I admit to being relatively ignorant about the fossil fuel divestment campaign until several months ago, when some of my peers at Northwestern University proposed a resolution establishing Northwestern as a leader in environmental sustainability, a move that pissed off our president and even inspired its own hashtag, #divestNU. For a while after that, I was excited to see college students rallying around something larger than a 40-second keg stand (admittedly impressive). Hey -- at least we know what a smart investment in the future looks like, even if we can't always make one ourselves. But then I educated myself further and I got angry. Here’s why.
Basically, a divestment movement involves students asking their universities to stop investing money in institutions still directly or indirectly supporting archaic, damaging traditions, the theory being that moral pressure from concerned shareholders, as well as financial pressure from the threat of losing major investors, can force change. In the 1980s, the divestment movement targeted companies based in or doing business with apartheid-era South Africa (movement leaders point to the University of California’s $3 billion withdrawal of investments from the country as key to helping end apartheid rule there). Today, the movement takes aim at a few gassy, bloated Fortune 500 companies. If all of humanity were a gas addict named Joe, Fossil Fuel Inc. is the guy keeping his lips on the pipe, and Joe is paying Fossil Fuel Inc. for that service. So we undergrads are intervening to reroute the cash flow away from Fossil Fuel Inc. and toward someone who can help Joe imagine a future beyond the next fix.
Though I love this idea in theory, I'm frustrated with how it's playing out in practice. Despite students at 308 college campuses clamoring for divestment, only six schools have agreed to withdraw their investments from harmful energy companies in full -- and not one of those has an endowment over $1 billion.