A new movement to convince colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel companies that own the majority of global carbon reserves has taken off across the nation. The inspiration for this wave of activism originated in a Rolling Stone article by Bill McKibben last summer. Coordinated by 350.org, divestment is spreading like wildfire. With cities, religious groups, individuals, and 210 campuses already involved, divestment has brought climate change to the forefront of local and national dialogues.
I became an environmental activist at the age of twelve, and my commitment has never wavered. Still, I have been frustrated by fragmentation and insularity within the environmental movement. Now as a student leader of Divest Harvard, I have seen how divestment is engaging more students than any similar campaign in the past twenty years. Why is it so successful?
Today, people live in a cloud of mistrust. Only 6 percent of Americans claim much confidence in Congress, 7 percent in Wall Street, 13 percent in big companies, and 19 percent in the White House. Individuals withdraw into personal social networks and communities to shield themselves from institutions of which they’ve grown skeptical. Past environmental campaigns focused mostly on changes that target those very institutions in which people have lost faith. They were exhorted to pressure politicians to “vote climate” or to use their consumer power to curb large corporations like Exxon. Such campaigns required persuading people to set aside their mistrust. It was always an uphill road.
Divestment has opened up the climate movement to many new participants because it has found a way to bypass mistrust and hopelessness while forging a more inviting road to optimism and concrete action.
The divestment movement effectively creates a sense of “us” by welcoming everyone: the only qualification needed is to be a member of the planet. This new vision unites self-interest and collective interest: each person’s fate is tied to the fate of all. Everyone must come together and make the same demands. Divestment builds on this awareness and provides a platform for social cohesion as global warming’s effects—droughts, floods, wildfires, hurricanes—threaten lives and property.
The divestment movement has not only helped more people understand that they’re all in the same boat, it has also highlighted the naked facts about the fossil fuel industry. The divestment movement illuminates the fossil fuel industry’s deeply anti-social practices as the basis upon which its current wealth is founded. The industry insists on prioritizing private profit above human survival. Everyone is in the same boat, but the fossil fuel industry is on course to sink us all. That makes it “us” against “them” in this fight.