrutinized in the full light of day by multiple governance bodies including student government and the University’s Senate.

This is part of a social change agenda, and divestment is the biggest signal any individual or organization can give to focus attention on a future that we can dream about rather than fear. There is so much opportunity and the importance of seeding the dreams of people for a future that is green, healthy, prosperous, democratic and filled with joy, love, and tolerance for diversity should never be underestimated. We no longer have the luxury of time, and I encourage you to continue this journey until TRU does what is right. American environmentalist Bill McKibben stated, “If you’re committed to greening your campus, why wouldn’t you be committed to greening your portfolio, too?”

Stand up and be on the right side of history. The future will thank you. Our survival depends on this. We must stigmatize fossil fuels and open up more political and social opportunities for action on climate change. It’s not enough to change your lights over to LEDs, or to drive a hybrid or electric vehicle. More profound changes to our economic and political systems are required, and divestment is one tool to lead us in this direction. We also need to decarbonize our minds and hearts in order for this to be successful.

Divestment itself will not bankrupt the fossil fuel industry, but it will bankrupt them politically while allowing people and organizations of conscience to invest in socially and environmentally responsible companies.

I understand the counter-arguments against divestment, and accept that superficially they are accurate. But they’re also irrelevant. To paraphrase Noam Chomsky in a lecture on this topic delivered on April 28, 2015, at M.I.T., investing in fossil fuels drives us toward the precipice and shows that we don’t care about the future. Divestment is primarily symbolic and educational, and it tells the world to pay attention. Universities like TRU have an obligation to lead the pack and to set the tone in real and meaningful ways.


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