Money is power. And when money conspires to block the path to a just and sustainable future, it takes the organized efforts of millions of people to break through those roadblocks. Divestment has worked in the past – and it is time to rediscover its power.
The fossil fuel industry, and its enablers in government and the financial sector, have a stranglehold on the country. These must be resisted at every turn.
The biggest first step was recently taken in Seattle, where city leaders voted to divest $3bn in public investments in Wells Fargo Bank, a prime investor and lender to companies building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in defiance of the Standing Rock Sioux’s treaty rights to protect its water and sacred cultural lands.
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Seattle may be the biggest local government to act, but it is not alone. Across the United States, from Eugene in Oregon to Providence in Rhode Island, many localities are in varying stages of requiring the pension funds and other investment vehicles they control to divest from fossil fuel companies. Similarly, financial institutions that underpin their ability to carry out environmentally and, in the case of the Standing Rock Sioux, culturally destructive extractive activities, are also being targeted with divestment.
Divestment campaigns have a long history as a tool to pressure governments and companies to act in morally and socially productive ways. The Rev Desmond Tutu, the retired South African Anglican bishop who was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid campaign, said the same tactics that began small and mushroomed into a worldwide campaign to end the racist regime can work to force the world to wean itself from its climate-altering addiction to fossil fuels.
“It makes no sense to invest in companies that undermine our future,” Tutu wrote in the Guardian. “To serve as custodians of creation is not an empty title; it requires that we act, and with all the urgency this dire situation demands.”
The focus of the divestment campaign’s first round has been Wells Fargo, which has pursued profits without principles by investing in private prisons, for-profit immigration detention centers and loan shark-like payday lending companies and by holding much of the bond debt strangling Puerto Rico’s efforts to pull itself out of its financial crisis.
And it should be no surprise that a predatory financial company that cares little beyond its bottom line has been accused of imposing boiler room-type tactics and sales goals on its employees, and has been forced to pay $175m to the Justice Department in connection with allegations of discriminatory lending practices.
Wells Fargo has millions invested in companies building the Dakota Access pipeline, which has drawn national attention for its utter disregard both for its environmental impacts and the treaty rights of the Standing Rock Sioux to protect against the pipeline’s path through sacred Sioux water and burial sites. Wells Fargo is not the only target of the divestment campaign, though: many others are facing intense public pressure.
BayernLB, a German bank, recently ended its $120m in investments in the DAPL project. And Dutch banking and financial services giant ING, citing its discussions with indigenous leaders and other protesting DAPL, announced in March that it was selling its $120m stake in $2.5bn of loan financing that a consortium of institutions has provided to the project.
Treaties – in the case of DAPL, a series of mid-19th century treaties between the United States and the Great Sioux Nation collectively known as the Fort Laramie Treaties – are enshrined in the US constitution as the supreme law of the land, though the American government has too often treated those treaties as worth less than the paper on which they are written.
We have seen in the short time since Donald Trump became president that civil society can use the tools of protest and resistance to change the path of American history in the face of injustice. Whether it is federal courts blocking the racist Muslim-focused travel ban, or thousands of people confronting Republican Congress members at town meetings in their home districts, collective action has been an effective counterweight to one-party control of the formal levers of power in Washington.
Make no mistake. The unholy marriage of money and power is a formidable foe for those seeking to create a more just and sustainable future fueled by renewable energy sources, and respect for indigenous rights. The side with lots of money can afford to take some losses and burn through resources in court proceedings that those without money cannot.
But it is not insurmountable. Divestment as part of an activist toolkit – along with direct action, media pressure and shaming – can work well dealing with well-moneyed opposition.
As leaders of cities large and small consider whether to use the tools at their disposal – the combined wealth of pension funds and other investment vehicles – it is important for them to know they are not alone. We can win this battle if we fight together.
• This article was amended on 7 April 2017. An earlier version gave a figure of $2.5m where $2.5bn was meant