If you’ve been tuning into the Fossil Free Campaign, you’ve likely been hearing more and more of one word lately — ‘NO.’ University presidents and boards at campuses like Harvard, Middlebury, Bryn Mawr and Pomona are beginning to roll out politely worded letters to student activists explaining that, ‘no,’ they will not be divesting their endowments from the fossil fuel industry this semester or probably ever. But they care very much about sustainability, and so instead they’ll be, “voting the College’s proxies on sustainability issues,” or, “create ESG [environment, social, governance] guidelines to help monitor investments and operations at our own campus.” While these are meaningful gestures, the climate crisis requires bolder action.
For students who have been pouring their time, energy and hope into this campaign, this wave of rejections can feel disempowering — especially when the most recent NO’s come from liberal schools with large, vibrant divestment campaigns. But here’s why I’m more excited than ever to be engaged in this fight.
We often hear about campaigns laid out in a straight line, where we determine a problem, build power through recruiting lots of people to support us, and by sheer numbers and endurance, we win our demands. But, campaigns almost never work this way. If we were granted our demands without a fight, it might indicate that our asks aren’t big or transformative enough.
Divestment isn’t an easy campaign to win — we’re seeking to fundamentally challenge the way our campus thinks about money, our future, and their responsibility to the world. We’re also going up against the most profitable industry in the history of the world. Expect a challenge.
Just like the South African Apartheid divestment campaign, where many campuses worked for 5 years before their schools divested, we’ll be told no repeatedly before things begin to shift. Now, in 2013, the pushback we’re getting from Universities is a natural part of a successful campaign cycle. It means that the pressure we’re building is big enough that college presidents have to publicly respond to our demands, and in some cases, must offer us compromises (like greater resources for on-campus sustainability, or more green buildings) to quell our power. It also means that each time we face a setback, it’s time to change our tactics — to get creative and ramp up the pressure until our boards either come up with some new rejection or give in to our demands.
We will meet resistance — even mockery, threats, and counter-campaigns. We will hear, ‘no,’ again and again. We’re fighting to change the system that leads to runaway climate change — to rising seas, drought, wildfires, and thousand year weather anomalies every year. The rejections are just one sign that our asks recognize the scale of the climate crisis. When we decide to keep fighting despite the rejections, we prove who we are as a movement.
We know what we’re fighting for — and we know it’s time to recruit, intensify, take action, and drive our campaigns harder than ever before. So if you’ve been hearing a lot of, ‘NO,’ lately, take heart. That barrier means you’re pushing hard enough to win. Keep it up.