At 11 pm on a cold Wednesday in February 2014, bleary-eyed Divest Harvard members gathered to discuss the campaign’s future. The group, which calls on Harvard to divest its 37.6 billion dollar endowment from fossil-fuel companies, was deeply torn. We had worked tirelessly for 18 months to build a campus movement, helping mobilize 72 percent of college students in support of divestment, organizing rallies, and hosting forums. Still, after multiple meetings with our administration, there was no progress toward divestment. Some in our group wanted to “shake,” continuing dialogue with the administration in the hope that our voices could spark its conscience. Others wanted to bypass Harvard to try to “make” a new reality. They argued for escalation—blockades, sit-ins, and increasing forms of civil disobedience. Shake or make? That was the question.
The future of the fossil-fuel divestment movement today mirrors the dilemmas that Divest Harvard faced that frigid night. The movement oscillates between two paths forward. “Shake” aims to reorient existing institutions towards a climate consciousness. “Make” tries to confront, transcend and transform existing systems on the premise that only new structures can save us.
The shakers and makers of fossil-fuel divestment define its future. How are these distinct strategies playing out? I talked with youth leaders across the divestment movement to find out.
Fossil-fuel divestment organizing earned the title “historic” within three years of its inception. The first campaigns bubbled up on a few campuses in 2010. Led initially by Swarthmore students, divestment stood in solidarity with those on the front lines of fossil-fuel extraction. In July 2012, Bill McKibben wrote a now-famous article in Rolling Stone that showcased fossil-fuel divestment as a primary strategy for confronting climate change. Three months later, 350.org staged the “Do the Math” tour. Almost immediately, more than 100 campus campaigns emerged.
In October 2013, a report from Oxford University declared fossil-fuel divestment the fastest-growing divestment campaign in history. Now there are more than 400 campus and hundreds of off-campus campaigns. Over 500 institutions with more than $3.4 trillion in assets have divested. Hundreds of students have risked arrest. HSBC, the World Bank, and other major financial institutions have endorsed the economic rationale behind divestment. Even politicians—like Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley—now reject fossil-fuel money.
Fossil-fuel divestment has become one of the principal ways that youth engage with the climate movement. The movement aims to weaken the fossil-fuel sector’s influence in three ways: (1) pivot capital towards clean energy investments, (2) stigmatize the industry to create political support for climate action, and (3) ignite a massive social movement to fight the fossil-fuel industry. “It’s really mobilizing young people and making them feel like they do have a voice,” emphasizes Daphne Chang, a founding force behind Mt. Holyoke’s divestment campaign. The movement provides an inclusive platform for action.
Young people see another key goal of divestment: to hold institutions accountable in the age of climate crisis. Young Jong Cho, a campaigner for 350.org and 350 action says, “The divestment campaign and movement is more about highlighting the influence of the fossil-fuel industry on many of our institutions…[and] pushing our institutions to take a moral stance on climate change.” The climate crisis requires educational institutions to rethink how they operate and whether their practices threaten communities and jeopardize students’ futures.