I remember well the first institution to announce it was divesting from fossil fuel. It was 2012 and I was on the second week of a gruelling tour across the US trying to spark a movement. Our roadshow had been playing to packed houses down the west coast, and we’d crossed the continent to Portland, Maine. As a raucous crowd jammed the biggest theatre in town, a physicist named Stephen Mulkey took the mic. He was at the time president of the tiny Unity College in the state’s rural interior, and he announced that over the weekend its trustees had voted to sell their shares in coal, oil and gas companies. “The time is long overdue for all investors to take a hard look at the consequences of supporting an industry that persists in destructive practices,” he said.
Six years later, we have marked the 1,000th divestment in what has become by far the largest anti-corporate campaign of its kind. The latest to sell their shares – major French and Australian pension funds, and Brandeis University in Massachusetts – bring the total size of portfolios and endowments in the campaign to just under $8 trillion (£6.4tn).
The list of institutions that have cut their ties with this most destructive of industries encompasses religious institutions large and small (the World Council of Churches, the Unitarians, the Lutherans, the Islamic Society of North America, Japanese Buddhist temples, the diocese of Assisi); philanthropic foundations (even the Rockefeller family, heir to the first great oil fortune, divested its family charities); and colleges and universities from Edinburgh to Sydney to Honolulu are on board, with more joining each week. Forty big Catholic institutions have already divested; now a campaign is urging the Vatican bank itself to follow suit. Ditto with the Nobel Foundation, the world’s great art museums, and every other iconic institution that works for a better world.
Thanks to the efforts of groups such as People & Planet (and to the Guardian, which ran an inspiring campaign), half the UK’s higher education institutions are on the list. And so are harder-nosed players, from the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund (at a trillion dollars, the largest pool of investment capital on Earth) to European insurance giants such as Axa and Allianz. It has been endorsed by everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to Barack Obama to Ban Ki-moon (and, crucially, by Desmond Tutu, who helped run the first such campaign a generation ago, when the target was apartheid).
The problem with equity divestment is that there are plenty of willing buyers for those divested shares. Long ago this method was tried on manufacturers of cigarettes, whisky, porn, and other 'sin' products. Usually, after paying the 'sin tax' the companies were able to sell their products at a higher price - ie, the consumer was punished.
Fossil fuel is now institutionalized into society - people have no alternative. So if you apply carbon taxes, social divestment groups, with the intent to punish the manufacturers (supporting an industry that persists in destructive practices). At this point, neither the consumer nor the manufacturer has much choice. Customers want fuel and suppliers must provide it until something better is invented. Currently, the consumers are all about solar and wind energy, powering electric cars. It feels good - except that the physics doesn't work - and the solar power experiment is failing. France has an answer - nuclear power plants that supplies most of the power for the nation - and hopefully electric cars that use the electricity from the nuclear plants for cars. (No fuel tax needed.). The US should probably take note.