Fossil fuel extraction - oil drills

In 2020, after years of tireless campaigning by student and faculty activists, the University of Cambridge announced that it would be divesting from fossil fuels by 2030. “The University is responding comprehensively to a pressing environmental and moral need for action”, proclaimed the Vice-Chancellor triumphantly as he reaffirmed the university’s ambition to “work for a zero-carbon future”.

Since the university’s divestment announcement, the individual colleges have begun to fall like dominoes. Pembroke, Corpus Christi, Trinity: colleges are waking up to the climate emergency, and responding, they claim, in proportion to the scale of the crisis. Trinity even promised to “extend the list of investment exclusions to all companies that generate significant revenues from the extraction, supply, or distribution of fossil fuel”. If the “comprehensive” divestment promised by the university is now being “extended”, how can we claim that these institutions are missing the point?

To answer this question we must ask ourselves another: What does the “zero-carbon future” pursued by Cambridge University, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and other extraordinarily wealthy investors look like? The phrase is thrown around a lot at the moment, particularly by tech billionaires, but it’s an odd one, asserting that solving the climate crisis is a matter of a single chemical element.

Does a ‘zero-carbon future’ have room for the skyrocketing methane emissions of industrial agriculture, for instance? Can we stop being complicit in the exploitation of the planet but remain committed to the exploitation of its people? Can corporations like Nestle and Amazon continue to mistreat workers the world over in a ‘zero-carbon’ way? Recent forms of divestment answer all of these questions with a shameless ‘yes’. A ‘zero-carbon’ future, if divestment announcements are to believed, doesn’t even involve ending our financing of the big banks who prop up the fossil fuel industry. ‘Zero carbon’ is synonymous with zero ambition.

In our activism as the Jesus College Climate Justice Campaign, we have grappled with these questions as they relate to the institution we call home. The College has an externally managed portfolio of £46 million and has not yet divested. Our new reportInvesting in Exploitation and Extinction: Why Climate Justice Demands That Jesus College Goes Beyond Divestment’  finds a minimum of £5.15 million invested by the College in the worst exploiters and polluters the stock market has to offer. Were we to divest in the manner of the University or other colleges, only £807,000 of this figure – Jesus’ total investment in fossil fuels – would be confronted. Modern-day slavery, unsafe working conditions, the levelling of forests for soil destroying crops, the murder of indigenous activists to maintain business as usual: these evils would be excluded from and thus legitimised by a conventional divestment commitment, shoring up their ability to fly under the ethical radar. Under conventional divestment, we remain committed to extinction-levels of exploitation.

This form of divestment is downright insulting, especially to those on the frontline of the climate crisis. These communities are the least responsible for climate breakdown and yet they are the ones who are paying the price for our current and historical investments and emissions. Divestment, for Jesus College especially, does nothing to make amends for the unimaginable social and environmental harm we have already inflicted as an investor. We must ask ourselves – where did all this wealth come from?

As Jesus College’s website acknowledges, “one of Jesus College’s most significant benefactors” was Tobias Rustat, who amassed his fortune partially through his involvement with the Royal African Company (RAC). The College website goes on to quote historian William Pettigrew, who explains that “The Royal African Company shipped more enslaved African women, men, and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade”. By its own admission, Jesus College’s wealth comes partially from violent colonial plundering that has left communities in the global South most vulnerable to climate breakdown.

Conventional divestment makes no reparations for the razing of the living world and the exploitation and enslavement of its people; its ethical end-point is little more than a rearrangement of  public equity portfolios. It would be laughable in its lack of ambition if its consequences did not represent an existential threat to people and planet. Cambridge University is the wealthiest higher education institution in the UK, and the 13th wealthiest in the world – with an endowment worth £3.5 billion. The university’s divestment admits that we are responsible for “disproportionate historical and current emissions”, but our “comprehensive” divestment responses have done nothing to atone for this.

A zero-carbon future intends to mitigate climate change when it is our responsibility to actualise climate justice. We need a zero-exploitation future. A zero-violence future. A zero-inequality future. Public equity can offer none of these futures.

Our report demands a reimagining of divestment: one which not only includes broader systems of exploitation, but also makes reparations for our foundational role in these systems by ending our legitimisation of the morally-vacuous stock market and actively reinvesting in a just future. The solution, we believe, requires supporting community-based, renewable development through impact bonds.

This is a matter of urgency. If institutions like Jesus College continue to sit back and watch their capital fester in public equity funds, while around us people and planet remain at the mercy of FTSE-listed world-wreckers, then we have failed. Our task as members of these institutions is to speak up for ambitious, just investment policies which do not settle for divestment, but demand investment in a future free of exploitation and extraction. Only when we commit ourselves to more than financial return can our capital begin to tackle the crises we have created.

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Image credit: Larry D Moore – Creative Commons