I ashamed to admit that I hold stock in a utility company. It was purchased for me at my birth because even 35+ years ago we knew that energy from fossil fuels wasn’t going anywhere, and we expected it would be a regular and steady source of growth (i.e. income). Now, we’re less sure about that last bit, but unfortunately, the great engine of human innovation has been let loose and new means of pillaging our planet have been discovered extending the lifespan of this industry.
I could console myself with the fact that this company doesn’t have much of a negative reputation — they’re not at fault for massive spills or pipeline explosions — but it’s still an electrical company in Pennsylvania (where I was born) that generates its power on the back of coal torn from the ground with techniques like mountaintop removal. While they do help to support some wind power in PA (see Ethical Electric for ways to purchase wind energy from PA if you’re in the Mid Atlantic states or southern New England), it’s not enough to offset the damage caused by the coal industry, even the so-called “clean coal” movement.
On February 13th — if you’re reading this as it is published, that’s this Friday — I will be selling those shares; I will divest from that company.
Disinvestment*Disinvestment has a long and storied history. But perhaps no successful disinvestment campaign is as well-recognized (here in the U.S.) as the movement against South African Apartheid in the 1980’s.
The movement was actually suggested in the 60’s but no one really did much with that suggestion for a few decades. In 1962, the UN General Assembly made a non-binding resolution (i.e. no one had to listen to it) asking anyone with any money invested in any form of South African business or infrastructure to remove it and invest it elsewhere. Long story less long: they were asking all right thinking people of the world to cease the funding of an intentionally racist system.
Not much happened here in the US until the 80’s after a man by the name of Dr. Leon Sullivan authored the Sullivan Principles. These principles encapsulated a series of seven statements that would instill an anti-racist policy within a business. Why business? Because then (like now) Washington D.C. had little interest in changing the status quo. These principles were used by both the populace and the shareholders to put pressure on companies to not only change their internal culture but, eventually, to change the way they were doing business with those who supported racism.
While the Sullivan Principles targeted business, others worked to protest at colleges and universities and still others turned the screws on state and local governments. Eventually, the federal government couldn’t help but get involved and passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act which limited the activity of the US federal government with respect to both investing in South Africa and aiding them in other financial ways with the exception of trade (i.e. we could still purchase their goods and send them ours).
Later, they also changed the way corporations received reimbursements for taxes paid there, too. In other words, if you paid South African taxes, prior to that this change, you could get reimbursed for those taxes here at home. After the rule, that money was gone. This made doing business in South Africa much more expensive and, if there’s anything we’ve learned about our Corporate neighbors, they hate it when we hollow out their pocketbooks.
Eventually, these economic sanctions (in addition to other social pressures) forced the South African government to begin negotiations. They took years, but in the end, the apartheid government was forced to hold elections and the native African population (as opposed to the colonial European settlers) were able to win a majority of the vote.
If it ain’t broke…
Disinvestment works. By removing our money — in this case from the fossil fuel industry — we’ll chip away at the power that money provides to those who hold it. Granted, my personal disinvestment probably isn’t even a drop in the bucket, but if enough individuals put enough pressure on the organizations around us, the change is very, very possible.
And that pressure is beginning to force those organizations to bring about that change. The organizers of Global Divestment Day, gofossilefree.org (a project by 350.org) have compiled a list of colleges and universities, cities, religious organizations, and other foundations who have all pledged to divest from fossil fuels.
In addition to those commitments, which operate over the long-term, there are any number of events happening all over the world including continental Europe, the UK, Australia, here in America, Canada, France, Sweden, South Africa, and Norway this weekend. You can find one in your area or, if there isn’t one, maybe you can organize one.
If you hit an event this weekend, maybe come back here and tell us about it in the comments below. Unfortunately, I have a class on Friday and Saturday that I can’t miss (it’s a four-day intensive course so skipping out on those days represents 50% of the entire thing) so I won’t be able to attend any of the six events up here in the Boston area. But, I hope that this posts doesn’t come too late help get some of you out into your communities and helping to do what we can to try to make it clear to those who would prefer to flirt with global catastrophe to line their own pockets that we’re not simply going to sit quietly and stew about it anymore.
* – Disinvestment and divestment tend to be used interchangeably as far as I can tell. Gofossilfree.org tends to use the latter term, while historically the former seems more common.