Divestment is really rather good

Last year I heard Bill McKibben speak in Canberra as part of his “Do the Maths” tour. It was sensational. What most impressed me was less his oratory, less his analogies, and more the simple strategic brilliance of the divestment campaign. With the Abbott Government tearing up clean energy laws, and the climate movement regrouping after a bruising few years, divestment is a sensible strategic front to open as a way of continuing to make progress towards preserving a livable climate.

(Note – if you are unfamiliar with the concept of divestment, you should first read Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math“, which lays it out in brilliant glory. It is essential reading! Otherwise this post will be less enjoyable.)

In promoting divestment, McKibben’s greatest contribution to climate campaigning is to identify a clear morally unambiguous target. Climate campaigners have struggled with targeting previously. A poster for the first Earth day in 1970 declaimed, “we have metthe enemy and he is us”. Many solutions to climate change emphasised changing lightbulbs and driving less, as if Joe Citizen herself were constructing oil wells and mining hydrocarbons. This has the benefit of empowering people with actions they can take in their own homes. However, a major downside is that people intuitively reject the notion that they have responsibility, let alone culpability, for a global environmental disaster. Too, ‘social change through personal change’ has limitations that prevent it from being the solution we need.

Walt Kelly’s 1970 Earth Day poster

Our target, instead, is not our lovable self, nor a bureaucratic, compromised Government. It is the industry at the heart of the problem – the fossil fuel industry. Writes McKibben, “[the fossil-fuel industry] has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.” In nominating the fossil-fuel industry as the malevolent perpetrators of global warming, McKibben takes advantage of a latent disgust towards the physical reality of their industries – coal is dirty, oil is slimy, fossil fuels are poisonous and unhealthy.

Moreover, McKibben unflinchingly asserts the moral rectitude of the climate movement in opposition to the insensate destructiveness of the fossil-fuel industry. Saul Alinsky noted in Rules for Radicals (reviewed here) that “one acts decisively only in the conviction that all the angels are on one side and all the devils on the other.” In hitherto trying to influence Government, climate campaigners implicitly accepted that there were “angels” to be leveraged in caucus. Taking a different approach, McKibben quotes Naomi Klein to frame the divestment campaign: “…these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.” In standing against the fossil-fuel industry, McKibben creates a binary where either their industry lasts, or the planet lasts – but not both.

a picture of tex richman from the muppets film

“The Muppets” (2011) illustrates perfectly how to portray a bad guy as pure evil.


So the divestment movement begins with a clear target that is unambiguously in the wrong. McKibben then pays homage to the anti-Apartheid campaigns of the 1980s, suggesting divestment as our tactic of choice.

The beauty of divestment is its availability. Every individual has money in a bank and, in Australia, in a Super fund. Thus every individual has a stake in this campaign and a way of wielding influence. If you yourself have divested, you can speak to others and get them to divest. Then you can take on institutional targets: your college with its endowment fund, your church, or your state Government. (And the college thing is a particularly wonderful stroke, as this campaign has the potential to catalyse the development and growth of groups on campus, pretty fertile ground for a social movement.)

Thus with divestment there is at every scale and level of engagement a tactic allowing people to take action and deepen their engagement. Because there is such a range of targets for a divestment campaign, it’s possible to achieve short-term success and be spurred to further victory. The fossil-fuel industry’s massive economic pie is effectively sliced into a variety of bite-sized pieces, providing a range of realistic and worthwhile campaign possibilities.

Chris Rose, author of How to Win Campaigns talks about the “credibility triangle“, suggesting that a robust campaign requires its objectives, resources, and activities, to be well-connected and in proportion with one another. This is a useful model for comprehending the pitfalls of many groups, which may have objectives that far outstretch their resources and activities. It’s also a model that allows us to see the brilliance of the divestment campaign, in which an objective can be easily scaled to match the resources and activities of any sort of group.

I’ve been part of various climate campaigns and sampled a myriad of approaches to trying to change the system. Of these, the divestment campaign strikes me as most likely to yield results. Campaigners on divestment have the advantage of a clear, reprehensible target. The goal of divestment then offers a range of possible secondary targets, allowing a group to choose an objective matched to their resources and possible activities. This creates feasible, credible, winning campaigns.

So. Outraged by the Abbott Government? Fed-up with spinning wheels and lobbying Government? It could be time to get involved in the fastest-growing divestment campaign in history.

You could:

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