Divestment from Fossil Fuels
By Vanessa Sloan-Morgan, Jessica Dempsey and Neil Hanlon
At one point during the virtual 2020 annual general meeting of the Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG), the CAG’s Secretary-Treasurer casually stated that the Association’s investments had been unaffected by COVID-19. The reason given was the organization’s decision to divest from fossil fuels four years earlier. News of the financial standing of the CAG was welcome: it meant support for students could be maintained during uncertain times, the organization would be able to continue its work of promoting geographic scholarship across Canada, and be able to explore other opportunities to address injustices intimately tied to geography and thus, climate change.
News of the CAG’s financial standing is also a reminder that continuing on an ecologically disastrous path does not do us any economic favours. Divesting from fossil fuel interests shows us we can rethink what is economically viable when running our academic organizations while bringing us another step closer to taking actions for social, ecological, and political change. It’s only one step, but we should be asking: in what do our scholarly organizations invest? And, more pointedly: what further actions can we take within our organizations to confront the intersecting challenges facing society — the current climate crisis, systemically entrenched racism, and violations of Indigenous self-determination, all of which contribute to widening environmental and social injustice?
For a discipline steeped in coloniality —one that has literally written the books and drawn the maps to access Indigenous lands for resources, including fossil fuel extraction, refinement, and transportation in Canada — geography and geographers are intimately connected to climate change. To be clear, divestment from fossil fuels alone is not sufficient to address these ongoing legacies. While many CAG members were morally driven to explore fossil fuel divestment as a means to combat climate change, others were also fuelled by an imperative to challenge a status quo in which a corporatist logic holds sway over investment options and reinforces structural impediments to Indigenous self-determination. Thus, in 2016 the organization passed a resolution to divest the CAG fully of all investment in financial instruments with any direct ties to fossil fuel production and distribution.
Yet, in spite of overwhelming support for this action from its membership, the Association carried out its divestment with little fanfare. In Canada, mere mention of fossil fuels invariably evokes strong reactions. The hesitation that prevented the CAG from announcing its decision is but one small example of how entwined fossil fuel economies are with everyday life in Canada, and the barriers preventing wholesale energy and economic transformations. It is dis-concerting that the status quo — say, investing in businesses whose purpose is to extract and sell a commodity known to threaten the lives of billions — is considered to be politically neutral, whereas any action taken alternate to the status quo is deemed politically “biased”.
With the exception of the Canadian Medical Association’s 2015 resolution to divest from fossil fuels, our research — admittedly not systematic — failed to reveal many other scholarly or professional organizations in Canada that have divested. Ours is a call for other scholarly organizations to take action towards achieving more socially and environmentally just futures. For the CAG — and perhaps for other organizations —divesting was one option that members widely agreed was overdue. After all, a major goal of the divestment movement is to challenge the status quo and de-normalize fossil fuels: it is a part of a wider effort to change common-sense norms. Many a divestment devotee has uttered this new and necessary norm: if it is wrong to wreck the climate, it is wrong to profit from wrecking the climate.
Innumerable reasons exist to divest from fossil fuels, including financial reasons. The CAG’s experience is indicative of how divestment has led to positive economic outcomes even during the tragic impacts of COVID-19. However, it is worth underlining that divesting alone is not sufficient to dismantle the intersecting injustices that continue to impact communities across Canada. More work needs to be done to align our scholarly organizations and institutions with climate justice, with Indigenous self-determination, and with anti-racism, to name but a few of the immediate structural challenges confronting society. As members of academic organizations, one thing that we can do is be part of a broader movement to push finance in a different direction via our investment portfolios. As a start, this perhaps can aid in reckoning with environmental and social injustices by acting within and through our academic organizations. To this end, we leave readers with the question from which we began: in what do your scholarly organizations invest?
Vanessa Sloan-Morgan is a current Banting postdoctoral researcher at UNBC and former student-representative to the CAG. Jessica Dempsey is an Associate Professor at UBC and a CAG member. Neil Hanlon is a Professor at UNBC and the President of the CAG.
All three served on the divestment committee back in 2016. The authors would love to hear from any scholarly organizations taking action on climate justice, divestment and beyond. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org; Jessica.email@example.com; Neil.Hanlon@unbc.ca.