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Divestment Now: The Best Solution for Environmental Justice

Why divestment is the best solution to create change.

Power Up! Divest Fossil Fuels: Student Convergence 2013 took place this past weekend at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA. Students from Harvard, Middlebury, Earlham, Yale, Brown, Bryn Mawr, Cornell, Sewanee, and Swartmore worked for months to raise funds, organize the event, invite speakers from a wide-array of backgrounds, and much more to make this event possible. In total, almost 200 students from 77 different schools were represented at this Convergence. They came from different backgrounds with various entry points into climate activism, and proved this weekend that in building a powerful national movement, we can use our differences to grow in so many ways.

For those new to the movement, divestment is the tactic of taking one's money out of a particular stock/bond/mutual fund, etc. There have been many times throughout history where movements have called for the use of this tactic, including divestment from South African Apartheid, divestment from Sudan, divestment from Israeli Apartheid, divestment from the prison-industrial complex, and more. The fossil fuel divestment movement is a rapidly growing student movement which has been active for over two years. Growing from 40 colleges and universities to over 200 in the Fall of 2013 (thanks in part to and Bill McKibben's Do The Math tour), this movement has resulted in four colleges and the city of Seattle already committing to fossil-fuel-free investment portfolios. Similarly, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island mentioned divestment on the Senate floor as an example of the popular desire for climate legislation before taking part in Sunday’s Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C., where he was joined by thousands of students mobilized by divestment.

The purpose/goal of Power Up! Divest Fossil Fuels was two fold:

1. How do campaigns for divestment incorporate Environmental Justice and anti-oppression principles into our movement strategies? (How we organize; with whom are we organizing; what solutions we are working toward beyond divestment?)??

2. How can our individual campaigns work together to form strategies on a national/international scale that will create effective change?

Environmental Justice is a framework that is often juxtaposed against the very privileged nature of those often participating in the environmental movement. The Environmental Justice principles were first created at the multinational People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. They teach us that everything around us is our environment, and we can not separate the issues of oppression, racism, and xenophobia from our activist work.

Marginalized low-income, indigenous, and communities of color are certainly the most affected by the practices of the fossil fuel industry. Students of the national divestment movement now see this as the central issue of environmental concern and are actively working to end this discrimination.

On the opening night of Power Up!, Lilian Molina, a wonderful Environmental Justice worker and community organizer shared her deep and personal struggle with environmental racism and its implications in her life and community. It was made all the more clear to those present that divestment is not the only tactic which we need to use to create true "Climate Justice."

She explained, "This is not a single issue movement, and we do not live single issue lives." There cannot be a truly successful solidarity movement without addressing the intentionality of justice issues within our movement. We must always be aware whether or not the movements we make as environmental activists are creating or dismantling oppression. We must continue to find ways in which we can leverage our privilege to act against that oppression and in true solidarity with those on the frontlines of extraction and consumption. People on the frontlines do not have the luxury to see environmental activism as a single issue movement, because climate injustice is affecting their lives now in so many different but interconnected ways.

Students learned that building a horizontal, democratically structured network through which we can communicate, will help us to work together for the changes we want to see. We can start to leverage the privilege we do have to let the voices of frontline activists be heard and address the issues of environmental injustice in our neighborhoods and communities. And as readers of this article, you too can join this movement.

We must push ourselves, our college administrations, pension funds, family members, cities, religious organizations, etc. to act now, divest from fossil fuels, and take one more step towards climate justice. We must talk with our peers, our family members and have the uncomfortable conversations about environmental racism and how oppression is embedded in our society at every level. We must use all our resources to fight this oppression and build a world without privilege. We must divest from our personal holdings in the fossil fuel industry and stand in solidarity with the Beaver Lake Cree nation in Alberta whose land is being stolen by the Canadian government, with the Latino population in Houston, Texas which is poisoned by the burning of tarsands, and with the peoples of West Virginia who put their lives on the line to stop Mountaintop Removal.

But, why divestment? Students converging at Swarthmore this weekend learned that divestment is just one tool which we can use to leverage the power we have as privileged students. But, that we do have the power to use our privilege to help solve the energy crisis. We don’t need to wait for the “authority” to tell us that this is right. We are the authority, and we have the ability to demand the changes we need to continue living in this world. In order to truly act in solidarity with those negatively affected by the fossil fuel industry everyday, we must use our privilege to fight that oppression and create change.

Kirsten "Sally" Bunner is a 2011 Quaker graduate from Earlham College with a degree in Peace and Global Studies. She works on many projects including aiding her alma mater's REInvestment Campaign (Responsible Energy Investment) which strives to work with their college endowment to increase investments in sustainable energy.

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