If you’ve spent a little while in the world of ethical and sustainable living, you’ll start to notice the word divestment popping up. Across the world we’re seeing increased coverage of divestment movements and calls to action and, if you’re a bit newer to the scene, it can be a little confusing. So today I’m here to simplify it for you. I was lucky enough to meet with the minds behind Divest Hackney in East London to give you the low down on this movement, why it’s so important right now and what you can do.
What is Divestment?
Essentially, it’s the opposite of investment. Remember when Leotie Lovely explain ethical banking to us? That’s divestment on a personal level. The idea simply means getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous. In the past divestment movements have tackled issues such as tobacco, gambling and violence in Darfur, but the most well known and successful instance of divestment was in response to apartheid in South Africa. In the 1980s divestment was a huge campaign across British universities; 155 campuses divested from companies doing business in South Africa, which ultimately helped to break apart the the apartheid government. And it isn’t just about money, it’s about public opinion:
‘Nobody thought we’d end apartheid by bankrupting the regime. It was about delegitimising them, shifting public opinion, and ramping up political pressure…The student movement made a massive contribution to the collapse of apartheid, and did so by undermining the system politically as well as financially. But make no mistake: although the main aims were political, a $350m hit is real financial pressure too. Divestment is a long-term game. We could bankrupt them.’
Nowadays the divestment movement (or disinvestment) has turned its focus to fossil fuels. Across the world there are calls for institutions including universities, churches, charitable foundations, local authorities and pension funds to remove their money from coal, oil and gas companies.
Why Does Divestment Matter?
‘Scientific research shows that in order to keep to international targets to limit global warming to a 2C rise and thus prevent catastrophic levels of climate change, between two-thirds and four-fifths of fossil fuels need to remain in the ground. But fossil fuel companies are currently banking on these targets not being met so are extracting these reserves and selling them – and are actively prospecting for more. In doing so they are setting the human race on a route to irreversible climate change that will cause rising seas, flooding, droughts, rising disease, increased conflicts and refugee crises.’ (Source)
Despite some climate change deniers in recent political administrations (we’ll just refer to it as he who shall not be named) the UN has come out clearly in support of divestment
“We support divestment as it sends a signal to companies, especially coal companies, that the age of ‘burn what you like, when you like’ cannot continue,” said Nick Nuttall, the spokesman for the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC). “Everything we do is based on science and the science is pretty clear that we need a world with a lot less fossil fuels…We have lent our own moral authority as the UN to those groups or organisations who are divesting. ” (source)
There is also a financial argument for divestment, based on the idea that if international agreements on climate change are met, investments will become worthless ‘stranded assets’ anyway. The World Bank, Bank of England, HSBC, Goldman Sachs and Standard and Poor’s have all supported the financial argument for divestment, warning that only a small amount of fossil fuel reserves can now be safely burned, with the remainder likely to plummet in value, with huge risks to investors. You can read World Bank president Jim Yong Kim’s thoughts on divestment here.
Divestment has been proven to work on more that one occasion and, as morals, science and maths shows, todays fossil free movement is more important than ever.
How You Can Get Involved
This is where people think it gets tricky. (Hint: it’s actually not) We hear about all these big movements pushing for divestment and can feel very small in comparison. How do we play our part when we have a full time life already going on?
This is where local action becomes important. We can’t, as individuals, convince an entire organisation to divest. As a collective group however, it’s a different story. I visited a Divest Hackney local meeting to see this in action.
Divest Hackney started in January 2015, when some people who had already been involved with Divest London started a group specific to Hackney, East London, where they could both have presence and act to represent the borough. Along the way more people from all walks of life began to join the group calling on Hackney council to divest its pension fund investments. It’s important to note that Divest Hackney isn’t just a bunch of people shouting about what they don’t like. It’s a group of normal people who’ve made a specific effort to learn, approaching the issue with both specific demands and ideas about how to move forward. The group first had to find out what the council was investing in; filing freedom of information requests and meeting people until they learned of the £42 million, 4% of the fund, that is currently invested into fossil fuel industries. A relatively small amount, but still significant.
Since then Divest Hackney have taken both an outsider and insider approach. The awareness strategies of petitions, handing out leaflets on the streets, hosting film screenings, staging events, demonstrations and debates and reaching out to local schools, churches and media has also been paired with working with Hackney council: emailing and meeting with councillors, meeting with the pension committee, educating themselves about pension funds and attending all pension committee meetings. Their continued presence, whilst respectful and co-operative, serves to hold the committee accountable with a kind of invisible pressure. Someone is watching, and Hackney can’t ignore them.
It’s a challenging time for councils in the UK; there’s a lot of politics at play including cuts and restructuring to deal with, but Divest Hackney is also solution oriented. They point to alternatives, including specific projects and organisations that can help with the divestment process, whilst also expecting a gradual timeline. The logistics of moving millions does take a little time, after all. They work to bring concrete arguments and suggestions for divestment to the council, including holding up examples of other councils that have committed to divestment that Hackney can follow the lead of. It’s complex, yes, but Divest Hackney are constantly resourceful.
The great thing about Divest Hackney, and any local divestment group, is that there’s a level of involvement that works for everyone. People who have specific talents, whether that’s research, writing press releases or working in finance, can put them to use, but so can any average joe. If your talent is talking to people you can use that to hand out flyers, if you’re great online you can send out emails or write a tweet. Even simply being there and showing up makes a difference. If you’re a crazy busy person you can always get on a mailing list to sign petitions and get involved on social media. The great thing about local action is you can be as involved as you can commit to, but your voice is still important, even if it’s just using a hashtag.