Rocchi: The Value of Symbolic Action

Divestment will yield broader institutional change.

by Catherine Rocchi | 4/30/19 2:00am

In a recent Verbum entitled “Symbolic Sustainability,” The Dartmouth Editorial Board derides the campus fossil fuel divestment campaign as performative activism that undermines Dartmouth’s other environmental initiatives. This argument is misguided. Here’s why.

Dartmouth has removed its investments from a variety of harmful institutions. In 1989, in protest of the oppressive apartheid regime, Dartmouth famously divested $11.5 million from companies doing business in South Africa. The College divested again in 1993, 2005 and 2012 from the James Bay Hydro-Quebec dam project, companies operating in Sudan and tobacco corporations, respectively. 

The fact that Dartmouth has divested in the past does not prove that divestment is an effective change-making strategy. The Dartmouth Editorial Board was correct in writing that Dartmouth’s direct holdings in fossil fuel-related assets amounted to just $43 million in 2016 — hardly a drop in the bucket of Dartmouth’s $5.5 billion endowment and the $4.5 trillion global fossil fuel market. Moreover, as the Editorial Board points out, other investors could rapidly scoop up the discarded stocks. No one believes that Dartmouth’s divestment from fossil fuels would drive Exxon-Mobil to bankruptcy. 

Yet, divestment is a tried-and-true tool used to shift norms and effect political change. We can look to our own history to see how these “symbolic” movements work. Take apartheid, for example. In the 1980s, many American universities divested their endowments from companies operating in South Africa. As with the fossil fuel movement, these individual divestitures did not immediately impact the South African economy. However, they did draw global attention to the apartheid problem. Other institutions began to follow suit, including cities, counties and states. These divestments were key in creating the political momentum that led to a series of UN-sponsored economic sanctions being imposed against South Africa, including the United States’ Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. Economic turmoil weakened the apartheid regime, which capitulated to the resistance movement in the early 1990s. 

South African apartheid is not a perfect analogue to the global fossil fuel industry. However, the two divestment movements share common tactics. Both use social stigma to encourage companies to abandon harmful practices. Moreover, they contribute to the political will that enables governments to throw their economic weight behind social justice. In the 1980s, our government responded to a divestment movement with economic sanctions against South Africa. Today, we can hope for a national cap-and-trade system or a tax on carbon. 

According to its Facebook page, Divest Dartmouth asks that the College cease to invest in “coal, tar sands and the Climate Action List of the most harmful oil and gas companies identified by the Fossil Free Index and Union of Concerned Scientists.” Corporations on the Climate Action List are continually evaluated according to their public transparency, actions to reduce their carbon footprints, integration of climate science into company governance and affiliations with third parties that spread misinformation about climate change, among other factors. Divestment would allow the College to direct investments away from the most egregious perpetrators of environmental and social degradation and toward those companies that reform their practices.  

In recent years, the College has engaged with climate change through research and changes to physical infrastructure. These steps are critically important. They are also in no way mutually exclusive with fossil fuel divestment. Many students involved with Divest Dartmouth are also engaged with sustainability on campus in other ways — through their academic studies, working with the Sustainability Office or co-authoring the report that precipitated the new biomass plantand other operational improvements. And, as noted above, direct investments in fossil fuel companies make up a tiny fraction of Dartmouth’s endowment. Divesting won’t put our returns, renovations or programming at risk.  

If Dartmouth’s investments are a negligible slice of the behemoth fossil fuel market, then our 2018 emissions of roughly 58 thousand metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent are next to nothing compared to the nearly 6.5 billion emitted in the United States in 2017. This isn’t to say that we should give up physical divestiture from fossil fuels. However, it does mean that the main value of these changes, as with financial divestment, will lie in the example that they set for others. Dartmouth can best combat climate change through a suite of complementary approaches, including symbolic action. Fossil fuel divestment is an opportunity for Dartmouth to demonstrate leadership and leverage its influence to effect systemic change. 

Rocchi is a member of the Class of 2019 and a member of Divest Dartmouth. 

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