‘Fossil-free’ movement shows the way for ethical divestment

Momentum is building for fossil fuel divestment in UK and US universities, while American institutions are cutting ties with ‘racist’ private prisons industry

December 1, 2016
Oil derricks
Source: iStock

Those calling on the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) to stop investing in the arms trade will have half an eye on just how successful another divestment campaign has been in recent years.

It seems that no other sector has embraced fossil fuel divestment as passionately as higher education.

Last month, it was announced that 16 more UK universities had committed to divestment, with a total of 43 universities now stating that they will exclude fossil fuels from their investments.

It represents rapid progress for the movement since the University of Glasgow became the first university in Europe to divest in 2014 after months of lobbying by the Glasgow University Climate Action Society. Durham University, the University of Essex, the University of Manchester and the University of Reading are expected to make decisions on divestment over the next few months.

Some 35 US universities have also decided to divest from fossil fuels, either partially (no investments in coal or tar sands) or fully, according to the student campaign network People & Planet.

“Pressure has been increasing on institutions for a number of years, and it will only intensify as more students get involved,” said Tim Valentine, emeritus professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, who stood as a Green Party parliamentary candidate in the 2015 UK general election.

“Students have a legitimate interest in this argument because it is now their tuition fees that are being invested in fossil fuel producers,” said Professor Valentine.

However, Stephen Trachtenberg, emeritus professor at George Washington University, in Washington DC, said that student activists were often unwilling to match rhetoric with action.

“When a student says that their university should sell off all their stocks in petroleum companies, I ask them to get out their driving licence and tear it up,” said Professor Trachtenberg, who led George Washington for almost 20 years until his retirement in 2007.

“Almost no one does that for me – it seems they are prepared to demand things of others that they are not prepared to do themselves,” he added.

Many students do not understand how fossil fuel investments have benefited many students over the years by funding scholarships for low-income students, Professor Trachtenberg added.

“Students’ passion is all for the good…but we need young people to take that passion, link it with scholarship and that is when real progress can be made,” he said.

In addition to calls for fossil fuel divestment, several US universities are also considering whether they should cut their ties with America’s private prisons industry.

It follows Columbia University’s landmark decision in June 2015 to divest from firms that run prisons, detention centres and militarised borders after student activists argued that it was wrong to invest in a “racist, violent system”.

“The private prison model is hinged on maximising incarceration to generate profit – they’re incentivised by convicting, sentencing and keeping people in prison for longer and longer times,” argued student organiser Dunni Oduyemi.

In December 2015, the University of California sold $30 million (£24.14 million) of its holdings in companies that operate private prisons in response to student pressure.



Print headline: Out of oil: ‘fossil-free’ movement shows the way for ethical divestment

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Reader's comments (1)

"Tear up your driver's license": Of all the absurd demands having nothing to do with the issues involved. We are in the midst of an unprecedented global threat to the future of humanity, requiring rapid and transformative changes as per the Paris Agreement, and "scholarship," while invaluable, is not alone going to get us there. A primary obstacle to progress is the determination of the fossil-fuel industry to pursue business as usual, despite the acknowledgement by major companies that there is a crisis. For institutions of higher education to be deriving profits from such companies' operations, and to be allowing their policies to be influenced by dependency on funding by those companies, is wrong. Here's what the Union of Concerned Scientists has put out as criteria for responsible practices in the industry: http://www.ucsusa.org/press/2016/new-study-ranks-eight-major-fossil-fuel-companies-their-climate-change-actions#.WBC6r3opCBY


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