Divest Now? A Case for Our Immediate Emancipation from Fossil Fuels

Students at the Claremont Colleges. | Photo: Courtesy Bill Mckibben/GoFossilFree.org

Our carbon footprint is everywhere, in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the spaces in which we work and sleep. It fuels all forms of modern transportation -- cars, trucks, trains, buses, planes, and ships -- and its residue makes toxic the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Because there are extraordinary profits to be wrung from exploiting this energy resource, mega-corporations are imploding mountaintops and drilling, fracking, and blasting ever deeper into the earth to tap into these fossilized riches. Those who control their production, distribution, and consumption shape deliberations from town halls to the United Nations.

Extracting ourselves, our communities, and politics from this oil-and-gas juggernaut is not going to be easy. That's why so few immediately will jump at the chance to divest themselves of their investments in such corporations as Exxon or Shell, Valero or BP.

Thanks however to Bill McKibben and the fertile imaginations of folks at 350.org, there is a move afoot to do just that, using divestment as way for us to acknowledge our collective complicity in and accept our shared responsibility for a warming Earth, this imperiled planet.

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"The fossil fuel industry is a rogue industry," McKibben has argued. "We stand to emit five times as much CO2 as even the most conservative government says is safe. The fuel will definitely be burned unless we change the story line." How change that narrative? By altering the character and tone of public discourse about the hegemonic clout of fossil fuels.

The motive for doing so has not and will not come from grand climate-change conferences in Copenhagen, Mexico City, or Doha; despite their glitter, they have produced little in the way of real results.

Instead it will come from tactics that will push up from the bottom. Divestment is one of them. No surprise, then, it is becoming a rallying cry on campuses across the country with students, staff, and faculty addressing the economic, moral, and political implications of their institutions' profitable investment in fossil fuels.

With the goal of recalculating the "terrifying math of the climate crisis" -- we must burn less carbon dioxide to keep global temperatures from rising more than two-degrees Celsius -- 350.org has targeted the 200 energy companies controlling the largest oil-and-gas reserves around the world (and in which are buried an estimated 2,795 gigatons of carbon). Its strategy is to persuade trustees and administrations to sell their shares in these firms, a symbolic strike against the powers-that-be.

This may seem but a gesture, and in one sense that is an accurate reading of the impact that such divestment might produce. Even if every college and university dumped Exxon, for example, it would not cripple that massive corporation. Neither would it mean that these colleges and universities would have achieved fossil-fuel freedom. All travel to and from these campuses, all food brought to their loading docks, all heat, light, and other resources that warm classrooms, illuminate athletic contests, and power laboratories would remain carbon-based.

So what is the point of demanding full and complete divestment?

Masthead for The Liberator, 1850. Designed by Hammatt Billings. | Image: Wikipedia/Public Domain


Painting of William Lloyd Garrison at the National Portrait Gallery. | Photo: Billy Hathorn/Wikipedia/Creative Commons Public Domain License

An answer lies in the political tactics that William Lloyd Garrison adopted in 1831 to jolt awake the somnolent abolitionist movement. Well aware that King Cotton dominated global trade in the early nineteenth-century, hyper-alert to the plantation south's claim that slavery was essential to the production of this white gold, and conscious of how this export crop and the brutal labor practices that generated it was responsible for the new nation's booming economy, Garrison did not hesitate to attack this status quo precisely because of it was omnipotent and omnipresent.

His demand for immediate emancipation of all slaves was blunt. "I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation," Garrison editorialized in January 1831 in the first issue of the Liberator. "No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm: tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; -- but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- and I will be heard."

Like a lightning bolt, his words cracked through the silence that enveloped slavery's presence in the American republic. They blew apart his fellow citizens' willingness to quietly sanction the peculiar institution that besmirched the notion that all men are created equal.

Yet Garrison recognized that his booming rhetoric and the powerful movement it engendered would not reach quick resolution. "Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may," he wrote in the Liberator in August 1831, "it will alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be we shall always contend."

Had Garrison, Frederick Douglas, the Grimke sisters, and a host of other radical abolitionists not demanded immediate liberation, had they not pushed, cajoled, demanded, and upset their contemporaries it would have been impossible for Americans to imagine a world in which slavery did not exist. Without Garrison, in short, there would be no Lincoln. Without the Liberator there would be no Emancipation Proclamation.

Absent 350.org, and by extension there would be no contemporary arena in which to debate the inimical impact of fossil fuels on our daily lives and in the body politic. There would be little pressure to make the moral choices we need to make to align the reality of this world with the idealized vision of a carbon-free society.

There also would be much less appreciation for the cross-generational responsibility we bear so that those who will inherit this Earth can live within its sustaining embrace.

To understand why this matters, consider the differing reactions of Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt to the great crises that defined their eras.

The Master of Monticello, for instance, did not need William Lloyd Garrison to tell him that slavery destroyed slave and slaveholder alike. But neither did Jefferson, whose galvanizing rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence about humanity's right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," choose to liberate those he willingly enslaved.

He would let others lift that bale. "I am sensible of the partialities with which you have looked towards me as the person who should undertake this salutary but arduous work," the former president wrote a young friend in 1814, but "this enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, & these are the only weapons of an old man." Because he disarmed himself, Jefferson must be held partly responsible for the bloody Civil War that consumed the rising generation.

Roosevelt, whose cohort confronted the pernicious impact of an industrializing economy, refused to offload his obligations on those who later would come of age. As he and his progressive peers fought against child labor, demanded better housing, battled for universal suffrage, and defended wildlands, parks, and forests, they did so convinced that they repair this broken world in their lifetimes. "Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, Roosevelt asserted, "bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations."

The same principled commitment to the future is driving the current divestment campaign -- it is a stand we must take, a fight we must make. Now.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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