It is good to end the year with some positive news; the announcement that the value of assets committed to some form of divestment from fossil fuel companies has reached $5 trillion.
The fossil fuel divestment movement has gone from marginal to mainstream in just over 5 years. What started at a single university has become a global movement with universities, pension & insurance funds, foundations, sovereign wealth funds, local governments, cities, faith-based organisations, individuals and others all committing to moving their money out of oil, gas and coal companies.
The study of social movements as well as of fossil fuel divestment is extensive; I offer these insights to develop my own understanding of this aspect of campaigning rather than to draw any real conclusions. Here are some of the factors that could have contributed to its success.
Tarrow defines movements as “collective challenges, based on a common purpose and social solidarities in sustained interaction with elites, opponents and authorities” (1998: 4). When people couldn’t stop squabbling about climate change the movement provided a clear mandate for action. The original purpose in 2011 was to get one university to shift its endowments out of the most carbon-polluting companies. The growth of the movement then became a focus point for climate activism (Apfel, 2015) sending a signal to society that fossil fuels have no future. Divestment became identified as the object of collective climate action (Della Porta & Diani, 2006).
Clusters, Not Crowds
Mass demonstrations may be the visual symbol of movements but effectiveness comes from the power that comes when small groups connect (Satell, 2016) through informal networks (Della Porta & Diani 2006). As Bill McKibben founder of 350.org observes small groups of students involved in the divestment campaign soon spread their expertise to campaigns within the broader anti-fossil fuel movement such as the Keystone Pipeline. Additionally, the movement gave many different people the opportunity to engage with individual institutions where they have a connection (Apfel, 2015) whether a university, hospital, local authority, foundation – small groups of action drove the campaign forward.
The movement appeals equally to those who want to take to the streets in coordinated protest for global climate justice and those who are concerned about the long-term financial risk from the ‘carbon bubble’. It started as a moral movement – given legitimacy by pillars of the establishment such as universities and religious institutions – and has since become an economic one. A turning point was when the Rockefeller Brothers fund announced it would divest for both ethical and financial risk reasons. Divestment advocacy has converged with a broader anti-fossil fuel movement and campaigns such as #KeepitintheGround and #FossilFuelFree have frame a larger narrative about the decline of fossil fuels” (Arabella Advisors, 2016). In a relatively short space of time the divestment has become unified and has become the issue around which the climate movement could build its collective identify (Della Porta & Diani, 2006).
There are many factors that determine success in social movements, which do you think are important and why?
Arabella Advisors, 2016. The Global Fossil Fuel Divestment and Clean Energy Investment Movement. Available at: https://www.arabellaadvisors.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Global_Divestment_Report_2016.pdf [Accessed: 19 December 2016]
Apfel, D.C., 2015. Exploring Divestment as a Strategy for Change: An Evaluation of the History, Success, and Challenges of Fossil Fuel Divestment. Social Research, 82(4), pp.913–937.
Della Porta, D. & Diani, M., 2006. Social Movements: An Introduction Second Edi., Blackwell.
Satell, G. (2016) ‘What Successful Movements Have in Common’, Harvard Business Review.
Tarrow, S.G. (1998) Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Photo: Joe Brusky, Flickr