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Why a movement is never a farce

On March 4. over 125 Middlebury College students march to persuade the administration to divest from fossil fuels and gun manufacturers, despite the wind and snow. (Paul Gerard/Middlebury Campus)

On March 4. over 125 Middlebury College students march to persuade the administration to divest from fossil fuels and gun manufacturers, despite the wind and snow. (Paul Gerard/Middlebury Campus)

There’s a well-known quote from Mohandas Gandhi that, like many of his, is now common enough to verge on cliché: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Every so often it describes a situation perfectly.

One such occasion was this Monday, reading Matthew Cunningham-Cook’s recent piece “Why the fossil fuel divestment movement is a farce.” The title isn’t as far off in its description as one might think.  Merriam-Webster’s dictionary explains a farce as a funny staged production about “ridiculous situations and events.” An economy that can only operate through the extraction of land and labor is a ridiculous situation to find ourselves in as a society; rightfully so, no one is laughing. The climate crisis is one catastrophic symptom of an economic system that has not only driven us to the brink of destruction, but every day destroys millions of communities in our own backyard and around the world.

The movement, though, has progressed in a less linear fashion than Gandhi imagined. For its first two years, divestment was largely ignored by university administrations, the media, the investment community, and just about the entire public. It’s been laughed at its fair share already, but — quicker than anyone predicted — is already starting to win. As noted in the article, not only have major cities and institutions committed to divest, but the international conversation on climate change and extraction is already starting to change. Endorsements have come from such unexpected places as the World Bank, and even former Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs’ COO Henry Paulson this past week.

Any social movement worth its salt seeks to sway the opinion of dominant institutions, even those most suspect. These movement victories, though, are also fights in themselves. As the article correctly states, “the climate justice movement should demand more than an Astroturf campaign that ultimately enriches the wealthy at the expense of retirees and kids on financial aid.” It is a sign of divestment’s power that it has gained endorsements from the likes of Wall Street, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into trusting either Wall Street or the White House to show us the way to a new economy. Accepting endorsement, however, is not the same as taking direction; fossil fuel divestment is a grassroots movement led by students, not billionaires, and is firmly committed to justice and solidarity. I know because myself and countless other students and recent alumni — with the vital support of nonprofits — have poured the last few years of our lives into building it. Call that misdirected, sure, but don’t call it Astroturf.

Cunningham-Cook’s main criticism is that by targeting only publicly traded securities, divestment “ignores the corporate misdeeds of a sector that holds billions of dollars” in fossil fuels. Criticizing divestment for not taking on privately traded stocks is akin to criticizing the civil rights movement for in 1955 for not focusing its energies exclusively on the state courthouses that ratified racist laws in the Jim Crow South. Why boycott a bus system in Selma? The real power is in the Montgomery legislature!

Similarly to that movement, fossil fuel divestment has rallied 400 campus campaigns across the country around a symbolic demand. As 350.org’s Jamie Henn explained in his response to the article, the goal “isn’t to make a direct economic impact by selling stock, it’s to stigmatize the industry to the point they start losing political power.” Were divestment an instrumental demand, then the critique would be spot on: the goal would be to move as much capital as possible out of the fossil fuel industry, and the movement would be failing. On numbers alone, divestment will not be the campaign that defunds either the fossil fuel industry or a global capitalism that deals in increasingly risky and volatile financial products; no single tactic can.

Campus divestment is one blunt tool that taps into a sizeable base of people in higher education, and leverages the cultural, social and — to a certain extent — economic capital of colleges and universities.  It’s just one in an expansive toolbox that includes a range of work on climate justice looking to move all sectors of society. The sort of broad-scale societal transformation required to upend the fossil fuel economy will require mass participation–across race, class, generation and so much more. Pitting the fossil fuel divestment movement against working people and financial aid recipients (I was one myself) is a tired rehashing of the old “jobs vs. the environment” trope, a favorite talking point for college administrators and fossil fuel executives alike.

In imagining a way forward, I could not agree more that achieving climate justice will require a “revolution in values” against not only the fossil fuel industry, but the extractive economy as a whole. Fossil fuel divestment is not that revolution, but it is a vital and fighting part of it.