A Generation’s Call: Voices From The Student Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement

Last weekend, some 300 students from dozens of universities across the United States and Canada gathered at San Francisco State University for the 2014 Fossil Fuel Divestment Convergence. Convened by the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network (DSN)—which was formed just over a year ago as a platform for building solidarity across campuses—the Convergence brought together a wide spectrum of activists: students were joined not only by veteran climate activists and direct action trainers, among them several frontline anti-coal and anti-fracking activists, but also by community and labor organizers including a Colombian union leader.

With its distinct emphasis on racial and economic justice, the convergence is testament to a new kind of momentum in the climate movement, and to the radicalizing pull of the call to divest. The program notes foreground the goals of “collective liberation” and economic transformation. “As we oppose and expose the forces that are driving climate change, we must also lead with vision and invest in what we know we need,” writes longtime social justice campaigner and convergence speaker Gopal Dayaneni: “an economy which is decentralized, democratized, and diversified; one in which resource consumption is reduced and wealth is redistributed.” Meanwhile, the most recent edition of the DSN’s pamphlet, Orange Square, features contributions including a poem by Phillip Agnew, director of the Dream Defenders; an editorial by members of Peaceful Uprising on structural and environmental racism; and a tribute to the twentieth anniversary of the Zapatista uprising.

Why has divestment resonated with so many students? Will campus divestment groups have the mettle to overcome resistance from administrators? What role can students play in distancing U.S. environmentalism from the lethargic, corporate-backed “big green” groups? And is a broader, anti-capitalist climate justice movement on the horizon?

On the heels of the student divestment convergence, we hear from two students active in campus and national divestment efforts. Chloe Maxmin of Divest Harvard sketches the contours of a rapidly growing movement and examines the case of her university. Kate Aronoff of Swarthmore Mountain Justice—who was one of 398 young people arrested in front of the White House last month as part of an anti-Keystone XL pipeline action—argues that students must situate themselves carefully within social movement strategy if they are to effectively leverage the power of their institutions.

– Colin Kinniburgh


A Generation’s Call

Chloe Maxmin

The “error of predictability.” Coined by Shoshana Zuboff, this term describes “the deeply ingrained tendency of every living system—from the human brain to microorganisms to complex societies—to operate as though the near future will follow from the near past.” The majority of people in the world assume that the planet Earth of the near future will look like the planet Earth that they have known. But for the first time in history, climate change undermines this assumption. My generation is the first to face such a drastic planetary shift. The World Bank and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) both say that the planet is on track to warm 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. This means that the planet will be uninhabitable within my generation’s lifetime.

What is to be done? Changes in individual behavior won’t avert a climate crisis, and climate legislation, nationally and internationally, has been held hostage to the political influence of the fossil fuel industry. How can the climate movement respond to this stalemate? One of the most promising answers has come in the form of the fossil fuel divestment movement, which—in a very short span of time—has taken on historic proportions and reinvigorated the national and international climate movement. Nationally, more than 500 fossil fuel divestment campaigns have emerged in the past two years alone, most of them student-led, and their demand—that their institutions sell shares in fossil fuel companies—has become increasingly hard to ignore.

Why Divestment?

The divestment movement has a two-pronged strategy. First, it aims to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry by rebranding it as a social pariah and a rogue political force that preys on our future. We want to make it socially unacceptable for politicians and institutions to support a reckless industry that manipulates the political system and values short-term profits over humanity’s survival.

The second half of the strategy is to build a broad-based movement. Divestment is inclusive: everyone is or has been a member of an organization––church, synagogue, mosque, alma mater, town, city, state––with money to divest. Targeting these institutions provides the opportunity for people of vastly different backgrounds to come together and raise their voices against a common threat: the fossil fuel industry.

Through this commitment to inclusiveness, we aim to build an informed mass movement that can stigmatize the industry and penalize its collaborators. This can open the political space necessary to hold politicians accountable to their constituents and create opportunities for effective climate legislation.

We haven’t arrived at a mass movement quite yet. But we’re getting there. A recent study from the Smith School at Oxford University, conducted as part of a research program backed by Aviva Investors, HSBC, and Standard & Poor’s, noted that the divestment campaign “has achieved a lot in the relatively short time since its inception,” and that the resulting stigmatisation “poses a far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies.” In just under two years, over 560 campaigns have sprouted up around the world (the vast majority of them in the United States, but several dozen in Europe as well). Thousands of students, adults, religious leaders, families, and politicians have joined the call for divestment.

Students have shown overwhelming support for their campus campaigns. At Harvard, where I am a campaign coordinator, the first student referendum on divestment was held in 2012. It garnered the endorsement of 72 percent of Harvard College students. Then 67 percent of Harvard Law School students voted for divestment. During the past year, referenda at other schools have yielded similar majorities: 74 percent at Tufts, 73 percent at UC-Berkeley, 74 percent at Columbia, and 83 percent at Yale.  Not to mention that 86 percent of students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and 77 percent of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill students voted in favor of divesting from coal companies. Faculty senates at Cornell, UC-Santa Barbara, University of Vermont, and Northwestern have endorsed fossil fuel divestment. Ten higher education institutions, twenty-two cities, two counties, and dozens of foundations and religious institutions have committed to divest, too.

Fossil fuel divestment has resonated with thousands of people around the world because it bypasses a broken political system that most people don’t trust or respect. It directly targets the root of our climate woes—the fossil fuel industry—and thereby shifts the focus from the inherently diffuse concept of climate change to a concrete target. This is an empowering framework and signals a tangible way forward for political action.

The Case of Harvard University

Harvard divested from apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s because it was immoral to invest in systemic racism. Harvard divested from tobacco in the late 1990s because it was wrong to invest in the leading cause of preventable death. Harvard divested from Darfur in 2005 because it was immoral to support ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Now, in 2014, it is time for Harvard to divest from fossil fuel because it’s wrong to invest in the destruction of our planet.

Divest Harvard, founded in 2012, is a student-run campaign pushing Harvard to divest direct holdings within its $32.7 billion endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies, which amount to just over $32 million, and reinvest them in socially responsible funds. Students have met with Harvard’s Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (CCSR) and President Drew Faust multiple times since the beginning of our campaign. The administration has insisted that divestment is only for “extraordinarily rare circumstances.” We have responded: what is more extraordinary than climate change? It’s clear that the administration does not share the feeling of urgency that my peers and I experience. We are the first generation to look into the future and reasonably conclude that we may not have a planet to live on by the end of our lives. Extraordinarily rare, indeed.

At Divest Harvard’s second meeting with the CCSR, two other students and I provided data about the fossil fuel industry’s anti-social behavior. We showed how shareholder advocacy has failed to shift the industry’s behavior. One of the CCSR members, Nannerl Keohane, responded by saying that Harvard should “thank BP” for developing renewable energy, rather than divest from its stock. (BP stopped producing solar panels a year earlier and announced plans to sell its wind farms just ten days before Keohane’s remark; meanwhile, a 1,600-gallon crude oil spill into Lake Michigan has just put the company’s recklessness on display once again.) A few weeks ago, President Faust claimed that the fossil fuel industry doesn’t influence the political system. We have seen that Harvard’s representatives are so saturated in industry PR that they have been blinded to the facts.

Last October, in response to mounting student pressure, Drew Faust released a statement opposing fossil fuel divestment. Divestment sends a “political” message, she claimed, andHarvard should not use the endowment for political ends. But if divestment is political, then investment is equally political. Right now our investments are sending a political message that it is acceptable to invest in a rogue industry that corrupts the political system, spreads disinformation, and pits its revenues against the survival of the earth and its peoples. Faust’s statement showed little in the way of rigorous argument or evidence-based reasoning. Divest Harvard responded to her weak arguments with various op-eds and events.

Students and community members are undaunted, despite the dismal response from the administration. Over three thousand students, 180 faculty members, and 720 alumni have signed on in support of the campaign. We have held multiple rallies and events, published articles in the Crimson and other outlets, and made divestment one of the most prominent issues on campus: the Crimson named divestment one of the top ten issues of 2013.

And resistance from administrators has only brought more students together. Along with students at Brown, Middlebury, Swarthmore, and a half-dozen other universities—all of whom have met staunch opposition from their administrations—Divest Harvard has joined the National Escalation Strategy Team (NEST), and we’re developing new strategies to ramp up power, pressure, and dialogue.

We believe it’s only a matter of time before school administrators join us. Because if even our universities won’t show the moral backbone to say no to the fossil fuel industry, who will?


Escalating Strategically

Kate Aronoff

If nonviolent action is a technology of struggle, then universities are student organizers’ research and development departments. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the fossil fuel divestment movement, which has not only given new momentum to the mainstream climate movement in the United States, but is also serving as a testing ground for young organizers. Just as divesters seek to build an inclusive and intersectional movement, universities are already intersectional in their endowments’ support for dubious industries and institutions, with fossil fuels, private prisons, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine ranking among the most noxious. Meanwhile, colleges compete with one another to raise tuition as students sink deeper and deeper into debt.

Despite all its ills, the university itself remains a tool, not an enemy, in the fight for climate justice.

Though individual colleges and universities support oppression, they are seldom its root cause. Navigating the complex web of interests, relationships, and morals that constitute systemic injustice is the challenge of running a successful campaign: we win by analyzing our conditions, recognizing our own place within the web, and acting accordingly. In 2010, the student group I work with—Swarthmore Mountain Justice—came to divestment after struggling to find a way to act in our own contexts to support communities we visited in Southern Appalachia resisting mountaintop removal coal mining. In the fossil fuel industry, we recognized a common enemy. In our endowment, we recognized the connection between our college’s seemingly abstract investments and the very real destruction of communities. We recognized that, as university students, we have unique and intimate access to a tremendous source of power within society: higher education.

The fossil fuel divestment movement seeks to replicate the successes of the anti-apartheid movement by situating universities as one of many targets implicated in the extractive economy.

When Nelson Mandela traveled to the United States following the legal end of South African apartheid in 1990, he went not to the White House or Congress, but to UC-Berkeley to thank students for their leadership in the apartheid divestment movement. Today, the fossil fuel divestment movement seeks to replicate the successes of the anti-apartheid movement by situating universities as one of many targets implicated in the extractive economy, using key institutions to challenge a seemingly entrenched status quo. In tapping into the power of higher education, divestment is one crucial part of an ecology of resistance seeking to transform an economy based in fossil fuels, exploitation, and inequity into one that values cooperation, justice, and solidarity. By pushing some of our society’s most visible institutions to support the transition to a post-carbon economy through divestment and reinvestment, students are acting in solidarity with resistance on the front lines of fossil fuel extraction and climate change.

But as the transformative potential of divestment becomes more evident, college boards and administrations are digging in their heels. Growing entrenchment against divestment is a sign that the movement needs to begin escalating on a mass scale, joining a lineage of nonviolent resistance. Last month’s XL Dissent action showed exactly this energy and resolve among student activists. Organized primarily by fossil fuel divesters, the action challenged hundreds of students to engage in a low-risk and highly visible act of civil disobedience. Garnering attention from major mainstream media outlets, XL Dissent signaled to a wide audience that the youth climate movement is prepared to escalate its fight against the fossil fuel industry.

A call for escalation, however, is also a call to strategic thinking. As longtime organizer and social movement theorist Jonathan Matthew Smucker observed recently, “Just because a group engages in activities does not inevitably mean that they possess a strategy that orders those activities.”

Without a coherent strategy linking them, individual actions—no matter how big—will register as little more than background noise to those in power. In cities like New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC, multi-thousand person rallies are a regular occurrence. When I was arrested as part of the XL Dissent action, I overheard park police tell a fellow protester that they had seen as many as fifty separate acts of civil disobedience outside of the White House last year. Where, then, were the Obama administration’s fifty milestone progressive decisions?

As impressive as big mobilizations might be, they don’t in themselves constitute a mass movement—let along generate transformative economic or political change. It takes the long, slow, and hardly glamorous work of organizing to build a broad base and the kind of power that puts movements and the leaders within them in a position to negotiate with the state. Building student power—alongside community and labor power—is a critical step in this direction.

Where college divestment campaigns play a critical role in the struggle for climate justice, they can also be the testing ground for budding student organizers to figure out what it means to run strategic, successful, and escalating campaigns. Students have a home court advantage: within a very short time, they get to know their universities inside and out, developing a kind of understanding community organizers work for years to attain. Universities come with a built-in set of shared experiences, resources, and media attention. While organizing on college campuses has its limitations, everything from power-mapping to the logistics of action planning becomes easier when organizers understand their own contexts.

In building a complex and organized resistance to the fossil fuel industry across different sectors of society, students working on fossil fuel divestment campaigns have a unique opportunity to cut their teeth as organizers by waging a global fight in their own backyards. Taking on an industry that lies so close to the lifeblood of our current economy, let alone stopping the climate crisis, is no small feat. To call for climate justice is to ask for nothing short of a paradigmatic shift in our relationships to land, labor, and one another. By bringing that considerable struggle closer to home, students can use their institutions to change the conversation on climate change and extraction, win significant victories against the fossil fuel industry, and leave college with movement-building lessons for the long haul.


Kate Aronoff is a student organizer with the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network and Swarthmore Mountain Justice, a board member of the Responsible Endowments Coalition, and a senior at Swarthmore College. Follow her on Twitter @KateAronoff.

Chloe Maxmin is a junior at Harvard College and a long-time activist. She is the founder of First Here, Then Everywhere and a co-founder of Divest Harvard. She has received national and international recognition for her activism.