Stanford and the Fossil Free campaign

Stanford University announced that it would work to divest holdings in coal companies from its investment portfolio.  It’s a relatively small blow to the coal industry, which is bracing for some bigger hits soon.  It’s also a big victory for the divestment campaign of the climate change movement in general, and, the awareness/action group founded by Bill McKibben.

Fossil Free coordinates numerous divestment campaigns across the United States, announcing that students are leading the way for the broader movement:

Students have always been key to movements of conscience, and this fight is no different.

Institutions of higher education are charged with preparing their students for lifetimes of work and service. But if those institutions are invested in fossil fuel companies, then students’ educations are being subsidized by investments that guarantee they won’t have much of a planet on which to make use of their degrees.

Colleges and universities rush to launch greening initiatives, sustainability offices, and environmental curricula, but it makes no sense to green the campus and not the portfolio. Fossil fuel divestment is a reasonable next step — and it’s the right thing to do.

The campaign offers an extremely smart strategy for the movement.  It’s less about putting financial pressure on the oil and gas industry to, uh, find something else to do, than about finding a way to engage young people.  Divestment is something to ask for, organize around, and use as a vehicle for public education.  Particularly for climate change, finding productive action and viable targets, is tricky and extremely important.  It also echoes campus-based efforts that were part of the successful anti-apartheid movement.  Campaigns, even unsuccessful ones, train and politicize activists and generate attention.  And sometimes generate victories, even partial ones.

Stanford is a big hit.  Even though its decision addresses only coal, it’s an extremely prestigious and visible institution–maybe the hardest to gain admittance to in the United States–and it’s a huge endowment.  Early adopters are likely to be moving much smaller chunks of money around and getting less attention.  (The first college to divest its fossil fule investments was Hampshire College, my alma mater, in Western Massachusetts in 2011, which adopted a much stricter investment screen than Stanford plans.  Hampshire was also the first to divest its holdings in companies that did business in South Africa–in 1977, years before any other institutions followed.  See the list of schools and communities committing to some kind of divestment here.)  Many schools and communities have thus far refused the appeals of their students.

Those who reject calls to divest will often note that Boards of Trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to their institutions, and are legally committed to generating the strongest financial returns they can.  This is part of the story about why Stanford is getting out of coal, but not oil or natural gas.    Stanford’s announcement comes just after President Obama emphasized the need for action in the wake of yet another study, this time from the White House, warning about the impact of carbon and climate change.  And just a few weeks before the Environmental Protection Agency will announce new greenhouse gas standards for power plants.  The power industry, and particularly coal manufacturers, expect this to be just awful for them.  (Opponents in Congress are going to be able to complain vigorously, but not much else.)  Divestment looks like good business for the endowment, just as staying in other fossil fuels still looks profitable.

So, what Fossil Free did was help Stanford get good press for something trustees might want to do for completely different reasons.  Successful movements focus on changing conduct as a way to change attitudes; you don’t need to get targets to agree in order to get them to comply.  And, like the predatory lion looking for the zebra with a limp, campaigns do best by knocking off the weaker targets.

Fossil Free activists at Stanford and everywhere are savvy enough, no doubt, to claim the victory, while simultaneously demanding much much more.


About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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