Musings on divestment past, present and future

In short: it just doesn’t make sense for universities to invest in a system that will leave their students no livable planet to use their degrees on, or for pension funds to invest in corporations that will ruin the world we plan to retire in. The one thing we know the fossil fuel industry cares about is money. Universities, pension funds, and churches invest a lot of it. If we start with these local institutions and hit the industry where it hurts — their bottom line — we can get their attention and force them to change. This was a key part of how the world ended the apartheid system in South Africa, and we hope it can have the same effect on the climate crisis.


Let me start by saying that the quote above is as far as I’ll go with regard to the examination of the oil industry and climate change. Plenty of people can, have, and will speak about these topics in ways that far exceed my ability and desire to do so. For instance, there’s my partner, Sven, who reported on a lunchtime interview with Bill McKibben as I snapped away with my cameras to document the event. This is about something more: it’s about taking action in alignment with our values.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHWhile it was an honor to meet the man who by way of a personal experiment in his book, “The Age of Missing Information,” deepened my passion to turn off the television more than twenty years ago, it was during his standing room only appearance an hour or so later at the San Francisco Green Festival that sent me back to a formative moment of my college years. Towards the end talk, he passionately uttered some combination of the words quoted above, and “divestment” offered the deepest resonance. At that very moment, I hankered to get home and dig through my photo archive.

The first time I heard the word “divestment” was April 1985. I was inching towards the close of my freshman year at Rutgers University while simultaneously stepping towards my first political protest and rally. I had read snippets in the Daily Targum, the university’s newspaper, about students camping outside the student center and going on hunger strikes, but I really had no idea why. I was young, naive and unworldly, having nary a clue about apartheid and states of emergency in a land so far away. But there I was, camera in hand observing and documenting at the edge of the crowd, determined to stretch my nascent journalist eye and bring back something for my college’s newspaper.




On April 23rd, I returned armed with an access-granting press pass in hand and a nearly front row position with which to photograph the Rev. Jesse Jackson as he spoke to a crowd of thousands – both students and faculty – amassed before him.


Something bad was happening and things had to change. I remember feeling it was all bigger than any of us and beyond my ability to affect an outcome I didn’t fully understand. As it turned out, these voices mattered and collectively, it had an impact. Rutgers became one of many universities nationwide to divest funds from businesses associated with South Africa. Apartheid ended in 1994.

And now we have a call to divest from the oil industry, to take control of what’s happening on and to our planet for generations to come. University students are heeding the call and taking the lead. And in light of the tragic and senseless shooting in Newtown, CT, there are reports about the California State Teachers’ Retirement System’s (CalSTRS) owning a percentage of the company that manufactures weapons like the one used to commit the heinous crime. And then there’s California’s Prop 37, the fight for the right to know what’s in our food and a call for labeling of GMOs.

With any and all of these issues, it comes down this: choice and civic engagement. With the dollars in our pockets, under mattresses, in bank accounts and the stock market, we all have a choice when it comes to how and where we decide to spend and invest them. While it’s true that large acts of divestment have greater and more noticeable impacts, we cannot ignore that our small actions do matter and they do add up. They ripple outward and create conversations with our families, friends, neighbors, grocery store clerks, farmers, taxi drivers, financial advisors and our representatives in government. Conversation leads to action and fighting for what we believe is fair and just.

Look back at successful movements – civil rights, anti-apartheid, the early environmental victories – and you’ll see that three things are needed to make change at the scale we need today.

First, we need a Big Idea of how things could be better – a morally compelling, ecologically sustainable and socially just idea that will not just make things a little better for a few, but a lot better for everyone. Millions around the world already have that idea: an economy based on the needs of people and the planet, not corporate profit.

Second, we need a commitment to work together. In history’s most transformative social movements, people didn’t say “I will perfect my individual daily choices,” but “We will work together until the problem is solved.” Today, it’s easier than ever to work together, online and off.

Finally, we need all of us who share that Big Idea to get active. We need to move from a place of shared concern, frustration and fear to a place of engaged citizen action. That’s how we build the power to make real change.

– Annie Leonard, The Story of Change


originally posted on Daily Kos

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  1. Avatar
    Kari O'Driscoll Reply

    Thank you so much for this, Deb! I love your call to action and the photographs are terrific.

    • deb
      deb Reply

      And thank you so much for reading, Kari! I seem to be digressing from my “typical” kinds of posts, but as you know, sometimes the pull inside is too great to ignore. This one had to come out!

  2. Avatar
    holly Reply

    Great post, Deb! I had a similar experience at college in the 80s getting really involved in the diversature movement. I helped organize the senior class against the administration that was trying to convince us to donate the deposit we were owed from freshmen year as our first gift back to the college as a graduate. A big portion of us refused and used our graduation as a platform to push the college to divest. Heady days! Thanks for being that back to the forefront of my memory.

    • Avatar
      Liberated Spaces / Debra Baida Reply

      Wow, Holly! I knew you were the rabble-rouser in our midst! I’m honored to know a leader in the movement, and glad to remind you of those days long ago.

    • deb
      deb Reply

      Wow, Holly! I knew you were the rabble-rouser in our midst! I’m honored to know a leader in the movement, and glad to remind you of those days long ago.

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