Buoyed by the success of divestment in dealing with the oppressive South African regime in the 1970s and 1980s, college students across the United States have taken the fight to fossil fuels. Belied by a poor understanding of the realities of energy production and markets, there is a clear equivalence of the apartheid regime and the fossil fuel industry by using divestment. The former was an egregious abuse of human rights, the latter a necessity for human survival today. The exploitation of the symbolism associated with divestment and the dismantling of apartheid, and appropriation of this iconography to an issue which is by no means similar to it, is a dishonour to the legacies of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and the millions of others who gave up a large part of their lives to a noble cause.
The Civil Rights Act, along with a handful of Supreme Court cases in the 1960s changed the socio-cultural fabric of the United States of America forever, marking the end of legalised segregation and the realisation of the letter and spirit of the 15th Amendment (1870). The recognition of equality regardless of the colour of one’s skin enabled change makers and Civil Rights leaders to focus their efforts elsewhere, where governments and organisations discriminated on basis of colour.
Throughout the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, colleges played a pivotal role in pressuring the United States government to dismantle its own system of apartheid, euphemistically called segregation. Four young college students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, the Greensboro Four, organised, on February 1, 1960, a sit in at a Woolworths Store. The Greensboro sit-ins expanded to other students from the College, gaining critical momentum and spreading to the rest of the population as an extraordinarily popular and effective form of civil disobedience.
The 1970s was a time of turmoil on universities and campuses in the United States. On May 4, 1970, students at Kent State protesting American involvement in the Vietnam War were at the receiving end of fire from Ohio National Guard soldiers, killing four and wounding nine. This further energised student activists across college campuses around the United States. Protests against the Vietnam War continued throughout the first half of the decade, until Nixon and Kissinger negotiated a peace deal in Paris, and the USA pulled out of Vietnam completely.
The rise of social justice and student activism in colleges throughout the United States culminated in the divestment movement against South Africa. South Africa’s apartheid regime was responsible for egregious human rights abuses, including mass displacements and forced segregation. Many colleges had endowments worth billions of dollars, including Dartmouth and the rest of the Ivy League, parts of which were invested in businesses with activities in South Africa that followed these laws. Buoyed by the successes of the last two decades, and a poor understanding of the stock market, activism had found a new country to fight for the right of equality-South Africa, and a new tool: divestment.
Divestment as a business practice has existed since the beginning of the stock exchanges, but only in the 1970s was it appropriated as a tool to pressure businesses into changing and following certain policies. As John Silber explains, when divestment occurs, stocks are merely sold off to somebody else, and “if we sell it to somebody, we have just gotten rid of our guilt in order to impose guilt on somebody else.” It is a symbolic gesture, and it was this very symbolism that pro-divestment activism aimed to exploit to pressure businesses, and gave rise to a new form of voting- voting with the wallet.
For an economy so highly dependent on foreign capital, South Africa was in a highly vulnerable position. Divestment would cause capital flight from the national economy, and would cripple business activity. Between 1985 and 1988, there was a net outflow of 23.9 billion Rand from the South African economy due to disinvestment, and threatened to launch the economy into a state of hyperinflation, with inflation already at 12-15% in the same period. Companies that had any sort of business activity in South Africa faced disinvestment from investors not just in the form of colleges but also other corporations across the world. By August 1988, 155 colleges, 26 states, 22 counties and more than 90 cities across the USA had divested from any form of business activity in South Africa.
The symbolism and limited nature of activism transformed into widespread action, and disinvestment only began to become an effective method of social justice activism when the monetary system began to partake in it. Between late 1985 and early 1986, American banks, starting with Chase Manhattan refused to lend money to South African firms. Richard Knight, a former UN official, says, “The U.S. banks’ actions caused a panic in South Africa. At the time, U.S. banks had outstanding loans of $3.5 billion, of which $2.8 billion had a maturity of one year or less.” The South African economy was on the brim of collapse, and the government became desperate to save it from an imminent slump. Debt repayment negotiations between the F.W. de Klerk government and the banks reached a standstill until the government showed a commitment to dismantling apartheid, by releasing nine long term political prisoners including Walter Sisulu. The economic crises sparked by large scale divestment culminated in the dismantling of apartheid the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, and his election as President of South Africa.
In 2009, a consortium of 18 scientific associations, under the aegis of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, issued a statement reproduced by NASA, that read, “Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.” Global warming is a real threat to the planet, and one of the most important contributors to it is the burning of fossil fuels, including oil and natural gas. A steady increase in the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere will have tragic global consequences.
Attempts to replace real cars with electricity powered mobility scooters are not as green as green-clad activists think. The lithium in the batteries is highly toxic for the environment, especially in its ionic form. The electricity that is used to power the chargers that power the cars comes predominantly from coal and oil fired power plants. By increasing the degrees of separation between energy production and consumption, the potential for conversion to forms of energy that are not kinetic in nature are significantly increased, assuming the path of least resistance, and just shifts the guilt from the driver, some sort of feel-good thing. Manufacturing these scooters isn’t environmentally friendly either, for electric car manufacturing has a higher per-unit carbon footprint than the manufacture of conventional cars. Neither are the batteries any better for the environment, and the lithium and other heavy metals that constitute them are a more immediate danger to the environment, with small concentrations having the ability to lethally harm food and water sources for millions of people.
Assuming the magnitude of the impact that divestment had from South Africa would be mirrored in the fossil fuel industry, the world would be plunged into darkness. There is no evidence to show that in the near future, the world can survive on solely renewable forms of energy. Any attempt to negatively impact energy production through fossil fuels will result in developing nations bearing a disproportionate amount of costs for production changeovers, not to mention the immense economic impact.
The morality of divestment in South Africa was clear cut- it was a violation of one of the most basic human rights of the modern world: the right to equality and liberty. It was an egregious violation of human decency, reducing people of colour into simple numbers who stayed together. Global warming, too, poses a threat to human existence, but divestment in fossil fuels dishonours the memory of the people who gave up their lives to fight against apartheid in South Africa. The equivalency of both, by using the same tactic, is a disservice to the brave men and women who braved an oppressive and violent government to fight for their rights.
In 2013, Harvard, one of the universities that was an enthusiastic participation in the divestment from South Africa through its own endowment and status, refused to divest from fossil fuels. Highlighting the existence of global warming, and acknowledging the role of the fossil fuels as an irremovable part of our daily lives, President Drew Gilpin Faust said that using the endowment as “a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise.”
Similarly, President Christina Paxson of Brown, which refused to divest funds from fossil fuels, said in a statement, “Coal is the source of approximately 40 percent of the world’s electricity, and it provides needed energy for millions of people throughout the world… a cessation of the production and use of coal would itself create significant economic and social harm to countless communities across the globe.” There is a tacit recognition amongst administrators around campuses that fossil fuels are an integral part of daily life, and there is a rejection of the equivalency between apartheid and global warming.
What differentiates divestment in fossil fuels and divestment from apartheid is the level of governmental support for the policies, again a negation of the equivalency between the two. The dismantling of the apartheid regime due to divestment was aided by an UN imposed oil and weapons embargo, a recognition of the true evil of apartheid and the pressing need to dismantle an oppressive regime. When colleges divest from fossil fuels, the same shares get sold on the stock market, and there is no change to policy.
Divestment from fossil fuel stocks, which are high return stocks, negatively impact the ability of colleges to fund need-blind admissions, and cover tuition, increasing the unsustainability of their endowments. Instead, by choosing to not divest, colleges can maintain their influence as shareholders, and pressure firms from within to be accountable and transparent about the true impact of their business activities. While fossil fuels may not be the cleanest way to illuminate and run the planet, it is the only way to do so. Till the time renewable energy sources enter the mainstream and can supply the increasing demand for energy, fossil fuels are the only way that the world can run.