Every day, students at Mount Allison in Sackville, N.B. go to class. Political science students read Aristotle. Aviation students do physics exercises. Music students give recitals. Biology students learn about climate change. Actually, political science students learn about climate change too. So do aviation students. Even music students. Almost every single field of study at the university touches on the fact that our world is ending.
Species go extinct every day. We send clouds of toxic smoke into the sky, creating an opaque blanket of heat that blasts the ice caps. The Earth’s system of carbon regulation, the world’s forests — the immune system of our living planet — are deforested at the rate of 20 football fields every minute. We extract the carbonized content of fossilized creatures from millions of years ago and burn them. We have 12 years to change things before the ice in the north melts forever and species extinction accelerates exponentially. The terrific weight of our ecological cruelty freaks me out, and always has. I never really felt I could do something until 2016, when I came to Mount Allison for my first year, and became acquainted with Divest MTA. The group has campaigned since 2013 for removal of fossil fuel investments from the university endowment.
I heard whispers of Divest within the first few days, as I went through orientation events, had shaving cream poured on me, and did various group dances. I couldn’t tell if people saw it as a joke or a threat. Vaguely understanding they were radical anti-climate change activists, I tracked down a member and went to a meeting. My experience with Divest MTA proved to be one of the most transformative experiences of my life, giving me massive insight into the causes of climate change, as well as the resistance efforts that could demolish greed and destruction and recreate the ancient relationship of respect and empowerment between humans and our planet.
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The fossil fuel divestment movement is simple. Organizers creatively confront an institution, appealing to logic, emotion, and sometimes resorting to such threats as withholding tuition fees, in an attempt to force an institution to remove its investments, generally from the top 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies. Many attribute the end of apartheid South Africa to an international divestment movement.
Initiatives are typically led by stakeholders of the institutions — the students of a university, for example, or the flock of a church. And divest movements work. As of 2018, thousands of institutions, ranging from investment firms, museums, and religious organizations, and universities, to New York City and Ireland, have committed to divestment from fossil fuels. As of September 2018, says gofossilfree.org, $6.24 trillion dollars in assets were divested from fossil fuels. This is up from only $52 billion four years ago, a 12,000-fold increase.
We know we will have to divest from fossil fuels; fossil fuels are a finite resource. It isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. The real question is this: how much of our world will be left when the transition comes?
"Being in Divest MTA has been great. I’ve made friends and memories that I’ll keep for life. I feel ready for bigger fights." #divestment #climate
Divest movements also take aim at the social license of fossil fuel companies, amplifying the climate change conversation and challenging people to consider their complicity. This doesn’t mean attacking employees in fossil fuel industries. On the contrary, it means ensuring a just transition to sustainable energy. Basically, divestment is community-level action to cut ties with fossil fuels and fight for a livable future. These movements are also valuable training grounds for budding activists on campuses and elsewhere.
Inspired by commitment, organization and hustle
I went to more and more meetings. At first, I was confused by some of the group’s discussions: Why were they using the words “bodies” and “safe space” like that? What does climate change have to do with racism? Most of the time, though, I was extremely inspired by their drive to fight the power, and joined in. The university must divest soon, I thought to myself. This level of commitment, organization and hustle is unstoppable!
Halfway through my first year, Divest Mount Allison launched its most ambitious action to date: a three-day camp in the academic quad culminating in an occupation of the president’s office. (Watch a short video on it here.) For three days, more than 50 people slept in blistering -30 C temperatures, covering the quad in a tapestry of tents. A diversity of events took place: poetry readings, where professors came and covertly read their activist poetry; sessions with Mi’kmaq activists from remote points of New Brunswick, who spoke of their struggles against colonial efforts to frack ancestral lands, bringing everyone to tears. Communal meals were organized, where curious passersby were invited into the camp to talk climate justice.
On the third day, about 60 students, professors and staff occupied the president’s office. Robert Campbell, then Mount Allison’s president, represented a lot of what Divest MTA and its allies were fighting against: passive centrism in a time of crisis. During his presidency he had refused to acknowledge Divest MTA. For hours, students used their bodies to carpet the floor of the office, blocking the exit used by Campbell and other administrative executives. The action attracted media attention and unleashed a vortex of controversy on campus, sparking protest graffiti and fake twitter accounts. Mostly, I think, it initiated a conversation.
Being in Divest MTA has been great. I’ve made friends and memories that I’ll keep for life. I feel ready for bigger fights.
Unfortunately, my experience with Divest has also had a markedly uninspiring side to it. We met university employees who seemed to take joy in ridiculing and blocking our message. They also revealed levels of apathy and fear of change that I’d previously thought impossible in the environment of a Canadian university.
Over its six years of existence, Divest MTA has:
- Submitted detailed reports to the university’s board of regents on the fiscal viability of a transition of investments from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
- Supported Divest MTA members winning seats on student and university administrative councils to push the message.
- Won support of the Students’ Union for a motion endorsing fossil fuel divestment.
- Circulated petitions with thousands of signatures, some in video form.
- Staged banner drops and other disruptions during graduation, homecoming, board meetings, and other events.
- Met, meaninglessly, with administration... so many times.
- Convinced visiting speakers like Naomi Klein to call on the university to divest.
- Distributed tens of thousands of pamphlets.
These initiatives have all been fruitless. Although ranked “best undergraduate university in Canada,” Mount Allison has now missed out on the chance to become the first Canadian school to divest —the Université Laval snagged that title in 2017 with a commitment to divest its endowment fund of fossil fuel investments. As I look back at the remarkable effort that’s been made, I find myself wondering what it will take for my school to lead by example. I feel dog-tired. But then I remind myself that there’s only one way to find out.