Divesting for Change:
From Apartheid to the Climate Crisis

As a fossil fuel divestment activist at Vanderbilt University, I come from a long generation of divestment advocates before me. For instance, fossil fuel divestiture has clear parallels to the anti-apartheid divestment movement of the 1980s, which, like fossil fuel divestiture, had “a well-defined, immediate objective” that targeted higher education institutions. Apartheid divestiture was an integral component of toppling the oppressive South African governmental regime and, other than fossil fuels, is the best-known divestment movement. However, there have been multiple waves of divestment protests that took on a myriad of issues. In the 1990’s students urged their higher education institutions to divest from the tobacco industry because of smoking’s harmful health effects. More broadly, there are divestment campaigns associated with specific countries involved in genocide, weapons manufacturing, private prisons, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Although fossil-fuel campaigns are similar to other divestment campaigns, there are also significant differences – advocates of divestment demand the reduction of investments in a massive and influential industry whose existence seemingly underpins a large portion of the global economy. That’s why the implications of divestment from fossil fuels seems more complicated than other previous campaigns and is best compared to tobacco divestment since it is “the companies’ fundamental business, rather than their particular decisions” that predicate why activists are urging divestment.

This is not the only difference since fossil fuel divestment can be driven by both ethical and financial reasons. The financial justification argues that fossil fuel divestment may lead to better economic outcomes for investors, an argument not prevalent in any past divestment movement. This has allowed today’s activists to be more creative in their appeals to administrations and student bodies. At my university, students are already in agreement with the moral aspect of fossil fuel divestment, but the administration is primarily concerned about financial implications. That’s why students from across different majors and colleges are working together to persuade Vanderbilt and other universities that divestment from fossil fuels provides both moral and financial benefits.

Recently, BlackRock, an American multinational investment management corporation based in New York City found that portfolios that had divested from fossil fuels “experienced no negative financial impacts from divesting from fossil fuels” In fact, the analysts found evidence of a slight improvement in fund return. Such results have been mirrored in many previous studies. But the evidence coming from BlackRock is particularly damning given the nature of their business. For starters, the evidence comes from the research arm of BlackRock which has been targeted for many years by activists for its refusal to act on the climate crisis.

Despite such compelling data, Vanderbilt and other top tier universities are still hesitant to act on the climate crisis and divest from fossil fuels. This begs the question: why? In trying to understand our administration’s lack of engagement on this issue we found studies supporting the idea that educational institutions generally don’t engage eagerly in fossil fuel divestment unless it already fits with their university culture. This points out a glaring contradictions with Vanderbilt’s mission of promoting leadership “in the quest for new knowledge through scholarship, dissemination of knowledge through teaching and outreach, and creative experimentation of ideas and concepts” and how they choose to interact with student activists. Vanderbilt, like other high-ranking universities, claims to support intellectual freedom and open inquiry. But when it comes to real change on campus, they fail to act time and time again and simply ignore student demands. It’s apparent that higher education is changing for the worse – students take on crippling debt, professors are underpaid, marginalized students are ignored, and the increase in bureaucracy has only increased efficiency for profits – not for learning.

Divestment isn’t a new phenomenon at colleges and universities, but the context is entirely different. Activists are dealing with an even more broken and unjust system that commodifies students and quells student campaigns that speak against the institution. Students have to fight even harder just to be heard. Activists at Vanderbilt have still not been able to meet with any highly positioned administrator about divestment and countless other pressing issues. There is a silent revolution growing on my campus and other universities as well. If institutions don’t start engaging with impassioned activists, universities can soon expect a drop in rankings and considerably lower alumni donations in the future.

Emily Irigoyen – Rachel Carson Council Fellow

Emily Irigoyen is a sophomore at Vanderbilt University pursuing a double major in Environmental Sociology and Spanish with a minor in Communications in Science and Technology. Her RCC Fellowship project is a fossil fuels divestment campaign for Vanderbilt and others in the Southeast Conference. [email protected]

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