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Letter to the Editor: We should support DivestUNF now more than ever

David Jaffee

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Divest UNF members. Photo courtesy of Facebook

Almost one year ago, on September 12th 2016, the UNF Student Government Senate voted in support of a joint resolution, “Declaring Support for the Mission of DivestUNF for Climate Justice.” The resolution, put forward by the student organization DivestUNF, requests that the UNF Foundation:

1. Immediately freeze any new direct investment in the largest 200 coal, gas and 31 oil companies that own oil, gas and coal reserves that represent a significant 32 percentage of the entire global
market;

2. Divest from direct ownership and from any commingled funds that include fossil-fuel public equities and corporate bonds within 5 years;

3. Diligently seek ethical reinvest options.

Student Government and DivestUNF deserve kudos for taking effective principled action in favor of the future health and survival of the planet.

As has been the case at most universities that have been confronted by the Divest movement, the UNF administration has resisted DivestUNF demands. But it is important to recognize that the movement to divest from fossil fuel corporations is a long-term process and struggle. No single vote or resolution will produce immediate results. It will require the building of a broad-based social movement. The momentum in support of these actions will, and must, be fueled by students, faculty, and alumni. But it is equally vital for the movement to confront and contest the various arguments that are used as an excuse for inaction on divestment. The UNF administration has been known to say that, apart from “Nazis” and “South African apartheid”, there are no clear-cut cases to be made for endowment divestiture.

There are several obvious problems with this bizarre position.

Shari Shuman, VP of Administration and Finance explained potential consequences and drawbacks of divestment.
Photo by Jordan Bebout

First, the upper administration has no authority to arbitrarily set an absolute threshold, or litmus test, for socially responsible investing. This should be determined and established by the larger university community through the application of shared values and by means of democratic modes of deliberation.

Second, even in the now obviously morally reprehensible practices of “Nazis” and “South Africa”, there was no automatic mechanism that triggered divestment from these regimes and their corporate collaborators. It required acts of consciousness raising and, in the case of apartheid, a powerful social movement. It was not so obvious to former President Reagan, who in the 1980s opposed sanctions and divestment against the South African regime. So what may appear to be a clear cut case today, was not necessarily so in the past.

Third, if what makes the Nazi and South African case compelling is the fact that deliberate acts of violence and oppression are being taken against a particular population (Palestinians in quasi-apartheid Israel seem to be the exception to this rule), one might ask whether fossil fuel companies are not engaged in deliberate acts, against not a particular population but against present and future humanity, and planetary survival. These corporations are well aware of the consequences of their actions but prefer to actively deny, cast doubt, and lobby against any restrictions in the name of profit.

One objective of the Divest movement is to divest from fossil fuels and then reinvest in alternative and renewable sources of energy. This is a good strategy. However, the Divest movement should avoid strategies that accept the logic of capitalist profit making, which is largely responsible for the very continuing damage to the climate that the movement seeks to avert. More specifically, I refer to the argument of divestiture supporters that divestment can be accomplished cost-free by shifting investment into the alternative and burgeoning green energy sector.

While this may be true, I believe it is a mistake to rest the case for divestment on this basis. First, it places the burden on the divestment movement to verify existing high return alternative investment opportunities.

But second, and more problematic, it plays into the prevailing dominant logic that any foundation board decision must be justified based on sustaining a financial return. One would think that the collective survival of the planet and its species would be a more than sufficient justification, along with not financially supporting corporations determined to destroy it. During the South African divestment campaign, I do not recall an argument that university endowments should only divest under the condition that there are available alternatives to retain the prevailing return on investment. Socially responsible investing should not be contingent on the calculation of financial cost-benefit. It should be unconditional.

We are now facing a critical moment where it is imperative that public entities take a leadership role. The current Trump administration has made clear through its policy actions and its cabinet
appointments that it intends to unleash and deregulate the fossil fuel industry. The United States is now a pariah nation in the protection of planetary health and the prevention of further climate change. Universities can no longer depend upon the federal government to reign in the excesses of fossil fuel corporations. It is now up to the people, and the institutional means at their disposal. It will also require civil disobedience and direct action as we have seen with the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and now the Sabal Trail Pipeline.

Here at UNF, it is my hope that, like the SG Senate, the Faculty Association will eventually endorse the spirit of the DivestUNF resolution on climate change, and support the establishment of a social responsibility advisory committee that will allow members of the UNF community – faculty, students, staff, and alumni – to deliberate on the best way to align our espoused institutional values with the investment direction of the university/foundation endowment.

I encourage all members of the UNF community to support the efforts of DivestUNF.

You can follow DivestUNF at: https://www.facebook.com/divestunf

If you would like to support the DivestUNF resolution go to:
https://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/divest-unf

David Jaffee
Professor of Sociology
UNF

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Letter to the Editor: We should support DivestUNF now more than ever