The tactics and goals of divestment campaigns are generally well documented and understood. Generally, these campaigns seek to persuade and cajole universities into changing the way they invest their endowments so as to remove fossil fuel producing companies from their investment portfolios. Dynamic, fast growing, and media savvy, these campaigns have captured the attention of national media outlets from The New York Times to Fox News.
Less well understood, however, are the students behind these campaigns. With relatively little fanfare and recognition, divestment movements around the country are doing much more than advocating for a particular set of responsible investment strategies for universities. They are attracting, training, and shaping a new generation of activists who together are changing the face and feel of environmental activism on college campuses.
In seeking to explain their heterogeneous motivations, interests, and concerns, this article will explore the individuals leading these campaigns and how they function as one group. Young, diverse, and generally inexperienced, divesters are already reimagining environmental activism in a way more immediately relevant to their generation’s concerns. It is these motivations, interests, concerns, and relationships that represent much of the future of campus activism.
Divestment and Student Power
If you ask divestment leaders what is most surprising about the movement, they usually describe how they did not anticipate “how fast they would grow and how much attention they would garner on campus.” Answers like these are undoubtedly part of a savvy movement’s attempt to shape media narratives, but equally reflect the truly extraordinary growth in student involvement and media coverage. Just a few years old, divestment campaigns have grown in membership and salience faster than any of their contemporary activist groups. Indeed, much of divestment’s promise draws roots in its broad appeal.
Student leaders argue that what makes divestment so appealing to young students is that it changes the fundamental power dynamics most students experience in activist spaces. In many other in- stances, limited resources and low levels of experience combine to limit student leaders’ effectiveness. For divesters, however, being a student is a source of power and influence. They are able to effectively lobby university officials with significant credibility precisely because they are students. Young and naïve they may be, but powerless they are not.
This power is appealing both because it increases the footprint of student activism and because it reduces the focus on individual choices. The focus on big systems over which students have considerable power has helped divestment to avoid what Alli Welton, a Harvard student and divester, told the HPR is the “annoyance factor” of past environmental campaigns. According to Welton, divestment counters an “image of climate campaigners as super preachy annoying people who will run around turning off your lights.” Divestment, she argues, recognizes that “the system we’re all set in is structured against making a seriously sustainable lifestyle viable.”
The Conservation Divesters
The major cleavage within the divestment movement lies in the motivations and background of its members. Some, referred to here as the justice divesters, are primarily interested in the effects climate change will have on humans, especially traditionally marginalized groups. Others, the conservation divesters, are primarily concerned with the environmental consequences of climate change. This distinction is in some cases artificial, and undoubtedly more of a spectrum than a dichotomy, but it nonetheless describes important variation between groups with a stake in divestment.
For conservation divesters, concern for nature and the environment runs deep. Harold Eyster, a Harvard student, might just be the archetypal conservation divester. He discovered environmental activism through his love of birds and considers his greatest hero a prominent ornithologist. If not working on a divestment campaign, he would almost certainly be engaged in other work specific to the environmental movement. Hannah Nesser, a leading divester at Yale, began her activist career petitioning the state of Minnesota to ban certain types of hand soaps with potentially harmful toxins—before she had even reached the age of 12.
As a group, conservation divesters look very similar to members of past environmental movements. Their concerns are primarily with the environmental impacts of climate change, their approaches generally less radical, and their backgrounds somewhat more institutional.
The Justice Divesters
Alli Welton is a justice divester. Her introduction to serious climate activism came from a trip she took to an international summit, where she volunteered to help island states without significant representation who view climate change as a serious threat to their existence. For her, climate and, by extension, divestment, is about how the lives of people, especially very poor people, will be affected more than it is about saving any one particular species or biome. “I guess I’m just really concerned about poverty,” she explains, while recalling her childhood in a heavily impoverished town.
Issac Lederman, a divester at Princeton, splits his time between divestment groups and labor activism. When asked about the divestment and environmental dichotomy, he told the HPR that ultimately everyone involved recognizes that climate change “is going to be bad for people.” “And,” he adds, “I think it’s really important that that’s expressed.”
The social justice divesters are, by and large, interested in issues such as poverty and inequality. They draw inspiration from living wage and labor campaigns, and are concerned with climate change’s effects on low-income communities around the world. It is not the environment, per se, that concerns these students, but the way that the environment manifests deeper social justice concerns. They are perhaps best embodied in Swarthmore’s divest campaign, originally founded in solidarity with mountain communities whose day to day lives were being significantly impacted by coal mining.
A Movement Emerges
Two such remarkably different groups of people do not, of course, come together without tension or conflict. One student tells the story of a retreat for divestment leaders where one group, representative of the concerns of justice divesters, had planned a workshop on the role of privilege in shaping divestment campaigns which, they hoped, would encourage students to think about ways sexism, classism, or racism might be influencing divestment. Conservation divesters present, uncertain of the value and, perhaps, simply unaccustomed to the cultural specificity of such a program, questioned whether the event should happen at all.
The event went forward, but those present recall the event as an uncomfortable and contentious reminder of differences in cultural and normative commitments within the group. “Does that create a tension?” asks one student. “Yeah, sometimes on a one-on-one level it does,” she answers.
And yet, despite considerable internal differences and some conflict, divestment groups work remarkably well together. This in part is accredited to the ability of those involved to focus on building effective campaigns despite possible differences. One said in an interview with the HPR that “there’s a lot of internal stuff going on in social movements, but at the end of the day you never want it to distract from your ends.” As long as a common cause unites their desires and tactics, divesters seem content to work with the at times uncomfortable disagreements that come with a multifaceted and heterogeneous social movement.
Ultimately, the ability of these two groups to work together on divestment issues may help to shape future environmental campaigns towards a more social justice themed message. Lederman hopes that divestment will ultimately serve as some- thing of a bridge between the more traditional environmental movement and broader social justice groups. He argues, “The beauty of divestment is that it encourages people to see the connections between climate change and environmental racism, polluting justice, mine workers getting stripped of their rights, stuff like that.” Divestment, as an incubator for crossover, may be building the relationships and loyalties that ultimately help bridge this gap on campuses around the country.
A Place in History
When you ask divesters for historical predecessors, they invariably offer up divestment campaigns on college campuses in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s that petitioned universities to divest from apartheid South Africa. The claim speaks both to their understanding of past activist attempts at divestment and to their moral certainty around the work that they do.
Pressed for further examples, many turn to less immediately analogous but equally morally significant causes. One divester recalls the civil rights movement, if only to keep perspective on the relatively low levels of danger and pain involved in divestment activism. Relatively few speak of past environmental campaigns.
It is far too early to know the legacy of divestment. The campaigns are young, and their ability to influence university investment portfolios is still unclear. Yet the divesters are already leaving their footprint on the world. They imagine an environmental movement more focused on structures, a social justice movement more concerned with environmental concerns, and an environmental movement more responsive to low-income communities. And they are willing to invest everything they have in making that a reality.