Opponents of the divestment movement often say that the focus of any attempted change should be the consumer. I agree that it’s important to conserve energy and reduce wastefulness in our own lives; doing so is part of living coherently and aligning our actions with our values in as many ways as possible. But let’s not confuse that with having a real impact. If I reduce my carbon footprint to zero, or even if Williams College reduces its carbon footprint to zero, or even if all of New England reduces its carbon footprint to zero, we will still be facing catastrophic global climate crisis. Blaming consumers – blaming ourselves, really – paralyzes political action and demands for change at the level of national policy. It undermines our ability to leverage the power we do have to push for changes in national policy, changes that can have a real impact.
People often ask, “Isn’t it hypocritical for me to demand that my institution divest from fossil fuels when I use them every day?” To ask this question misses the point that we ultimately don’t have the choice to avoid oil, gas and coal in a world where the fossil fuel industry writes the rules. We don’t wake up in the morning and decide to use fossil fuels. Consider car culture in Los Angeles: the locals are notorious as some of the biggest gas guzzlers in America. Why is this? It’s because in the 1930s and ’40s, the oil industry lobbied to systematically rip up every streetcar line in the city (and in cities across America), rendering cars the only available form of transportation. No single consumer can fight that kind of power, which is why a social movement like divestment is necessary.
It has been argued that divestment neglects to address the underlying issue: the market’s failure to properly price carbon emissions. It is true that the problem of carbon emissions requires a national solution. What divestment opponents fail to understand is that the primary goal of divestment is to foster a political environment in which a carbon tax might actually be achievable. Our current system is one of immense corporate influence on national and international climate policies, of politicians who are unwilling to propose significant change for fear it will damage their careers and of little public pressure demanding that politicians gather the courage to enact meaningful policies. Fossil fuel companies spend tens of millions of dollars sowing misinformation every year and hundreds of millions buying the silence of our politicians. Their “return on investment” for spending on political campaigns is 590 percent. For every dollar the industry spends on campaign contributions and lobbying in DC, it gets back $59 in subsidies. Each time the Obama administration has submitted a budget, it has included eliminating $4 billion in annual subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. These proposals have never passed through Congress. We don’t have a democracy, or even a free market, when the Koch brothers are planning to spend $900 million in the 2016 election cycle to support their interests. Fossil fuel companies do provide a service to society. However, dirty energy companies have spent billions ensuring our dependency – this means they are actively working to shut down any efforts to provide the same services through less damaging means.
Facing such a flawed system in which so much power is concentrated in the hands of so few, an oft-heard proposal is that one simply write to his or her congressperson. To me, this suggestion demonstrates a deluded understanding of what real change-making looks like. We need to move away from self-blame, isolated action and complicity in a system that robs us of power, yet many are reluctant to think outside of our current system and therefore find themselves utterly unable to understand the power of social movements.
A “solution” I’ve heard proposed is that we raise funds to lobby Congress. However, fighting Big Oil with money is hopeless – we would never have enough of it. The power of our movement is people power, and divestment is a way to build and to demonstrate that power. We need to fight for a system that values people over profits, one in which money cannot ever guarantee political power. This is what divestment is all about: it is a protest of the way our democracy has been bought out from under us, a protest of the iron grip that the fossil fuel industry has on our entire political, economic and social system. It is only through united action that we can build the world we imagine and challenge the systems of power and oppression that protect the status quo and prevent meaningful change.
Finally, divestment is what is happening now. To pursue another strategy (such as lobbying for a carbon tax) would be far less effective at influencing national policy because we would be acting alone. It is imperative that we get on board with the most relevant movement that exists right now. Twenty-two colleges and universities have divested, either from coal or from all fossil fuels, and campaigns are mounting on hundreds more campuses and in many towns and cities. Momentum continues to build both globally and right here on campus. We’re not going anywhere.
Sarah Vukelich ’16 is a political science major from La Mesa, Calif. She lives in Morgan.