Divestment: From South Africa to Fossil Fuels

Originally published in Post Magazine, ‘Potential Energy: The Politics of Energy in Scotland’ which is available to order here.

The global fossil fuel divestment movement has seen some important achievements over the past year. Universities in the USA, Sweden, New Zealand , the Marshall Islands and the United Kingdom have all committed to divestment; thirty-five cities across the world are divesting (in reality, this means the investments and pensions funds of public sector workers); over fifty religious institutions, including the World Council of Churches. have announced their divestment; and many other institutions have joined them – most notably, perhaps, the Rockefeller Foundation, whose very wealth was built upon the oil industry. The movement, comprised of local pressure groups but brought together globally under 350.org’s “Fossil Free” umbrella campaign, has successfully garnered the attention of big energy companies, with Exxon Mobil mobilising in October last year to publicly and strongly decry the campaign. The above, taken together, suggests that Fossil Free campaigners are not only making progress on the ground, but creating enough global attention that their hugely powerful targets have begun to twitch. All in all, the divestment movement enters 2015 looking stronger than ever.

But where can it go from here?

Members of the fossil fuel divestment movement can often be heard comparing divestment from fossil fuels to the divestment movement against South African apartheid in the 1990s, as a successful historical case study. Much like the current divestment movement, the apartheid divestment campaign began in universities in the USA when students, faced with a political issue that they seemingly could not influence, decided to wield the power of the one force that tied them directly to the situation at hand: the power of money. Specifically, campaigns began to convince institutions to divest – that is, to remove their investments from – companies involved in or originating from South Africa, as a sort of economic boycott of the state that sat outside of official political decrees. As the campaign gained in popularity and more and more institutions divested from South Africa, political entities began to take not. In 1986 the USA’s Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act banned any new investment in South Africa, as well as a number of other economic sanctions. In response, huge multinational companies such as General Motors and IBM withdrew from the company, and the resulting capital flight cause inflation within South Africa to rise to double figures. At the end of apartheid, newly-elected Nelson Mandela credited the divestment movement as a key part of the struggle which eventually brought about the fall of the apartheid regime.

How comparable, then, is the current position of fossil fuel divestment campaigners to a point in the campaign against apartheid? And what, if anything, can the movement today learn from its predecessor?

Whilst the fossil fuel divestment movement targets corporations rather than a state, in today’s Western society it can be argued that many of these large corporations are indeed functioning like states themselves, or at least wielding the same degree of political clout. Just like the actions of the South African government were the target for change in the apartheid divestment movement, so too the actions of companies bent on continuous extraction of fossil fuels at an ever-increasing environmental and social cost are the target for today’s divestment campaigners. As in South Africa, a big impact for the Fossil Free campaigners in necessarily tied to big money. A $3.1 billion divestment from the University of California was a turning point in the public recognition of the apartheid divestment campaign in the same year the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act was passed; for the Fossil Free campaigners, the single biggest divestment announcement last year came from the Rockefeller Foundation, with their announcement of over $50 billion of divestment – not an amount to be sniffed at.

Is then, the fossil fuel divestment at their tipping point in effectiveness? I would argue that from here on, the comparative timeline is likely to diverge. The anti-apartheid movement had a clear aim: end the apartheid regime. However, the issues surrounding energy, fossil fuels and climate change do not fit into so neat a demand. Fossil fuel divestment campaigners face an issue that transcends the state borders which contained apartheid: global systemic change in energy use away from fossil fuels and towards renewables instead. Today’s divestment campaigners span the spectrum of those that hope divestment will convince the large petrochemical corporations to change their tune and begin working in the renewables sector, to those that hope to see the very end of such large multinationals and their political influence. And behind it all, lies the murky question of how to provide clean, climate-friendly energy to a world where demand continues to skyrocket.

As well as this, the South African divestment movement began a full thirty-two years before apartheid actually ended. Unfortunately, the fossil fuel divestment movement – and their aim of shifting dependence from fossil fuels away to renewables – does not have such a generous time-span to play with. The urgency of the climate issue has the potential to mobilise people across the globe to demand change on a scale never-before-seen; the same urgency runs the risk of burnout if change is not forthcoming from those in the echelons of economic and political power. What the fossil fuel divestment campaign must do then, is harness the effectiveness and political credence that the apartheid divestment managed, but on a vastly shortened time scale.

It’s not an easy task. But the historical evidence points to divestment as a powerful tool in the campaigners’ arsenal; and 2015 could be the key year for the campaign, as the world looks towards the UN climate meetings in Paris in December, and popular mobilisation on climate issues continues to grow.

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