On a freezing winter’s day in early March protestors huddled together, masked faces braced against the chilly Chicago wind. The 60+ people gathered in the street blocked traffic for nearly two hours on the intersection of Sheridan Road and Chicago Avenue, right in front of Northwestern University’s signature landmark: the Weber arch. The protest was organized by Fossil Free Northwestern (FFNU), in response to the Board of Trustees’ rejection of FFNU’s proposal for divestment from fossil fuels.
Fossil Free Northwestern is a diverse group of students that has fought for climate justice for nearly ten years by demanding that Northwestern University’s Board of Trustees divest from the extractive fossil fuel industry. Our divestment proposal called on Northwestern to follow our peer institutions’ lead by adopting a “stop, drop, and roll” policy that would implement “an immediate halt in future investments” from the companies in the Carbon Underground’s Fossil Free Index. On Feb. 20, 2020, eight months after our proposal was delivered, the Investment Committee to the Board of Trustees publicly rejected it, using their statement on investment responsibility – issued after our proposal was sent – as justification.
Fossil Free Northwestern’s campaign is not alone; there are more than 150 active fossil fuel divestment campaigns fighting a strenuous battle to upheave moral corruption. So far, according to the Divest Ed website, 86 campuses in the United States have fully or partially divested from fossil fuels, including Georgetown, American University, Stanford University and the University of California School System. Collectively, U.S. college endowments represent $554 billion. This significant sum of money has the potential to shift markets as well as influence the social capital of industries like fossil fuels that have extensive and concerning ties to our politics.
The divestment movement extends further and wider than just fossil fuel divestment at academic institutions. The tactic, first established in the 1970s by two Polaroid workers, Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams, who lobbied for divestment from South African Apartheid, has proven to be successful at enforcing justice in our systems and bringing empowerment to the people. Since its initiation at Swarthmore College, the fossil fuel divestment movement has taken off: “Nearly 1,200 institutions and governmental bodies [have divested] their portfolios, partially or fully, from fossil fuels,” exceeding $14 trillion divested.
Not only is it financially beneficial for universities to cease investing in fossil fuels (especially in the COVID era, with oil and gas prices plummeting), but it is morally and existentially imperative that we move, as a society, away from the extractive fossil fuel industry and reinvest in renewable energy and community care. Divestment is not simply an economic strategy to diminish fossil fuels, but rather, its intent is to politically bankrupt the fossil fuel industry and to diminish its influence in society and global affairs.
Intrinsically intertwined with divestment is reinvestment. Justice cannot be accomplished if divestment is not immediately followed by investments in frontline and marginalized communities, mutual aid networks, community wealth cooperatives, and renewable energy. Divestment itself is not the end-goal; rather, it is a tactical part of the larger movement of a just transition away from an extractive economy and towards a livable one.
Climate change will continue to disproportionately affect those least responsible, including Black, Indigenous, queer, femme, nonbinary, trans, disabled, low-income people and people of color. In solidarity with communities at the frontlines fighting for environmental justice, we must hold our schools, workplaces and governments accountable.
Fellow students, teachers, and community members, we now call on you to consider your privileges. Understand how these privileges must be used to dismantle the very systems that have benefited you, as they have done so at the cost of the most vulnerable, of our planet, and of our futures. We have an obligation to disrupt these systems of power that allow for the subjugation of the powerless, of those burdened by the circumstances, excesses, and apathies of the global economy. People are dying, and will continue to die so long as the privileged, the wealthy, all those who possess and discard an ability to enact change – so long as each of us remains paralyzed to the realities of a catastrophe that we can escape.
With unprecedented wildfires ravaging the west, the COVID-19 pandemic unveiling drastic social inequities, politics laden deep in division and corruption, and fast-approaching irreversible tipping points of climate catastrophe, we are reminded again and again of the fierce urgency of now.
There is no more time to wait.
Divest from the colonial and white supremacist values in your life, and reinvest in decolonial, pro-Black practices. Move your money from banks directly invested in pipeline projects.
Find your unique place in the movement: in your relationships, time, money, or talent, and give it your all. Demand a higher standard for our universities, banks and communities. Demand Climate Justice NOW!
This essay was written by Lucy London, Keala Uchoa and other members of Fossil Free Northwestern.