17 Fossil Fuel Divestment, Non-reformist Reforms, and Anti-capitalist Strategy
Emilia Belliveau, James K. Rowe, and Jessica Dempsey
In the spring of 2013, students from the University of Victoria approached two of us (Rowe and Dempsey) to ask whether we would be willing to organize fellow faculty in favour of fossil fuel divestment. We were wary of the campaign. Both of us had done critical research on market-based sustainability strategies (Collard, Dempsey, and Rowe 2016; Dempsey 2016; Rowe 2005). And, at first glance, divestment appeared to be a market mechanism relatively narrow in scope, encouraging large investors simply to withdraw their assets from one industry and invest them in some other, hopefully more sustainable, enterprise. Assets are moved around, but the endless and ecologically harmful compound growth that results from capitalist patterns of production and consumption is largely left unchallenged. Because fossil fuel divestment appears to be a “green capitalist” reform with limited potential for system transformation, it has been met with both skepticism and outright dismissal by eco-socialists. Writing about the “fossil fuels war,” John Bellamy Foster (2013) communicates an openness to the tactic of divestment but raises important questions about the climate movement’s trajectory, asking, “Will the current struggle metamorphose into the necessary full-scale revolt against capitalist environmental destruction? Or will it be confined to very limited, short-term gains of the kind compatible with the system? Will the movement radicalize, leading to the full mobilization of its popular base? Or will the more elite-technocratic and pro-capitalist elements within the movement leadership in the United States ultimately determine its direction, betraying the grassroots resistance?” As yet, the answers to Foster’s questions remain unwritten. The ideological direction of fossil fuel divestment is still up for grabs.
Despite the open-endedness of divestment’s political trajectory, other eco-socialists, such as economic historian Richard Smith, have been sharply critical. For Smith, the divestment movement has thus far failed to seriously reduce emissions and should therefore be abandoned. In an online public debate on the strategic value of divestment, hosted on the climate movement website System Change, Not Climate Change, Smith argues that, “given the failure to date of all ‘green’ capitalist efforts to suppress fossil fuel emissions—cap & trade, carbon taxes, and fossil fuel divestment, the time has come (actually it’s long overdue) for the environmental movement to call for directly suppressing fossil fuel production/consumption.”1 In his view, this suppression can best be achieved by state action.
The highest-profile eco-socialist critic of divestment has been Christian Parenti. He has questioned the tactic’s effectiveness in the Huffington Post (2012), the New York Times (2013), and The Nation (Nathanson 2013), as well as on the radio programs Democracy Now (Goodman 2013) and Against the Grain. Among other things, Parenti sees divestment as a market-based strategy that unwittingly plays into neoliberalism’s suspicion of the state. According to Parenti (2012), “regulation is the only thing that will actually check the industries—oil, gas, coal—that are destroying the planet.” Deploying tactics that fail to centre the state is therefore foolish, he argues, because only states have sufficient powers of enforcement to ensure that emissions are kept in check. For him, as for Smith, divestment is an ineffective strategy with minimal system-transforming potential.
We (Rowe and Dempsey) had similar concerns when our students invited us to become involved in the campaign. We teach about the challenges of “market environmentalism,” but we also emphasize to students the central role of social movements in achieving more socially and ecologically just societies. The fledgling divestment movement had captured our students’ attention, and we wanted to support them. Despite our reservations, we were also aware that a tendency toward political perfectionism can be counterproductive, given the fundamental messiness and unpredictability of the political terrain. In the face of this instability, waiting for the ideal tactic, campaign, organization, or movement that perfectly reflects one’s principles can result in inaction, disconnection, and even resentment. Maybe the divestment movement had possibilities that were not evident to us from the standpoint of outsiders. So we decided to get into the mix and find out.
Upon joining the campaign in 2013, we were heartened to discover that a great number of the student organizers we encountered were similarly interested in system transformation and saw divestment as one pathway in that direction. In 2014, we started working with one such organizer, our co-author Emilia Belliveau. She had recently graduated from Dalhousie University, where she was active with their divestment campaign, and had moved from Nova Scotia to British Columbia to begin a master’s degree at the University of Victoria. All three of us were intrigued by how the divestment movement appeared to aim merely at reforming the existing capitalist system and yet magnetized organizers who had more transformational agendas. We set out to explore this tension within the movement itself, to examine divestment as a site of both system modification and system transformation. Was our initial impression about the pervasiveness of anti-capitalist perspectives among student organizers in Canada accurate? Did more transformative potential exist in the tactic of fossil fuel divestment than was immediately apparent? Or, as Foster (2013) wondered, would the “more elite-technocratic and pro-capitalist elements” within the movement ultimately prevail?
To answer our research questions, we pursued interviews with student divestment organizers at three Canadian universities: the University of British Columbia (UBC), the University of Toronto (U of T), and Dalhousie University (Dal), located in western, central, and eastern Canada, respectively. Our goal was to capture multiple perspectives within a shared campaign experience, as well as an overarching picture of the national divestment movement. All three universities had well-established divestment campaigns, and the organizers of these campaigns represent some of the early leaders in the Canadian divestment movement. The three campaigns face different institutional challenges, and their organizational structure varies. All campaigns must contend with high-pressure strategy discussions, however, as well as with internal group dynamics and varying priorities around issues of solidarity and escalation. At the time of our interviews, all three university administrations had rejected divestment proposals. This has since changed. UBC has signalled that it will fully divest from fossil fuel divestment in the near future (UBC 2020).
Interviews were conducted (by Belliveau) with five leaders from each campaign. We supplemented these interviews with perspectives offered by national divestment coordinators from the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition and 350.org Canada, along with additional reflections from divestment organizers at Mount Allison University, McGill University, the University of Victoria, and the University of Winnipeg. Expanding our sample beyond the three major university campaigns helped us to identify nationally relevant themes.
Writing about divestment, Naomi Klein (2015, 354) observes that “no tactic in the climate wars has resonated so powerfully.” As organizers graduate from university and hence leave their respective divestment campaigns behind, their analytical and ideological perspectives point to potential trends in the next generation of environmental leaders in Canada. Campus divestment campaigns are thus a helpful site at which to learn where environmentalism may be heading. Earlier environmental movements have, in particular, been criticized for failing to target the systemic drivers of ecological decline and pursue a more transformative agenda (Dale, Mathai, and Oliveira 2016; Magdoff and Foster 2011). The question is whether the upcoming generation of organizers is prepared to engage with these critiques, act in accordance with them, and mobilize alternatives.
André Gorz and Non-reformist Reforms
The divestment movement is premised on the theory that if enough reputable institutions divest from fossil fuel companies, the industry will lose its credibility, making it harder for companies to use their economic muscle to obstruct climate legislation. The industry has an unenviable record of stalling climate action by funding climate denialism and lobbying against needed legislation (Daub and Yunker 2017; Oreskes and Conway 2011). According to movement leaders such as Bill McKibben, the fossil fuel industry’s obstructionism is the primary reason for the political deadlock on climate action. As McKibben (2012) wrote in his now famous essay in Rolling Stone, “We have met the enemy and they is Shell.”
McKibben’s analysis helped to kick-start the fossil fuel divestment movement, which has since grown rapidly, faster than earlier movements to discourage investments in the tobacco industry and in the South African economy (see Ansar, Caldecott, and Tilbury 2013, 49–50). At the time we write, roughly 1,180 institutions with assets worth more than $14 trillion have divested from fossil fuel companies. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund has fully divested, as have a number of major world cities (including San Francisco, Stockholm, Sydney, and Montréal) and numerous universities; in late 2019, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global—which manages assets valued at roughly $1.1 trillion—announced a partial divestment from oil and gas exploration.2 In Canada, the divestment movement has garnered extensive support from faith-based organizations, but universities have been slower to respond. In Québec, Concordia University and Université du Québec à Montréal have fully divested. In November 2019, the University of British Columbia board of governors voted for a partial divestment (CBC 2019) and have since signalled plans for full divestment (Vice-President Finance and Operations, UBC 2020). Despite considerable uptake, however, the question remains whether the fossil fuel divestment movement holds the potential for systemic change.
Articulating the relationship between reforms and the ultimate goal of revolution, that is, the overthrow of the capitalist system, has been a long-standing challenge for socialist theories of transition. In 1964, in Stratégie ouvrière et néocapitalisme (translated in 1967 as Strategy for Labor), New Left theorist André Gorz introduced the concept of “non-reformist reforms” to help fellow anti-capitalists think through the process of transition. In so doing, Gorz was following in the footsteps of his socialist predecessors, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, who also took up the question of how interim reforms can best serve longer-term revolutionary goals. What sets Gorz’s work apart is that the historical circumstances of his writing are closer to our own than those of earlier socialist thinkers.
As Gorz notes near the outset of Strategy for Labor, the objective need for revolution is less obvious today than it was in previous generations. “As long as misery, the lack of basic necessities, was the condition of the majority,” he writes, “the need for a revolution could be regarded as obvious.” He continues, “But conditions have changed since then. Nowadays, in the richer societies, it is not so clear that the status quo represents the greatest possible evil” (1967, 3). With the insurrectionary path to revolution blocked by both the coercive force of the modern state and late capitalism’s relative popularity, socialists needed a path to revolution that began from within the capitalist order. Hence the strategic importance of non-reformist reforms—reforms that, rather than serving to maintain the system, create the conditions for deeper transformations.
What exactly distinguishes non-reformist reforms from ordinary reforms, or what Gorz sometimes calls “neo-capitalist reforms”? As Gorz himself acknowledges, the dividing line between the two is “not always very clear” (1967, 7), noting elsewhere that many non-reformist reforms will not “reveal their anti-capitalist logic directly” (1968, 118). Just because a tactic has (or seems to have) neoliberal or green capitalist features or adherents (as is the case for divestment), that does not immediately disqualify it from socialist consideration. It is worth quoting Gorz at length in this regard:
The error is to postulate that any struggle must now be entered into only with a clearly stated socialist intention and for aims which imply the destruction of the system…. For in reality, the socialist intention of the masses never emerges ex nihilo, nor is it formed by political propaganda or scientific proof. A socialist intention is constructed in and through the struggle for plausible objectives corresponding to the experience, needs, and aspirations of the workers. (1968, 121–22)
Although the people with whom we engaged in the course of our research identified more as students than as workers, Gorz’s point about how reform struggles can grow socialist consciousness is applicable to multiple sites of struggle, including the university.
For Gorz, non-reformist reforms have three features that distinguish them from neo-capitalist reforms. First, non-reformist reforms should disrupt the capitalist status quo in ways that can work to the benefit of socialist forces. As Gorz (1968, 119) observes, “A socialist strategy of reforms must aim at disturbing the balance of the system, and profit by this disturbance to prepare the (revolutionary) process of the transition to socialism.” Second, socialist reforms should prefigure the new system by building popular power in the process of fighting for the reform. According to Gorz (1967, 8), “Whether it be at the level of companies, schools, municipalities, regions, or of the national Plan, etc., structural reform always requires decentralization of the decision-making power, a restriction on the powers of State or Capital, an extension of popular power, that is to say, a victory of democracy over the dictatorship of profit.” This criterion includes the importance of self-transformation through participation in collective struggle, a participation that develops political and organizing abilities while also instilling a belief in the possibility of systemic change—counteracting what Dieter Klein called the “TINA” (“there is no alternative”) syndrome with “TAMARA” (“there are many and realistic alternatives”) (quoted in Brie 2010, 3). Finally, the reform cannot be the end goal in itself but instead needs to be part of a larger transformative plan. Non-reformist reforms need to be deployed as “dynamic phases in a process of struggle, not as resting stages” (Gorz 1968, 118).
As Gorz recognizes, drawing distinctions between reformist and non-reformist reforms is challenging given the contingencies of the political terrain. Under the right conditions, a seemingly system-maintaining reform could develop radical potential. Our own research suggests that fossil fuel divestment is a site where critiques of the dominant liberal society, including capitalism and white supremacy, are being worked on and out. We locate three transformative potentials in the movement that align with Gorz’s criteria for non-reformist reforms. With regard to Gorz’s first criterion, the movement sparks an awareness of how far the fossil fuel industry has captured public institutions, including universities. Given the fossil fuel industry’s integral position in global capitalism, divestment’s efforts to undermine its power has the potential to disturb the balance of the system. Second, the movement challenges individualistic approaches to social change (change a light bulb, plant a tree) that are all too common in mainstream environmentalism and builds concrete, transferable skills in collective organizing, with an explicit focus on anti-oppressive approaches—a shift that aligns with Gorz’s emphasis on the building of popular power in the course of struggle. Finally, by providing an educational space where people (often students) are introduced to and engage in anti-capitalist and anti-colonial analysis, the movement’s reach extends beyond the immediate goal of divestment, becoming part of a broader process of struggle.
Despite eco-socialist criticisms, then, we would argue that divestment is part of a wider shift in environmentalism toward a more transformative political orientation. The divestment movement underscores the importance of collective challenge, in this case to the concentrated economic power of an industry central to the contemporary capitalist economy. As we will see, many of its participants hold anti-capitalist values that predispose them to move beyond the targeting of one industry and to challenge the coercive effects of concentrated economic power more generally. None of the organizers we interviewed saw divestment as a “resting stage,” to use Gorz’s expression. Rather, they were more apt to stress the need for transformative change.
Anti-capitalism in the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement
Although we did not attempt to survey the entire divestment movement, our research suggests that anti-capitalism is widespread among Canadian student organizers. We asked participants whether their campaigns incorporate critiques of capitalism. In almost every case, organizers used the question as a springboard to comment on the ideological orientation of their campaign and to offer their personal perspective on capitalism. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of those we interviewed thought that critiques of capitalism were ideologically important to their campaigns. The same percentage of participants—although not an identical group of people—articulated anti-capitalist views of their own. Their primary grievances included the system’s drive for infinite growth on a finite planet, as well as the ecological and social exploitation that results, and the system’s tendency to promote individual and consumerist solutions to structural problems. As Joanna, from the Dal campaign, commented,
Capitalism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and many other -isms are causes of climate change. Our economic system that exploits people and our planet is not working. Or it’s doing exactly what it is programmed to do, but that is not [to] look out for the people or the land that we all live on. I think the idea and the understanding that capitalism is at the heart of this is quite prominent. That idea is quite prominent within our group.
Even those participants whose own views were not anti-capitalist recognized the influence of anti-capitalist politics in the wider movement. For example, an organizer from U of T reflected, “It’s been very interesting that the movement has accrued so many anti-capitalist members, because it is a movement that is inherently about shifting where institutions hold their equities, using the stock market to try and influence public opinion on climate change, which is the epitome of capitalist tools.”
The organizers with whom we spoke, whether invested in system reform or focused more on system transformation, did not conceive of divestment as an inherently anti-capitalist tactic. Although the tactic can resonate with a green capitalist approach to climate action, none of the Canadian campaigns we engaged saw their work as part of a system-maintaining project. According to Divest Dal organizer Simon,
We could just do this as a “green capitalism” thing, whereby we’re going to save the university some money, we’re going to avoid the carbon bubble, and our stock portfolio is going to be healthier. But I’ve never met a divestment organizer who thinks that way…. Certainly no one in Divest Dal has really focused on that. It’s always been seen as a cog in the long-term promotion of climate justice.
Most organizers located their work under the banner of “climate justice.” And, indeed, it is this climate justice approach that informs the anti-capitalist politics of many divestment campaigners.
The term climate justice became popular in international climate politics around the turn of this century, particularly as a way to conceive of differential national responsibility based on historical emissions (Schlosberg and Collins 2014). The climate justice politics that have since emerged foreground the intersectional impacts of climate change, particularly the ways in which race, class, gender, and nationality interact to determine which individuals suffer most from these impacts. Climate justice perspectives also emphasize how the injustices of climate change are connected to broader systems of colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and neoliberal capitalism (Bond 2012; Mohai, Pellow, and Roberts 2009; Schlosberg and Collins 2014). By implicating structural inequality in the problem of climate change, the concept of climate justice implies the need for transformative system change (Satgar 2018). Much as we did, researchers have found climate justice perspectives to be predominant among divestment organizers on US campuses (Bratman et al. 2016; Grady-Benson and Sarathy 2015). Working under the banner of climate justice does not immediately make an organizer anti-capitalist, but it does situate them within the milieu of a movement that prioritizes system transformation, even if the precise shape of that transformation remains somewhat indefinite. The anti-capitalist perspectives that organizers communicated to us did not regularly cohere into a firm political identity such as “Marxist” or “socialist.” And yet deep frustration with capitalism’s systemic effects, such as climate change and the uneven distribution of its dangers, was common ground for a majority of the organizers with whom we spoke.
Critical analysis being developed in the movement is consistent with key themes in anti-capitalist scholarship, and yet divestment organizers are articulating their critiques of capitalism without identifying with traditional anti-capitalist theorists. For example, no one we interviewed referenced Marx. When asked about what resources they use to develop their critical thinking around divestment and theories of change, the majority of participants did not mention academic texts but preferred resources developed from within the movement, such as organizer training guides and activist-produced materials, or online articles and think pieces. Organizers often indicated that their perspectives had evolved in casual social settings with other campaign members, through conversation and experiential learning.
Naomi Klein’s 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, was also mentioned regularly by organizers, and one referenced David Harvey’s 2005 work The New Imperialism. Although academic and canonical anti-capitalist theory has undoubtedly informed the thinking of movement organizers, it is not a primary resource, and the movement would undoubtedly benefit from more engagement with socialist and eco-socialist analysis—a point to which we will return. But while eco-socialist observers express skepticism about divestment, even viewing it as a neoliberal distraction, the gap between an apparently green capitalist tactic and the overtly anti-capitalist viewpoints of movement organizers seems to us worth exploring.3
Transformational Values and Reformist Messaging: Why the Gap?
Organizers at each of the case-study campaigns communicated concern that expressing an explicit anti-capitalist message would be a barrier for people who might otherwise support their efforts. Sydney, from the U of T, spoke directly to the limited scope for explicit anti-capitalist messages in the media: “In trying to get the media to pick up our stories, we frame it in a certain way. If we’re doing this big anti-capitalist critique, no one is going to pick up on it in the news.” As she went on to say, “I think our campaign purposefully framed it in a way that would get media attention—that would get us published in newspapers. In trying to make the movement accessible to lots of people, we purposefully do that.” Similarly, Stephanie, from UBC, talked about divestment as an approach that encourages investors to think about more than just profit, while not deterring people who have yet to confront capitalism’s systemic challenges. She noted that “divestment opens that conversation without immediately jumping to ‘Shut down capitalism!’”
A number of those we interviewed used the word “layered” to describe the various arguments in favour of divestment. Organizers reported how they strategically modify their arguments, according to the audience they are addressing, and suggested that the broad appeal of the movement is partly due to this ideological flexibility. This finding corresponds with the account offered by Rupinder Mangat, Simon Dalby, and Matthew Paterson (2018) of how divestment activists use a multitude of narratives in their public messaging, some focused on economics and others on justice and morality. In the strategic calculus of divestment organizers, blatant anti-capitalism does not always serve anti-capitalist goals. One UBC organizer, Julie, was ambivalent about the movement’s tendency to shy away from explicit anti-capitalist framing, while acknowledging the strategic value of the approach: “The less radical the solution is the more likely it is to be accepted—which isn’t necessarily helpful, because we need radical solutions. But it’s easier to have the conversations around small steps, rather than big transformational changes.”
There are signs that the ideological hegemony of capitalism is growing brittle. For example, a 2019 Pew poll found that 50 percent of adults under thirty—the same age group from which divestment organizers emerge—held positive views of socialism but that older adults are more likely to favour capitalism (Hartig 2019). Similarly, another poll, conducted in 2016, found 60 percent popular support for capitalism across all age groups but noted that millennials tend to be more critical than others (Steverman 2017). The widespread anti-capitalist sentiment we encountered in the divestment movement thus seems to align with “millennial” ideological preferences writ large. Given the system’s continued support from a solid majority, however, it makes sense to engage the public in such a way that capitalism’s proponents are not immediately repelled.
Integrating practical organizer knowledge and canonical socialist and social movement theory, John Matthew Smucker’s Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals (2017) offers useful insights into the asymmetry that can exist between internal movement values and public messaging. “Movements always have a propagandistic face—or at least they had better if they hope to mobilize people—so it is just silly for scholars or strategists to take movements’ self-presentations at face value,” he writes (129). Smucker’s book helpfully diagnoses and challenges the ideological purism and perfectionism common on the left, a purism that regularly gets in the way of reaching publics “beyond the choir” (25). For Smucker, building genuine hegemony means growing the ranks of the left. If stridently impugning capitalism were enough to achieve this goal, we would all be sipping socialist champagne right now. Instead, building hegemony requires a willingness to engage with those whose values differ from our own, using language that is inviting instead of overwhelming. “Organizing entails starting with what already is and engaging with people as they are,” writes Smucker, “not trying to build something pure from scratch…. Organizing is a mess, not a refuge” (161). He goes on to say, “It is not a matter of ‘compromising our politics.’ It’s about speaking in a language that people can hear” (226).
In Smucker’s analysis, the left’s tendency toward political perfectionism is partly a product of ongoing defeat. With so little experience with wielding real power, leftists can easily confuse righteous critique with political efficacy. Might may not make right, but neither does right amount to might. Yet, in the absence of access to political power, righteousness can seem like the next best thing. As Smucker argues, (2017, 142), “if a political goal is too big to believably accomplish anytime soon—e.g., ending capitalism—then winnable interim victories have to be articulated, if we don’t want our core dedicated folks to gravitate toward the self-righteous over the political.” Divestment organizers recognize this tension. As one participant wisely observed,
We’ve spent so much time as activists arguing with other activists, who on the scale of Canadian public opinion are such a small fraction of the population, that we have left behind the discussion of how do we actually sell these ideas to the other 95 percent of the population. And I think that the inclusion of climate justice and those ideas is important, is incredibly beneficial, but it’s not beneficial if it’s just us patting ourselves on the back and feeling good about having agreed on this—it needs to be about changing people’s minds outside of our movement who don’t currently agree with us.
The danger of co-optation exists in any movement, but one of our core claims is that, even with its more reform-oriented public messaging, divestment still builds important system-transforming potential for the left.
Divestment Campaigns and the Transformation of Political Consciousness
According to Gorz, non-reformist reforms should disrupt the capitalist status quo in ways that benefit socialist forces and broader system change. Given the fossil fuel industry’s integral position in global capitalism, divestment’s efforts to undermine its power have the potential to disturb the balance of the system. Our interviews reveal how the movement develops a critical assessment of the extent to which the fossil fuel industry has captured public institutions, including universities. Interviewees described how their campaigns had exposed the lack of democratic transparency and responsiveness in university decision-making processes and had demonstrated that administrative bodies are often more beholden to external donors than to university constituents. In July 2015, for example, members of Divest Dal began filing freedom of information requests to investigate Dalhousie’s relationship with major oil and gas companies. Their probe revealed that during the period when the administration was deciding on the motion to divest its endowment, it was also negotiating a new donor agreement with Shell Canada (Cousins 2015). A report in the National Observer the following spring revealed that Shell had donated $1.9 million to Dalhousie over the past decade and quoted the university’s dean of science as saying that he had been informed by a senior executive at Shell that the company was monitoring the divestment movement and “would look unfavorably on any university that divested” when it came to future donations (Mandel 2016).
Organizers reported that this experience alerted them to the power that corporations, and fossil fuel companies in particular, exert in the public realm. This knowledge heightened their commitment to divestment, but it also taught them how influence is wielded in the world beyond the university. As Stephen, a Divest Dal organizer who helped to file the freedom of information requests and launch the story about Dalhousie’s relationship with Shell, pointed out,
Many of the battles that we’re fighting in our communities, in our municipalities, in our provinces or states, and with our federal governments are pretty analogous to the fights we have with our universities’ administrations. So, when we find ourselves in the “real world” after our university experiences, we have a toolkit for how to work with one another.
Campaigns to change investment practices at public universities serve to illustrate the disproportionate influence of concentrated economic power at universities and in the broader society. Beyond that, however, such learning can transform the world views of campaign participants and deepen their understanding of why such power is arguably the biggest barrier to addressing both social injustices and the problem of climate change.
Gorz also argues that non-reformist reforms should prefigure the new system by building popular power in the process of fighting for the reform. Divestment challenges individualistic approaches to social change and builds concrete, transferable skills in collective organizing—thus aligning with Gorz’s emphasis on building popular power in the course of struggle. As Mangat, Dalby, and Paterson (2018, 190) point out, the discourse surrounding divestment contributes to “a distinct repoliticisation of climate change” through the emphasis it places on “questions of power, legitimacy and conflict, that is, properly political questions.” The connection they draw between divestment campaigns and a politicized perspective on environmentalism was borne out in our interviews. Organizers from several different campaigns discussed the role that the divestment movement plays in countering the tendency of mainstream environmentalism to promote individual actions as solutions to collective problems. As Sinead, from the U of T, argued,
One of the things neoliberal ideology has accomplished is individualizing climate change solutions to very consumer-based actions. And I think that’s made it very easy for people to feel complacent and feel like they’re doing their part. Like recognizing that climate change is bad but feeling like they’re doing their part by buying recycled clothing. So I think divestment makes it a collective response, and makes it so that institutions need to respond and do something, not just as individuals changing their lifestyle. I think that’s valuable.
Another organizer, Kate, from UBC, echoed this point, commenting that “the kind of environmental work that so many people are doing I find tends not to be subversive in that it encourages small-scale changes, like behavioural change and planting gardens and encouraging people to recycle, over the kind of systemic large-scale changes that we need to see if we are going to actually challenge climate change.” Similarly, Laura, from Divest Dal, shared her view that divestment “shifts the conversation away from just environmentalism, or more individual actions, to bigger issues and more system change.” Engaging in collective action that targets concentrations of economic power thus provokes a broader challenge to individualized and entrepreneurial approaches to addressing climate change and other environmental problems.
Given that the prominence of climate justice perspectives and anti-capitalist analysis in the divestment movement has attuned participants to the need for structural change, the movement has served as a training ground for more radical forms of critique. Gorz’s third defining feature of non-reformist reforms is that they need to lay the groundwork for deeper transformations in the future. The training in radical politics provided by the divestment movement matches this criteria. For U of T organizer Ben, divestment changed his politics. “My priorities are definitely more about challenging white supremacy and challenging capitalism and building across movements,” he said. “We need a cross-sectoral movement that uses a new economy approach. We have to be working with people who are affected by carding and police violence and linking that in a common fight to change the economy.” Like Ben, many student organizers talked about how participating in the divestment movement helped them to recognize and confront white, heteropatriarchal dominance in the environmental movement and how these struggles are integral to transforming capitalism. Kate summarized these intersections well. “Environmentalism tends to be a very exclusive and classed movement,” she noted, and then went on to say,
Climate justice has forced me to think about the privilege that I hold as an organizer, and the ways that I act out that privilege in the work that I do. And within the movement itself, it’s opened my eyes to the fact that we need to be better at standing in solidarity, at being allies to marginalized communities, and at breaking down the structures of colonialism, and patriarchy, and capitalism, that underlie climate change.
The movement provided a space in which students came to recognize their own positions of privilege and began to work on building inclusive and genuinely transformative movements.
Many of the students to whom we spoke specifically reflected on how the movement strengthens the ability of participants to engage in collective action. Joanna, for example, commented that “there’s a culture of training and mentoring—we don’t always do it well, but it’s definitely there.” She continued,
I look at the amount of campaigners and organizers that have come out of the Divest Dal group, and look at the cool, insane powerful things that people are doing, whether it’s here or across the country. And I think a lot of people, myself included, gained this power and understanding that we have the tools within us and the power to act. So I think Divest Dal, and divestment campaigns more widely, have done that better than any other thing I’ve seen in this place, in this city.
Her perspective affirms that the movement-building practices employed are integral to divestment’s political value. The sense of self-transformation and self-empowerment that organizers expressed resonates with an insight from Stuart Hall, who insists that we think more about the mobilization of popular forces. Hall (1987, 21) argues that “people become empowered by doing something: first of all about their immediate troubles; then, the power expands their political capacities and ambitions, so that they begin to think again about what it might be like to rule the world.” In this way, divestment is a kind of “entry project” (see Brie 2010) that provides space for self-transformation, where participants constantly refine their political values and organizing skills.
At least some of the many hundreds of young people engaged in divestment organizing across Canada, as well as the many thousands in the global movement, will bring the transformative world views developed in the campaign to other careers, political activity, volunteer work, or future organizing. Katie, who organizes in support of divestment at the national level, calls the movement a “gateway drug.” According to her, divestment organizing is the “first of many things that people will get involved with once they take that pill and their minds are open to the reality of what climate justice means.” The North American environmental movement appears poised to shift left, thanks to the influx of a new generation of organizers trained in the importance of challenging concentrations of power with collective action.
Fossil Fuel Divestment as a Non-reformist Reform?
We have been arguing that the fossil fuel divestment movement has considerable transformative potential. As we noted earlier, Gorz offers three principal criteria for distinguishing a non-reformist reform from a neo-capitalist one. The first is that a non-reformist reform should disturb “the balance of the system, and profit by this disturbance to prepare the (revolutionary) process of the transition to socialism” (Gorz 1968, 119). By helping to speed the transition away from fossil fuels—capitalism’s primary energy source—divestment could have greater impact than is first apparent. The growing body of literature on “fossil capitalism,” to which the present volume contributes, helps to clarify how integral fossil fuels are to capitalist production, exchange, and profit-making (Altvater 2007, 2016; Huber 2013; Malm 2016). While it is possible that alternative energies can meet these needs without requiring a fundamental transformation in capitalism itself (Jacobson and Delucchi 2009), the need to radically shift energy systems will necessarily disturb “the balance of the system.”
The divestment movement has not yet advocated for alternative forms of ownership with the same force with which it insists upon energy alternatives. The climate justice movement, including the campaign for divestment, needs to engage further with the ownership question. But we see the opposition to white supremacy and heteropatriarchy that exists within the divestment movement as equally important to ownership in the transition away from capitalism. As Sara Ahmed (2015) writes, “Capitalism is … identity politics,” in which “the few become the universe/universal,” a universal that is “handy” for accumulation because “it makes others into the hands, helping hands, those who have to help reproduce the very system that reproduces their own subordination, or risk becoming unhandy hands.” By this definition, identity politics—often maligned as divisive—is a necessary, but insufficient, aspect of anti-capitalism, just as, in our view, questions of ownership are necessary but, on their own, insufficient.
Gorz’s second criterion for non-reformist reforms is that they decentralize decision-making power away from economic elites. He encourages anti-capitalists to prefigure the socialist alternative by pursuing reforms that grow autonomous power for workers, students, and other popular constituencies. The campus-based divestment movement has helped students better to understand the elitist governance regimes that control endowment funds at public universities. Likewise, it has worked to highlight the limited say that public-sector workers have over the management of their own pension capital. And it continues to demand that investment capital be accountable to more than returns. Yet the movement has yet to take the next step and systematically advocate for greater student control over endowments and greater worker control over specific pension-fund investments. Again, such developments remain possible, however, especially if more voices internal to the movement are advocating for it.
Finally, the movement satisfies Gorz’s third criterion by having ambitions beyond divestment itself: non-reformist reforms need to be undertaken as “dynamic phases in a process of struggle, not as resting stages” (Gorz 1968, 118). According to Simon, from Divest Dal,
There are lots of people in divestment campaigns that are critical of capitalism, myself included, and that’s embraced…. It’s a motivating factor, but no one thinks that “once we divest, we’ll have really stuck it to capitalism.” But, in the same breath, once we divest we won’t have stuck it to colonialism, we won’t have stuck it to oppression: we will have done something good in a way that has been good.
Divestment here is seen as a step on a path toward more systemic change. For Gorz, it is also important that movements use reform struggles to build momentum toward socialist transformation. Not all divestment organizers, even the anti-capitalists, identify as socialists. And yet there was an overriding sense among the majority of those we interviewed that capitalism needs to be fundamentally reworked and that divestment is only one small step in that direction.
Gorz emphasizes the processual nature of political struggle. While he does offer criteria for recognizing non-reformist reforms—criteria that the divestment movement partially meets at present—he acknowledges that distinguishing between neo-capitalist and non-reformist reforms is difficult and that what might appear merely reformist at one point could, under the right conditions, develop radical potential. His emphasis on struggle as an evolving process raises an age-old question that we on the left must constantly ask: “What is to be done?” That is, how do we get from where we are today to where we want to be? The divestment movement is one site where answers are being worked out. Participants are coming to understand the toxic effects of concentrated economic power and how, in a regime of obstruction, this power is wielded so as to block both university divestment decisions and climate legislation. Our research also suggests that the movement is honing the collective-organizing skills that participants need to confront concentrated power, while at the same time deepening their conviction that transformative social and political change is truly possible. As socialist thinkers such as Gorz, Hall, and Smucker remind us, the social forces necessary to confront entrenched power structures do not emerge overnight. And such social forces also do not easily dislodge the centuries of heteropatriarchal and racist social relations that still permeate society, including progressive movements. Determining what should be done requires diligent, thoughtful effort.
As our research revealed, while divestment organizers clearly saw a need for systemic changes to capitalist social relations, they also understood the pragmatic need for strategic manoeuvring, recognizing that one does not move from here to there overnight. Aiming to reach a broad audience, the divestment movement strategically toggles between financial and ethical arguments. This tightrope act is dangerous. Yet the risk of co-optation—of the liberal and possibly even neoliberal absorption of environmentalist-leftist tactics and demands—is ever present, especially if one is attempting to reach beyond the choir. All we can do is remain alert to where and when a strategy is being deflected or, alternatively, making real gains. In the present case, if the financial argument for divestment does achieve broad acceptance, becoming “mainstream,” then this is not a sign of failure but rather a signal that the movement has served its purpose: it would mean that fossil fuels are now regarded as a bad investment, which would in turn mean that the energy transition has advanced considerably. It would also signal that the climate justice movement needs to find a new strategic target, a new approach. Sadly, we are not there yet. Still, it is worth reminding ourselves that divestment will not be a suitable tactic forever and that we should think about where the campus-based climate justice movement could go next.
This means thinking harder about where we want to end up. That is, what is the longer-term goal? While many student organizers were strongly critical of capitalism, their vision of what they hoped for remained blurry: they had not worked out what this anti-capitalist future might look like in terms of concrete social relations, including the shape and role of the state. Greater engagement with anti-colonial, socialist, and eco-socialist thinkers could help organizers to move beyond the ecological boundaries of climate change and to formulate demands grounded in more than just the need to remain under the 1.5°C limit. In the meantime, we see two promising directions for divestment campaigns, directions that reinforce the shift toward system transformation.
One lies in deepening existing solidarities with Indigenous resurgence movements that have been at the forefront of efforts to block new fossil fuel infrastructure in Canada, such as the Northern Gateway, Energy East, Trans Mountain, and Coastal GasLink pipelines. After the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline was broken up by US authorities in 2017, Indigenous activists opened up a divestment front, encouraging people to remove their holdings from banks invested in the pipeline. This campaign is part of Mazaska Talks, a broader Indigenous effort to divest from banks financing pipeline proposals on Turtle Island.4 In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, universities in Canada are presently striving to “Indigenize” their curricula and operations. Now is an opportune time for divestment organizers to broadcast the mismatch between these actions and university investments that finance neo-colonial incursions onto Indigenous lands (Rowe et al. 2019).
The second promising direction is the Green New Deal that was launched into mainstream political discourse in the United States in mid-November 2018, when youth activists from the Sunrise Movement held a sit-in in the office of Democratic Party leader Nancy Pelosi, in hopes of spurring immediate and definitive action on climate change. Their sit-in was joined by democratic socialist and newly elected congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Three months later, Ocasio-Cortez, alongside Democratic Senator Ed Markey, tabled the Green New Deal Resolution in Congress, which drew on the vision advanced by the Sunrise Movement (Friedman 2019). The Sunrise activists describe the Green New Deal as a plan “to mobilize every aspect of American society to 100% clean and renewable energy” and to “guarantee living-wage jobs for anyone who needs one,” as well as to build “a just transition for both workers and frontline communities—all in the next 10 years.”5 The resolution itself calls on the US government to transform the American economy and society through a massive ten-year government effort “to get to net-zero GHG emissions through a fair and just transition for communities and workers” and “to create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure security and economic prosperity for all people of the United States.”6
In addition to disincentives such as a robust carbon tax, realizing such goals will require extensive public investments in infrastructure upgrades, public transportation, and clean energy development. Policies and programs designed to support the shift to clean energy would open up new opportunities for investors (including those responsible for managing university endowments, public-sector pension funds, and sovereign wealth funds). The divestment movement will be better positioned to make common cause with the labour movement if it is helping to articulate a concrete vision for a just transition, one that includes good jobs and secure retirement savings (see Brown et al. 2019).
One of the founders of the Sunrise Movement, Varshini Prakash, came out of the fossil fuel divestment movement at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (Klein 2019). Indeed, many of the organizers working toward a Green New Deal in Canada and the United States gained invaluable political experience through their work with divestment campaigns (Adler-Bell 2019). Beyond serving as training grounds, divestment campaigns can link their existing calls for private reinvestment in clean energy to the priorities of the Green New Deal, such as massive public investments that transform the energy system while also addressing poverty and unemployment. Both private and public capital need to be radically reallocated if we hope to tackle the climate challenge successfully. The divestment movement is ideally positioned to articulate how new private investment opportunities for endowment funds and pension funds can be opened up by new public spending under the auspices of a Green New Deal (Parenti 2019).
The assumption underlying the divestment movement is that if enough institutions of record—universities, churches, charitable trusts—withdraw their financial support for fossil fuels, this will reduce the social power of the industry and create space for the transformative system change needed to avoid climate catastrophe. The fact that the bold vision for a Green New Deal has quickly gained popular appeal suggests that the divestment movement has already changed the conversation around climate change. The fact remains, however, that the concentrated power of the fossil fuel industry is the single greatest impediment to achieving a just transition such as that envisioned by the Green New Deal. Continuing to push for divestment not only on university campuses but also with pension funds and other institutional investors thus remains a crucial front in collective bids for system change.
- 1. Post by Richard Smith, January 22, 2018, “Discussion on Divestment,” System Change Not Climate Change (SCNCC) Community Forum, https://scncc.net/threads/discussion-on-divestment.260/.
- 2. “1000+ Divestment Commitments,” Go Fossil Free, n.d., accessed March 10, 2020, https://gofossilfree.org/divestment/commitments/#.
- 3. For example, in 2017, Leigh Phillips, a socialist author who has written for the Guardian and Jacobin, visited Divest UVic’s Facebook page in 2017. “Divestment campaigns,” she wrote, “are neoliberal distractions at best: ‘Don’t invest in these corporations, invest in these other corporations instead!’” For Phillips, fighting for divestment “is a total waste of time.”
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