Fossil fuel divestment is painful but necessary for universities

Fighting climate change is going to require restructuring our current economic system, whether we like it or not

Fuck off capitalism, you’re ruining my Earth. Photo: Jp Valery/Unsplash

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to clarify SFU’s actions in reducing the carbon footprint of its portfolio.

By: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor

For the second winter in a row, I am staring out of my window in Burnaby at more than a foot of snow, unable to get to school. It’s -4 degrees outside — warm compared to the last couple of days — and the snow is predicted to start again. For our relatively mild climate on the west coast, seeing this much snow back-to-back for two winter seasons is unusual, to say the least. 

It’s hard to deny that weather patterns are changing, following our growing climate crisis. It’s likewise getting harder to deny that serious organizational and institutional changes need to be implemented with rapid urgency in order to prevent the crisis from getting any worse.

The topic of university divestment from fossil fuels is blowing up on campuses across Canada in these early days of 2020. The CBC reports that at the end of last year, tenured professor Gregory Mikkelson, formerly of McGill University, tendered his resignation following the university Board’s third decision against full fossil fuel divestment. January 10 saw the end of a near five-day student hunger strike at UBC, after the administration issued a promise to commit to a plan for full divestment. Meanwhile, at SFU, full divestment from fossil fuels appears to be off the table — for now — though the Board of Governors “passed a motion to increase the University’s commitment to reduce the carbon footprint of the public equity portion of the investment portfolio to 45% below the baseline measurement, by 2025.”

Fossil fuel divestment represents one of a growing number of ways in which grassroots campaigns of ordinary people are demanding structural change to address the climate crisis. By making investment in fossil fuel or carbon emission-heavy financial portfolios socially unacceptable, the idea is to starve offending companies and industries of investment capital. However, as McGill University notes in their decision not to divest, this may also leave large institutions scrambling for “clean” portfolios that also yield profitable returns. 

In context, it’s important to remember that the climate crisis arose from and affects complex networks of historical, social, and environmental factors. As such, it is inseparable from our economic activities and social institutions. In order to address the crisis in any meaningful way, we need to be willing and able to not only critically assess all the deeply imbedded moving parts of the issue, but to also begin to dismantle the systems that perpetuate the crisis and hinder its solutions. This includes a willingness to examine the machinations of our current economic system to honestly assess whether the benefits of increasing capital accumulation are worth the cost of a potentially inhospitable planet in the not so distant future. 

Yes, university divestment from fossil fuels may come at a financial cost to institutions. But this is only the case if we continue to collectively agree to the immutable supremacy of capitalism over all aspects of our lives. Could we not envision a future in which we are both freed from fossil fuel dependency and have a retooled economic system that isn’t predicated on the harmful exploitation of human and non-human resources in order function?

In our capacity as social animals, human beings are capable of some truly marvelous feats of imagination, organization, and advancement. Our social and economic institutions didn’t spring from a beautiful accident of chemistry and physics, as did our planet. We have the power to course correct through actions like divestment activism, and we have the power to dream up new ways of existing without reliance on fossil fuels and the financial institutions that support them. What we can’t do is continue to pretend that capital is more important than the world we live on.

We can be volunteers or we can be victims. We can either choose how to recreate our world free of fossil fuels, or we can have the choice made for us.