Inside Divestment

Today in New York the National Association of Scholars is releasing its latest report, Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels. You should be able to download a copy of the report or the summary version at the NAS website. The idea of demanding that colleges divest any stockholdings in companies that produce hydrocarbon energy (i.e., the energy that most colleges use as much as anyone else) is clearly designed to emulate similar crusades against investment in South Africa in the 1980s and tobacco companies in the 1990s.

I’m on an airplane this morning winging my way back to the west coast after last night’s black tie dinner with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Washington, and I’m not able to attend the NAS conference today to release the new report. But the NAS was kind enough to share an advance cope with me. Here are the main findings:

  1. Growing but overstated: The number of fossil fuel divestment campaigns has skyrocketed from 1 in 2010 to more 
than a thousand, according to Go Fossil Free. Many are run by small numbers of full-time organizers.
  2. College-born but professionally managed: Both the idea of fossil fuel divestment and the main organization supporting it ( grew out of college student campaigns at Swarthmore College and Middlebury College respectively. Student remain the face of the movement, and at least one student-run organization, the Fossil Fuel Divestment Students Network, supports divestment campaigns. But much of the organizational and intellectual framework comes from professional environmental activists and environmentalist organizations that train college students.
  3. Modeled after the Arab Spring: Activists say their cause is cut from the same cloth as the Middle Eastern push for democracy, because trustees who oppose divestment are oligarchs who ignore pro-divestment students’ voices.
  4. Self-consciously impotent against fossil fuel companies: Advocates of divestment, including Bill McKibben, acknowledge that divestment will not decrease the share prices of fossil fuel companies or appreciably shrink their 
pro ts and access to capital.
  5. A game of bluff: Few divestments are complete. Only 34 percent of “divested” colleges and universities have fully shed their fossil fuel investments. Four have sold no investments at all since their divestment decisions: Humboldt State University, Syracuse University, Oxford University, and the University of Otago Foundation Trust (New Zealand). We label these “DINOs”—divestments in name only.
  6. Elitist: The divestment movement is most fervent at wealthy, elite colleges and universities, though it has had little success persuading administrators there.

Worth reading the whole thing.