Bill McKibben and the folks at350.org have decided to target the pernicious financial influence of the fossil fuel industry and its front groups. On the day following the election, they kicked off a 21-city “Do the Math” tourto “mount an unprecedented campaign to cut off the industry’s financial and political support by divesting our schools, churches and government from fossil fuels.”
Divestment is a fine strategy, but we all know that it won’t starve Big Oil, Coal, and Gas of needed capital. The goals of the divestment campaign are to make a statement and to get people to engage in the fight.
With those goals in mind, I want to set out another challenge to everyone who recognizes the need to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Moving our investments from a mutual fund that holds shares in ExxonMobil to some kind of socially responsible investment fund is important, but it’s just a baby step.
We also need to invest our capital (both financial and sweat) in community-owned, distributed, and small-scale renewable energy. Why? Because we must fundamentally remake the energy economy as if nature, people, and the future actually mattered.
That means investing in renewable energy that is distributed, because renewable sources themselves are diffuse and distributed, and because redundancy and distribution are key to building resilience in the face of shocks like superstorm Sandy, which are increasingly likely in a climate-changed world.
It also means investing in renewable energy that is community-owned, because we’ve seen what happens when large, multinational companies control essential human needs, whether they be food, health care, or energy. By their very nature, these corporations place profits and shareholders over the well-being of the communities they ostensibly serve. A new energy future must be part of a new economyfuture, a new economy that puts people and planet over profits.
And finally, it means investing in renewable energy that is small-scale, again because distribution increases resilience but also because even renewable energy can have profoundly negative impacts on ecosystems if not sited and scaled in ways that are appropriate to the environment in which it — and we — reside.
Sounds like a tall order, I know. But thankfully there are a number of great, replicable examples of individuals, institutions, and communities meeting the challenge. Below are just a few. (For a much more complete resource, check out Power from the People: How to Organize, Finance, and Launch Local Energy Projectsby Greg Pahl, the second in the Community Resilience Guides series published by Chelsea Green Publishing and Post Carbon Institute.)
Middlebury’s biomass gasification plant.
The primary target of 350.org’s call for divestment are colleges and universities that have tens of billions of dollars invested in fossil fuel companies. Just a couple of days into the campaign, Unity College announced its plan to divest from fossil fuels. But universities should not only be encouraged to divest from these holdings, they should be encouraged to reinvest in on-campus energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects.
Middlebury College, where 350.org has its roots, is a great example of a university that has done just that by building its?own biomass gasification plant to replace about 1 million gallons of oil that were previously being used each year. In an interview for Power from the People, Tom Corbin, the director of business services at the college, explained their reasoning:
“The real incentive for us was the price of oil, our inability to control it, and the fact that we were subject to an extremely volatile price for fuel,” Corbin says. “There were also questions about the possibility of future interruptions in the supply of oil. The fact that we were sending all of this money out of the county, the state, or even the country was another concern. So, when we switched over to biomass, we gained greater control over our energy future, and the money is now being spent more locally; that’s important to us.”
A number of universities have developed revolving loan funds specifically designed to finance sustainability projects on campus. The American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment hassome terrific resources on its website on campus revolving loan funds.
Faced with a lack of policy leadership coming from Washington, D.C., and state capitols, many communities have taken power — literally and figuratively — into their own hands.
Again, these are just a few examples, but I hope they serve to show that it is possible for us to not only divest from shares in fossil fuel companies, but invest in a new energy economy. And, of course, if we’re really serious about “going fossil free,” what’s ultimately required is reducing our actual energy use.
See also: Energy democracy: Three ways to bring solar to the masses