(Not So) Happy Global Divestment Day

Rachelle Peterson

Hail, Climate Citizen. It’s Global Divestment Day.

“Climate Citizen” is what the New School in New York City is calling its students now. President David Van Zandt announced a week ago plans to develop a new core curriculum that focuses on climate change and what can be done to avert it. Every student will now be a deputized activist. Van Zandt’s announcement coincided with the news that the board of trustees had voted to divest all endowment holdings in fossil fuels. That way their money can engage in activism, too.

Global Divestment Day is a new holiday, the sort that even Climate Citizens, who must watch their environmental waste-lines and lighten their eco-footprints, may celebrate in good conscience. GDD was proclaimed by 350.org, the national grassroots environmentalist group founded by sustainability superstar Bill McKibben. Today and tomorrow, February 13-14, in over 400 rallies, activists on 6 continents are asking their college endowments, pension plans, religious organizations, and state governments to “break up” with fossil fuels. They know the economy is based on carbon energy, but in their eyes, the relationship is abusive and entirely one-sided. Fossil fuels take away our clean air and our temperate climate, along with our tax dollars and our politicians’ integrity, they charge. That fossil fuels give us cheap and reliable energy, well-paying jobs, and economic security, they forget.

To celebrate GDD, Harvard students are occupying the president’s office, armed with snacks, diapers, and cell phones to sustain them until President Faust agrees to meet inside and hear their demands. Swarthmore students are holding a divestment teach-in. Northwestern University students have staged a mock lawsuit, People Vs. the Climate, to put coal on trial for crimes against humanity.

At today’s GDD rally in New York City, seventy or so activists, including New School Climate Citizens, converged near Wall Street in sub-freezing temperatures. “We must save this day, save it for our children,” a spoken word poet called into a microphone, as activists stamped their feet not to keep time but to keep warm. Spring comes sooner each year, he warned, and the next generation may never know what a cold winter day feels like. His lyrical prognosis echoed a 2014 forecast from the New York Times, “The End of Snow?” But, now that snow has proven persistent, scientists are now predicting that global warming actually exacerbates winter extremes.  

If concern for children’s wintry playdates strikes you as uncharacteristically anthropocentric for a movement that has historically cared less about people and more about animals, you’d be right. Move over polar bears; climate change has a new favorite victim. “We are everything, we are everything, everything,” the poet chanted the refrain to each verse. “Hallelujah, hallelujah, everything,” his audience replied.

“More Future, Less Capitalism,” read a prominent banner carried by three or four men. They were members of System Change Not Climate Change, a group of “ecosocialists” who work to create what their website calls simply “another world.” They believe that “Green capitalism is a dead end.” Five months earlier they had been major players at Flood Wall Street, a more radical Financial District sequel to the People’s Climate March down Fifth Avenue in September. One of their colleagues worked the crowd, selling socialist newspapers for a dollar apiece.

Students representing divestment campaigns at Barnard, CUNY, New York University, and New School gathered as part of the rally, several of them taking turns with the microphone. One explained that America’s primary source of energy used to come from whale blubber, until “black gold” was discovered as a better alternative. The country switched over, but “not because we ran out of whales,” she said. Likewise, she acknowledged, in a stark turn-around from last year’s peak-oil  argument for divestment, “we are not going to run out of oil” but need to replace it with something better. She called on her fellow activists to “be honest” with their college finance committees: They don’t just want divestment from fossil fuel, but also reinvestment in renewable energy. “Who needs heating oil anyway,” scoffed one passerby from the sidewalk.

Most boards, unlike New School’s, have declined to divest because fossil fuels are good investments. Activists deny this. They’re keen to believe that recently plunging oil prices will stay low. One woman at the rally told me, optimistically, that renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuels. But as fracking opens up new wealths of previously unusable energy, and as solar, hydro, and wind power continue to struggle, fossil fuels look more and more attractive.

But Global Divestment Day majors more on feel-good moralism than on careful examination of the facts. Whether global warming is dangerous and whether divestment would do anything to stop it are questions that take a backseat to urgent calls to action. Perhaps a careful review of science and statistics is where New School’s Climate Citizens should start. 


Image: "New York, NY" by 350.org / CC BY

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