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Global connections, shareholder divestment and Stanford

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“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir, 1911, “My First Summer in the Sierra”

Today’s divestment campaign at Stanford, focused on fossil energy companies and climate change, has direct antecedents in the protests of the 1970s, aimed at the University’s links through its investment portfolio to South African apartheid. The “Stanford Out of South Africa” movement, in which I took part as an undergraduate, called on Stanford to divest from companies operating in South Africa, and eventually succeeded in convincing Stanford to partially divest.

This was before “globalization” became an economic watchword and before “systems approaches” were applied to fields from ecology to climate to international relations, so making our case demanded new ways of viewing the world. We were both discovering and drawing attention to the fact that our fortunate lives in Northern California were connected to and benefitting from the injustices imposed a half a world away in South Africa. Similarly, the current Fossil Free Stanford campaign illuminates the problematic connection between the University’s academic activities, which produce public and individual benefits, and the University’s investments, which support fossil fuels and their exorbitant societal costs.

Then as now, we hear critics of the calls for divestment deride its effect, contrasting the scale of the problem with the influence of the action. The critiques take various forms: Universities, they say, hold only a small proportion of fossil energy (or South African company) stocks, and willing buyers will step in to reap the profits they provide. Your institutions will be economic losers if they do what you ask. Divestment removes voices of reform from corporate processes. Shouldn’t you be devoting your energies to problems closer to home, where your actions can be felt directly? You’re still driving cars and using electricity, so calling for divestment is hypocritical. And anyway, what’s really needed is a carbon tax.

Each of these assessments has its own failings — discounting the cumulative, or catalyzing, effects of local actions, and ignoring the visibility and awareness that divestment movements produce. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu cited American divestment as one important factor in dismantling apartheid, not because of direct economic damage but because it associated the targeted companies with the globally condemned, discriminatory system in South Africa.

Thus, the more fundamental insight of the divestment campaigns is their insistence on broader recognition of the connectedness of all the systems that support life and society, both natural — like ecosystems and climate systems — and anthropogenic — like economic and legal systems.

The Stanford alumni of those South African divestment protests applied that insight in myriad ways. For myself, as a geoscientist with strong interests in policy applications of research, I have devised a career that explores and connects the community of institutions and individuals producing scientific analysis with systems of economic and political decision makers. Others have become leaders in socially responsible investing, campaign finance reform, human rights struggles, climate change adaptation and mitigation, or the recognition and protection of ecosystem services.

Many of the Stanford graduates who recognized our economic connections to South Africa in 1977 now recognize that the threat posed by climate change is inextricably linked to all of these areas in which we are engaged. So we are convinced that financial systems, and for that matter, all other systems in society (urban, political, healthcare, agricultural, energy, legal, etc.) require examination and adjustment in order to ensure that the natural systems in which humans evolved continue to support the societies in which we want to live. In divesting its holdings in coal, Stanford made a modest acknowledgement of this interconnectedness. Further divestment of the University’s holdings in fossil fuels would be an appropriate complement to Stanford’s leadership both in climate-related research and in innovation for societal good.

Margaret Goud Collins ’78

Margaret Goud Collins holds a Ph.D. in Geological Oceanography from the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography and works in international scientific cooperation as the Secretary at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna, Austria. Contact her at mrgoudcollins ‘at’ gmail.com.