Have you heard of fossil fuel divestment—the series of hundreds of campaigns across the country aimed to convince universities, towns, churches, and other institutions to stop investing in the destructive fossil fuel industry? Well, now you have. As part of the growing climate movement, students and grassroots activists are coming together with one simple demand: stop funding the industry that is jeopardizing our planet’s future.
The logic, economics, and ethics of it are straightforward. The common aims of:
- Universities: to advance the store of knowledge and mold capable, intelligent, and conscientious students who will shape the future;
- Local governments: to serve their people; and
- Religious institutions: to create a better, more enlightened individual and world
are incongruous with the aims of ExxonMobil: to make ∞ dollars. Doesn’t it follow that these social bodies should not financially support an industry directly opposed to their goals? The divestment movement demands this moral justice (though it isn’t always so easy). Encouragingly, investment portfolios free of fossil fuel holdings have been repeatedly shown to perform as well or better than ones with fossil fuel holdings. Climate change is also finally being recognized as posing a risk to investments by the financey-banker types (though monetary risk is what it takes to convince them climate change is important, better late than never). The bottom line is this: a thriving fossil fuel industry and a thriving planet cannot coexist. Which would you prefer? I know I’ll take what’s behind Door B.
So… great. Maybe now you think fossil fuel divestment is a noble and worthy cause. How can this be translated into action and progress?
Simple—get involved. Today. Start or join a campaign. Schedule a meeting with your mayor (which may be, as I found, surprisingly easy). Tell others about it. The divestment movement is well-established, straightforward, and powerful. It is one of the most promising and necessary battles in the fight against climate change.
But I have a confession: I believe there is a serious flaw with the divestment movement.
*Dun dun dunnnnn*
The movement is incomplete. It’s missing an important element, and it requires expansion. Or perhaps a better way to look at it would be that divestment’s environmental goal needs coupling with another goal established in parallel to it: the behavioral goal. Divestment is a goal of society, of the external. It is missing a personal, internal goal.
See, divestment has done an excellent job of illuminating exactly what we’re fighting against. We’re fighting against the immorality of wrecking the climate for profit. We’re fighting against the greed of the ultra-rich. We’re fighting against a too-powerful, insidious industry. But what are we fighting for?
Allow me to present you with a vision.
Imagine a community where you know everyone in your neighborhood. Where people walk or bike distances under a few miles. Where wholesome food is grown locally and with integrity so you believe in what you eat. Homes are powered by the sun, not black sludge torn from the earth’s innards. Thanks to all the walking and biking, people grow healthier and remember how nice it is to be outdoors. A lively community center, in the middle of town, evolves, where weekly documentary screenings and open-mic sessions are held. You recognize almost everyone there, and know most on a first-name basis. The realization begins to dawn that humanity really is one big family, and we start to act accordingly. Conflicts don’t cease to exist, but we do cease to see them as threats to ourselves and instead view them as opportunities to understand a new perspective. Entertainment is provided by adventurous activities like kayaking and hiking rather than the isolating addiction of reality TV. This more healthful way of life reminds people that it’s the simple things—love, friends, nature, community—that bring true happiness. People feel a real sense of connection and belonging. We naturally begin to reject the alluring but deceptive veil that advertisements drill into us—we need to buy more, own more, and own bigger, to be whole. And in this transformation of your community, a model has been created—one that can be emulated in any community around the world.
This world is what we’re fighting for. And the transformative action that this vision stems from is each of us, individually, consuming less fossil fuels. Fossil fuel divestment provides the requisite symbolic stand against what we know to be wrong. But this alone is not enough. It won’t stop the greedy from getting richer. It won’t stop fossil fuel companies from prospering and pressing on. What will stop that is pairing the symbolic divestment act with the concrete act of fossil fuel use reduction.
The success of this industry rests completely within our hands! Where do their profits come from? Us. And what do they do with their profits? They lobby Congress, sully scientific studies, and continue their path of obliteration—but they can do so only as long as we allow them to. Our financial support is, to an extent, a tacit endorsement of their endeavors.
Reducing our fossil fuel usage initiates the mechanical impact that actually weakens the stranglehold the fossil fuel industry has on society. If we use less of their product, the industry has less money, and thus less power, and thus less social and political influence; its vice grip on Congress loosens; CEOs become less obscenely rich; and society moves in the direction that the people actually want it to. (87% of Americans want more wind farms. 60% want government subsidies for biofuels. 76% want more solar power.) The dual force of divestment + less fossil fuel consumption is the double whammy we need to both remove the obstacle to progress and take the first steps towards the world we desire. We need the symbolic statements of solidarity of the people and disapproval of the industry, and we also need the tangible act of rejection of their product.
Implementing the tangible step adds the measurable outcome of climate repair that divestment doesn’t. Every time we avoid getting in our car for an unnecessary trip, that’s less CO2 into the air. Every time you bike to Jake’s house instead of drive the 2 miles there, your body grows in vigor and you set an example to everyone who sees you. Every time we carpool instead of each person taking his/her own car to a location, that’s less CO2 emitted and more friendship! What’s not to like here? This behavioral adaptation is both good for the environment and for your soul.
You may be thinking: “using less fossil fuels will require not an insignificant change in my lifestyle!” Well, yes. You’re right. Steps like using your car less will require a change. But if we want to achieve a new lifestyle, we have to live in a new way. And these visions are exactly the kind of thing, and perhaps the only thing, worth making drastic lifestyle changes for.
What’s encouraging is that over time, with larger numbers of people implementing these changes, the spaces we create will soon be filled with novel, innovative products and systems. Our market economy is responsive: if we reduce demand for good x (e.g., fossil fuels), it will be produced less because companies can’t profit from it as highly. If we increase demand for good y (like solar panels, or organic food), the availability of these products will grow without fail, and their costs will diminish. And soon, they’ll become more and more commonplace, until they are the new norm. And we can create it together. It begins, here, now, with you and I.
Now I’d hate to get you all hopped up with visions for the future and not provide you with steps to blaze the path. So, here are 8 steps you can take right now to begin translating our dream into reality.
- Next time you’re in the market for a car, purchase a fuel-efficient one, like a Prius. Combine errands so you can knock several tasks off in a single trip, rather than making multiple ones
- Carpool! This one is self-explanatory
- Start or join a divestment campaign for your university, town, company, temple, etc
- Walk or bike to locations close to you
- Meet with local government officials to discuss sustainability projects you can implement. One idea is to see what it would take to have bike lanes arranged on your roads. I found that in my town—a relatively small one—the officials are extremely open to ideas and love speaking directly to their constituents
- Support local banks, grocery stores, and businesses, rather than big corporations when possible
- Use compact fluorescent light bulbs and dimmer switches. And of course, make it a habit to turn off the lights when you leave a room
- Lead by example. Share all of these ideas with friends and family!
I hope you’re inspired by the powerful punch the combination inner and outer goals pack. Do you agree? Disagree? Let’s have a conversation. Share your thoughts in the comment section below.