Fossil Fuel Divestment Won’t Change the World but Community Reinvestment Will

anaïs peterson
11 min readSep 5, 2020
Fossil Fuel Divestment Day Rally at the University of Pittsburgh

I’m a former fossil fuel divestment organizer and I’m here to tell you fossil fuel divestment isn’t the win that it’s hyped up to be. $14.61 trillion USD has been divested and I’m less optimistic than ever about the future of our planet.

I spent four years as an organizer with Fossil Free Pitt Coalition at the University of Pittsburgh. I joined the campaign my first semester of my first year and immediately fell in love with the community, the power of student organizing. I was tired of working on changing individual’s behavior when I knew the real problem was systemic; I couldn’t stop the climate crisis by using my reusable bag but demanding the University of Pittsburgh divest their then $3.6 billion (now $4.3 billion) endowment out of the fossil fuel industry in the middle of Southwest PA, a hotbed of fracking, felt like it would make a difference.

From 2016–2020 I attended countless meetings, canvassed for hours outside the student union and proudly wore an orange square on my backpack. My freshman year I attended the Board of Trustees meetings and handed every trustees I could reach a flyer about fossil fuel divestment. Two Months later I helped drop a banner at graduation reading “Divest From Fossil Fuels ❤ Students and Alumni”. I was absolutely terrified as I watched the banner fall and as the Chancellor spoke I was the lone person adjusting the zip ties. I was scared out of my mind but I believed wholeheartedly in the cause and felt as though I had finally found my political home. The following year I helped drop banners outside the student union, inside the library, and outside the Cathedral of Learning and was even followed by the Pitt Police for “looking suspicious”. Despite the risks and the terror that always ran through my veins I kept going, it would all be worth it when we won. I was part of the campaign in 2018 when we won the fourth ask on our petition leading to the creation of a Socially Responsible Investment process. I attended countless meetings with various administrators ranging from the Dean of Students to the Chief Financial Officer and even the Chancellor of the University to push for fossil fuel divestment. I ran for Student Government Board my junior year on the platform of fossil fuel divestment and won not only my election but a referendum on fossil fuel divestment where 91% of students who voted voted to divest.

I watched school after school divest, I watched my friends celebrate their wins at Smith, Cornell, the UC system, Middlebury and more and every time it broke my heart knowing I was still waiting for my victory. My senior year after a summer of organizing with Divest Ed where I helped coordinate the international day of action, Fossil Fuel Divestment Day, I came back to my campus ready to win. My senior year I facilitated 1 to 3 meetings weekly and spent at least 7 hours a week doing FFPC work. I organized weekly sit-ins in front of the Chancellor’s office, a Board of Trustees action over 2 hours away in Johnstown PA, helped plan an alumni action and press conference, co-authored an Op-ed for Teen Vogue about escalating the student fossil fuel divestment movement, and went to NYC to present at Barnard College about the student fossil fuel divestment movement less than 3 days before the movement’s biggest escalation to date.

I was one of the core organizers of a rally outside the Cathedral of Learning, the tallest academic building in the Western hemisphere and the most recognizable landmark on Pitt’s campus, for Fossil Fuel Divestment Day that had over 100 students, faculty, alumni, and community members in attendance. I’ve received student code of conduct violations from the University for my fossil fuel divestment organizing but even with my existence at the institution and ability to graduate up in the air I kept organizing. In February I was the primary organizer of a 13 day occupation of the Cathedral of Learning. The occupation started a week before the Board of Trustees meeting and to say it was a massive drain on my physical and mental health is an understatement. I organized and facilitated 4 direct action trainings, co-wrote the principles, facilitated over 10 hours of planning meetings in less than a week, met with multiple lawyers, and bottom lined every single task necessary to ensure that every person at the 70+ person occupation would be safe and cared for.

This is all to say I’ve thrown down for fossil fuel divestment. But now, I’m not so sure divestment is the best tactic or even a tactic at all. We’re running out of time and fossil fuel divestment isn’t enough.

“Divestment is our tactic, climate justice is our goal”

I’ve heard the chant time and time again during my four years in the student fossil fuel divestment movement. As a student organizer it made sense to me, fossil fuel divestment was one of the ways we would achieve true climate justice. But now when it seems as though at least one new institution or university divests from fossil fuels each week it doesn’t seem as though fossil fuel divestment is doing all it was supposed to do.

As explained by organizers fossil fuel divestment works in two ways- stigmatizing the industry and removing the money from fossil fuel funds and assets. I want to focus on the stigmatization aspect. As I’ve heard many supporters say, maybe one institution divesting won’t make a financial impact but the optics will play a part in stigmatizing the industry in our generation and generations to come.

Fossil fuel divestment organizers believe that divestment is a tactic in stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry in society’s eyes. But how successful are the campaigns in doing this?

If fossil fuel divestment was going to happen for moral reasons it would have happened years ago when the movement started and institutions were made aware of their complicity in the climate crisis. There is more than enough data proving that fossil fuel extraction is fueling the climate crisis. If fossil fuel divestment was going to happen for moral reasons it would come when it was made public that fossil fuel corporations ran misinformation campaigns about the climate crisis. If institutions were going to divest from fossil fuels for moral reasons they would have done it without students holding multi-day occupations, disrupting Board of Trustees meetings, holding rallies and marches, and shutting down streets.

Now, as the movement gains traction fossil fuel divestment still is not happening for moral reasons. As oil stocks underperform and Americans watch the fossil fuel economy crash divesting from fossil fuels is simply the smartest economic move. Institutions are not suddenly waking up and divesting because they care about the planet, about the workers exploited by fossil fuel corporations, about the effects of environmental racism and classism, or about the indigenous people whose lands are stolen and destroyed by pipelines. Colleges and universities are not divesting because they have suddenly started to listen to student campaigns. They are divesting because it has become clear that fossil fuels are a bad economic decision and they have to divest to protect their endowments.

While some may see all divestment from the fossil fuel industry as a win, it’s a shortsighted victory. When institutions divest from fossil fuels for economic reasons it is a stigmatization of bad stocks, not the extractive economy. Celebrating these victories betrays a central tenet of the fossil fuel divestment movement as an anti-capitalist movement working towards a regenerative economy. The fossil fuel divestment movement is about stigmatizing the extractive, fossil fuel economy itself not underperforming stocks. An out of context celebration of fossil fuel divestment allows for the perpetuation of the exploitative, profit driven, dig-dump-burn economy that is driving us towards climate catastrophe.

We are already seeing fossil fuel corporations attempting to stay in power, rebranding themselves as supporters of clean energy and green initiatives. Coal companies are moving away from mining to fracking, a supposedly “clean” bridge fuel a move that keeps communities indebted to the fossil fuel economy. Recently, Wells Fargo, the second-biggest lender to fossil fuel companies over the past four years, entered into a solar agreement with Shell, an oil and petrochemical corporation. On the surface, this is an exciting step in the right direction, two corporations who previously profited off and funded fossil fuel projects now entering into the solar market. But in truth it is greenwashing, a desperate attempt by those in power to stay in power. Large fossil fuel corporations have no interest in curbing the climate crisis. Time and time again their actions have shown that they care about capitalizing on every opportunity to continue to turn a profit above all else. As fossil fuels fall from grace and renewables become the next profitable opportunity it’s no surprise fossil fuel corporations are shifting their focus in an attempt to dominate the market.

The student fossil fuel divestment movement has already seen the movement co-opted by the financial narrative of divestment. In September 2019 the University of California System announced they would be divesting from fossil fuels by the end of the month. This was a huge victory for the movement as the UC System is the largest public university system in the United States with a $13.4 billion endowment. The announcement was published in the LA Times and written by the Chief Investment Officer and Chairman of the Investment Committee for the Board of Regents . The first sentence reads, “Our job is to make money for the University of California, and we’re betting we can do that without fossil fuels investments.” The announcement clearly states that the UC Board of Regents chose to divest to reduce risk to their endowment. They sold their fossil fuel assets because they were not profitable not because of the moral imperative.

This point is not made to take away from this huge win and the incredible work Fossil Free UC did for 6 years across multiple campuses to achieve this victory. After the announcement Fossil Free UC pushed back on the financial focus and emphasized the moral imperative for fossil fuel divestment. However, in some ways the damage was already done- the largest public university system in the United States divested for financial reasons.

If we continue to celebrate fossil fuel divestment for economic reasons we will never be successful in toppling the fossil fuel economy or toppling the ivory tower of higher education. Institutions will continue to invest based on what is profitable, ignoring the real damage of their investments. If students allow for colleges and universities to continue to prioritize growing the endowment above all else nothing will fundamentally change even if they do divest from fossil fuels. The movement for fossil fuel divestment has never simply been about fossil fuels but about achieving climate justice. Climate justice requires the end of the extractive, profit-driven economy through a just transition to a regenerative economy.

As large institutions divest from the fossil fuel industry their first instincts are to reinvest in what is profitable. Without any accountability funds divested from fossil fuels can be reinvested in private prisons and detention centers, policing, war, etc. Divestment from fossil fuels and reinvestment back into exploitative, profit driven corporations (even renewable corporations) is not climate justice. It will never be a step towards justice when it further entrenches us in a capitalist mindset.

As someone who poured my heart and soul into a fossil fuel divestment campaign for four years, I’m not going to downplay the very real victories of fossil fuel divestment campaigns. Today, over $14.61 trillion USD has been divested by institutions across the globe. The fossil fuel divestment movement has substantially weakened the economic standing of fossil fuel corporations. The student fossil fuel divestment movement has done tremendous work in radicalizing and empowering generations of organizers who are committed to building a world beyond capitalism and won incredible victories at institutions all over the globe.

But all that being said, fossil fuel divestment is an outdated tactic in this moment where we are rapidly running out time. It’s too little too late. Fossil fuel divestment campaigns are constantly pleading for institutions to gain a moral conscience, pouring time into an impossible task.

I am not saying that student fossil fuel campaigns are totally ineffective. If organized well, I believe fossil fuel divestment campaigns play a crucial role in de-corporatizing colleges and universities. But we can not continue to simply fight for fossil fuel divestment without an equal, or even greater emphasis on reinvestment. We cannot continue to celebrate fossil fuel divestment no matter the reasoning. We can not let a movement for justice be co-opted by greenwashing corporations and profit hungry university administrators.

We need to be focusing on demanding community reinvestment, actively building the new world beyond fossil fuels, investing in the people and communities on the frontlines of extraction. Community reinvestment is defined by community-wealth.org as “a set of investment strategies and instruments that target positive social and environmental impacts in specific communities and geographies. Anchor institutions, like hospitals and universities, can utilize community investment to direct institutional capital to communities and individuals underserved by conventional financial services, providing access to credit, equity, capital, and basic banking products that these communities would otherwise lack.”

Community reinvestment is our path to the regenerative economy we need. But unlike fossil fuel divestment, community reinvestment is not a guarantee. We know the fossil fuel economy will continue to crumble and institutions will continue to divest to save their profits. Sure there’s no guarantee that institutions will divest in time to actually make a difference — I can guarantee you that my alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, will wait until the very last minute to discard their fossil fuel assets, and even then it will be a ten year process. But all that said, we know fossil fuel divestment will happen — the real question is what happens next with that capital.

It is in reinvestment that our movement has an opportunity to make concrete steps to realize a just, regenerative future we all so desperately want and need. In the Climate Justice Alliance’s just transition framework moving from an extractive economy to a regenerative one requires “divesting from their power and investing in ours”. Reinvestment is an opportunity to actively build a new world that fossil fuel divestment campaigns are fighting for. We know we are in this for the long haul and this will be a long fight. But it will be even longer if we view fossil fuel divestment as a victory and let up the pressure before that money gets reinvested.

And at the end of the day reinvestment is just one tactic in our fight. We are still careening towards worsening climate catastrophe at breakneck speed. Our liberation can not rely solely on shifting the decisions of institutions. Our theory of change cannot reinforce the notion that change comes from the top down, that appealing to the conscious of our oppressors is ever successful, that we *need* an individual with institutionalized power to create this change. We must hold tight to the knowledge that our power, our collective power, is what will win us these fights.

So what am I saying? I’m saying we have to do more. We do not have time to wait and wait for fossil fuel divestment and we can not simply celebrate fossil fuel divestment at face value. We have to fight for reinvestment but we can not limit ourselves to the pace of university bureaucracy. We can not afford to limit our organizing to working within the institution.

It’s time to shut sh*t down.

And to the university administrators and bureaucrats who have made it this far, to the university employees who mocked student organizers for taking airplanes while demanding divestment, to the university financial officers who have told students they don’t know what they’re talking about, to the members of university upper administration who have said fossil fuel divestment at their one college or university wouldn’t matter — this isn’t for you. I’m not agreeing with you. If you think I am, read this again.

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