Shelley’s Story: Imagine a billion dollars being taken out of fossil fuel development and more than a billion being put into renewable energy. This is exactly what the University of California (UC) did in 2020. What did it take for UC to divest from fossil fuels in such a big way?
It took five years of behind-the-scenes divesting. UC waited until May 2020 to announce that they had completely divested all of their fossil fuel holdings and reinvested even more into renewable energy, culminating a process that began in 2015. I have a personal interest in this achievement as a UC alum, as an environmental scientist, and as a climate activist. Also, our Quaker testimonies of equality, peace, and – most of all – integrity compelled me to be part of the UC divestment campaign, which took seven years of agitation by UC students, faculty, and alumni.
The U.S. student divestment movement started at Swarthmore College in 2010, although Swarthmore has failed to divest yet. Today in the U.S., over a hundred campus divestment campaigns are ongoing. As a result of such organizing globally, combined with the changing economics of energy production, a wide range of institutions have made commitments to divest more than $14 billion from their portfolios, including faith-based organizations, foundations, pension funds, and local, state, and national governments. In addition, divestment commitments from individuals total more than $5 billion.
I’ve been a small part of the divestment movement, urging the ten-campus UC system to show by example and the weight of their holdings that the future requires cleaner, more efficient energy sources, including conservation. My alma mater, UC Berkeley, is known for scientific innovation and social awareness, but the UC Regents (who manage all ten UC campuses) seemed reluctant to put their money where their ideals are (the UCB motto is “Fiat Lux” or “Let There be Light”). I was joined in this activism by two other UCB alumni from Strawberry Creek Meeting, Kathy Barnhart and Rick Herbert. We were moved to our actions through our sense of responsibility towards our connection to our educational institution and our leading to live in right relationship with nature, with all people, and with future generations.
Kathy’s Story: In the summer of 2013, I experienced a “perfect storm” of awakenings that tipped me from a “concerned” category into “alarmed” about climate disruption. This had been building since I had participated in drafting my meeting’s Earthcare Testimony, which was approved in 2010. A small group of committed people from Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, CA, provided much of the energy for this effort, which became contagious and mobilized others. Our meeting had listening meetings, watched the 350.org movie “Do the Math,” held discussions and retreats on the theme, and participated in climate rallies together. Vocal ministry during meeting for worship often centered on concerns for the Earth. It was a drought year in California, and I had just read Barbara Kingsolver’s book on the dwindling monarch butterfly population due to environmental damage.
I wanted to go beyond writing a minute and doing individual acts like recycling and using less carbon. I wanted to address larger, systemic blocks to change. Divestment made sense as a systemic tactic and had been an effective tool in dismantling apartheid in South Africa. Divestment was a way of bearing witness, of refusing to participate in making money from a business that profits from the destruction of the Earth. Quakers have traditionally avoided investment in companies that participate in weapons manufacturing, gambling, tobacco, alcohol, and other destructive businesses.
I joined a local 350.org Fossil Free group, which had a subcommittee on divestment, and I quickly stepped into trying to organize UC alumni to convince the Regents to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in businesses promoting sustainable sources of energy. I had graduated from UC Berkeley in 1968, a year of turbulent student activism against the war in Vietnam. I now live next door to the university, and so it seemed a perfect fit. Another alum and I worked as a team, and others pitched in. Working for divestment also provided a narrow, targeted, and measurable goal – an important element of social witness.
For more than a year, we engaged in activities common to many campaigns: circulating petitions, letter writing, fund raising, and attending rallies, demonstrations, and meetings. We worked with current UC students and other alums, as well as the larger 350.org divestment group. I spoke at Regents meetings, and I gave a short solo speech to the Regents Investment Subcommittee, which earned me a frosty reception. I often sent cards with pictures of nature to Janet Napolitano, President of the University, asking for support.
During this time, I felt hopeful and empowered. I remember certain friends who were supportive but pessimistic about bringing big change. It seemed to them a hopeless enterprise. But by being engaged, I felt I was living in integrity, trying to bring about change that aligned with the Quaker testimonies and my spiritual life. I was connected to others who were also doing similar work, which increased my sense of hope and community. Doing nothing created despair. I was happy and busy in my efforts with others to move a giant institution, despite its inertia and bureaucracy. Friends and family supported our efforts because they had the same concerns about climate disruption, and they were glad to see someone actively working toward changing the status quo.
It wasn’t all rosy, however. Sometimes I felt discouraged and overwhelmed. I ultimately stopped my involvement in late 2014, because I didn’t see a way forward. The UC students we were trying to work with came and went, the faculty at the time was not engaged, and we were not allowed access to mailing lists of alums. My energies shifted to the care of my first grandchild.
While I never felt that we alums had put enough pressure on the Regents to change them, the people in the Investments Office were quietly working toward divestment. Five years later, they finally completely divested from fossil fuels. I know much of the impetus for this change is financial (which was one of our talking points), not ethical. The university doesn’t want to appear to respond to every “cause” that demands divestment, but I’d like to think that our small efforts made a difference. No university wants to have disgruntled alums.
Regardless of the reasons, I feel buoyed by the outcome. It reinforces a core belief that I have as a Quaker – that people doing small things together can make a difference. I love the wisdom behind this: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, you’ve never tried to sleep in a closed room with a mosquito.” Now more than ever, we need actions, large and small, by people who join hands to make a difference, even when the results aren’t evident. You never know what may happen six years down the road, as we found in the case of UC divestment. The snowball effect is real, and we have seen many other universities, faith institutions, and organizations divest from fossil fuels in the past few years.
It took women a hundred years to win the right to vote. The first suffragists didn’t live to see the fruits of their actions. The difference now is, when it comes to climate disruption, we can’t wait a hundred years for change to come. One hundred years from now, our earth may be in critical condition, and people will wonder why we didn’t take action when it was still possible to make a difference. I’m glad the early suffragists didn’t give up.
All of the Quaker testimonies are in jeopardy if we fail to witness for the Earth, not only on an individual level, but also on a corporate level. At the heart of our spiritual life as Quakers is living our faith by taking action. For those like me whose spiritual life is deeply nourished by nature, Earthcare Witness is a calling; equally so, it is a calling for those who care about social justice, peace, and integrity. Quaker Earthcare Witness is an important resource for living our Quaker testimonies – a wellspring to inspire us, help us stay engaged, link us together, and provide us hope.
Rick’s Story: I understood as a nine-year-old that what you do matters. George Fox advised, “Let your life speak.” That is what drew me to Friends. As a triple graduate of the UC system, I was immediately drawn to the student campaign for a Fossil Free California. They sought alumni to join them in calling on the Regents to divest all fossil fuel holdings I felt drawn to witness. I went to Sacramento and spoke during a public meeting of the Regents, reminding them of their obligation to all California to disengage our university from all fossil fuel holdings. I am glad I made a contribution, however infinitesimally small, to the effort that encouraged the Regents to make the right decision.
Shelley: Divestment by any single institution, no matter how large, is not enough stop the fossil fuel industry. Each of these divestments, however, is part of a coordinated global campaign to follow the money, stop projects before they are funded, and use moral persuasion to politically stigmatize those who profit from the fossil fuel industry. By now, ten years into the divestment campaign, economics have shifted. Not only is it morally questionable to invest in fossil fuel infrastructures, it is also financially foolish. Such investments are now seen as “stranded assets,” in other words, funds locked up in holdings that will be worthless (or close to it) in the future.
The case for divestment has never been stronger or more urgent than it is today. As Matt St. Clair, the Director of Sustainability at the UC Office of the President, said when announcing UC’s divestment decision, “UC students and faculty successfully raised awareness within the UC Investments Office and the UC Regents Committee on Investments about the financial risk associated with long-term investments in fossil fuels. This historic action to complete divestment from such investments while reinvesting in renewable energy demonstrates UC’s ongoing commitment to leadership in addressing the climate emergency. We hope that other universities will be inspired to follow our example.”
UC’s formal statement on divestment frames their decision to divest as one that is based more on economic concerns then ecological concerns. After all, they clearly want to avoid implying that public direct action can influence UC policies. Even so, it is clear that dedicated organizing by students, faculty, and alumni did play an important role in making what seemed impossible in 2010 become a reality in 2020.
Students around the globe are leading the struggle to end fossil fuel extraction and are expanding divestment strategies to focus on “the worst offenders in each sector of the financial system.” Beyond established divestment campaigns directed at university endowments, these broader campaigns also target banks, asset managers, and insurance companies. Scores of organizations, including Quaker Earthcare Witness, are participating in this “Stop the Money Pipeline” campaign as an important next step in our work to protect the Earth.
If you or your meeting are led to publicly register your commitment to divest from fossil fuels, visit https://gofossilfree.org/divestment/register-commitments/. There you can join a growing list of meetings and organizations around the world that have taken the pledge to completely divest from fossil fuel holdings within five years.
Shelley Tanenbaum is the General Secretary for Quaker Earthcare Witness. She holds an AB in Mathematics and an MA in Energy and Resources from UC Berkeley.
Kathy Barnhart holds an AB in Sociology and an MA in Genetic Counseling from UC Berkeley.
Rick Herbert holds an AB and an MSC from UC Berkeley and a JD from UC Hastings.
All three are members of Strawberry Creek Meeting (PacYM).