Liz Ivkovich, Graduate Research Fellow, Department of Modern Dance.
Fundamentally, the divestment conversation is about hypocrisy. Or, perhaps, it’s about integrity. Actually, it’s opportunities for reinvestment in alternative energy. No, really, it’s more about financial stewardship of the University’s endowment. The last several months I have seen the divestment debate framed in all of these ways and more. These many perspectives are refreshing. I think the sustainability movement is often guilty of boiling wicked problems like climate change down to ‘five easy steps for going green.’ We too quickly skip over the important role that complexity can and should play in sustainability when it complicates over-simplified narratives. The divestment conversation on campus this year has surely been both conflicted and complicated.
By a narrow margin (44 – 40), the Academic Senate has approved a proposal recommending that the University of Utah strategically divest its endowment from fossil fuel-intensive funds and reinvest in renewable, sustainable, and socially responsible ways. This call to divest from fossil fuels (e.g. coal, oil, gas, tar sands, oil shale, etc.) would shift approximately 6-7 percent our endowment to socially responsible businesses over the next five years. Notably, this resolution from the faculty and students of the Academic Senate doesn’t mandate that the University divest. But, in addition to a strong statement, the resolution creates a permanent Socially Responsible and Environmentally Sustainable Investment Advisory Committee that could assist the University to divest and to reinvest, evaluating future investments for sustainability and social justice.
With all the publicity this decision has garnered (Salt Lake Tribute, KUER, and Daily Caller) it’s easy to forget that divestment has been a fraught topic on campus for years. Since December of 2012, the University’s learning community has been discussing the stakes of divestment from fossil fuels and the possibilities of reinvestment in renewable energy. Back in 2013, the Associated of Students of the University of Utah (ASUU) Senate denied a similar resolution calling the University to divest as described in this City Weekly article.
In 2015, two committees were formed by the Academic Senate to dig into what this political statement would mean for the University. The first, the Senate Advisory Ad Hoc Committee on Responsible Investing (CRI), and the second, the Academic Senate Ad Hoc Re-Investment Dialogue Committee (RIDC). Both committees met regularly throughout the academic year. The focus of the RIDC was brainstorming ways to create a campus-wide dialogue; to review and share information on climate change, divestment, and reinvestment; to track the divestment efforts of universities and other institutions; and to develop and to disseminate informational materials and lists of resources. The RIDC looked at the ways in which divestment had been used in the past as a strategy for social change, in particular, in the anti-apartheid movement. The RIDC also looked at current contexts, considering how divestment was taking hold at other institutions of higher education.
The focus of the CRI was a financial analysis of the potential impacts of divestment and reinvestment on the University’s endowment holdings. Two members of RIDC participated in CRI meetings to assist with this analysis. The behind-the-scenes work of both the CRI & the RIDC yielded multiple public events; a film screening of This Changes Everything, a panel presentation, several lectures, and a Hinckley Institute podcast highlighting diverging views on divestment. These events culminated in a facilitated dialogue session on March 25, 2016 attended by 40 staff, students, and faculty.
In the middle of this on-campus dialogue, Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, came to Salt Lake City. While she was here she delivered a petition signed by 54,000 people calling for 5 museums, including the Natural History Museum of Utah, to divest from fossil fuels. NHMU is a part of the University, so this call heated up the conversation further.
This is when I intersected with the divestment debate. In one of my courses, three members of the CRI debated the merits and pitfalls of divestment and reinvestment. While they were speaking, the room began to fill with tension. It’s not that any of the students doubted climate change (it was a climate change course), but rather we couldn’t decide if divestment was THE stand that we should take to act against climate change. And if this was THE stand, why not a hundred other stands? What became clear through our debate was the complicated way that personal actions entwine with sociopolitical systems in climate change.
It seems like every act one takes against climate change exposes the hypocrisy of all our complicities in global warming. If we are divesting in fossil fuels as an institution, why not divest in big agriculture? If we are going to divest from fossil fuels, shouldn’t we all get rid of our cars at the same time? Some at the University consider divestment a “divisive political gesture.” President of the Academic Senate, Bill Johnson, commented to reporters, “If there is so much good we could do without making this political statement, why should we? Why don’t we focus on working to reduce carbon emissions?” Similar arguments emerged from my classmates as we chewed on the implications of divesting. Ultimately, we failed to come to a consensus.
Similarly, the CRI and RIDC concluded their efforts this year with opposing recommendations for the Academic Senate. The CRI recommend against outright divestiture of the endowment, but enthusiastically encouraged positive investment in socially responsible investing, and further efforts towards sustainability on campus. The RIDC, however, recommended that the University move forward with divestment from fossil fuels and reinvestment in socially responsible ways. The RIDC made the case that divestment aligns with the University’s core value of sustainability, and aligning with this value thus becomes an ethical imperative.
As we navigate a changing climate, what is the best use of our resources – our time, our energy, and our protests? To me, this question lies at the heart of the dialogue. Each stand that we take is complex. Each decision illuminates the equally important stands that we haven’t taken, and the ways we participate in climate-changing activities while speaking against them. Yet, if we allow that logic to inhibit our ability to act, we might never recycle a single can, or flip the switch when we leave a room. Let’s divest from easy answers and reinvest in action. With that spirit, we can simultaneously acknowledge the complicated stakes of divestment while celebrating the Academic Senate resolution as a significant step towards a sustainable future.
Liz Ivkovich has a MFA in Modern Dance from the University of Utah. She is also finishing up the Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Sustainability from the GCSC. Whether you agree or disagree with her call for institutional divestment, you may elect to divest from fossil fuels in your own life. Individual faculty and staff can do this by using the TIAA-CREF Low Carbon Social Choice investment fund as a retirement fund choice. Others on campus, who may not have retirement funds, can divest by intentionally and actively our consumption of fossil fuels.