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Small Change

Which Side Are You On?

To show our true colors on climate change, we've got to divest

By Bill McKibben

Published in the November/December 2012 issue of Orion magazine



Movements ripen, sometimes suddenly. The evils they battle have often existed for decades or even millennia (slavery, say) but the moment comes when the fight needs to happen. As James Russell Lowell put it in a hymn that was one of Dr. King’s favorites:

Once to every man and nation
comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood,
for the good or evil side.

It feels to me as if that’s where we are with climate change as we head into the winter of 2012–13. We’ve come off three of the most remarkable weather years in human history, from the great Pakistan floods to the mighty Midwest drought—in the U.S. we’ve set new records for the most multibillion-dollar weather disasters, the hottest months, the warmest nights. Even Koch-funded skeptic researchers are forced to admit that we’re raising the temperature; our best scientists now tell us quite straightforwardly that the freak weather we see around us is the result of the one degree we’ve warmed the planet already, and that we’re destined—unless we change course dramatically—for a planet four, five, or six degrees warmer, a science fiction world we can scarcely imagine. And yet the fossil fuel industry dismisses climate change as an “engineering problem” and forges ahead to find ever more coal and gas and oil, dragging most governments behind them. So: now or never.

Which is why it’s comforting to have the counsel of people who’ve been through such battles before, and seen victory. For my money, Bob Massie is one of the great resources we’ve got. His experience spans lots of history but usefully isn’t rooted in the 1960s, an epoch so extraordinary it may fuddle our thinking a little when it comes to building movements. Instead, Bob was a part of the last great successful fight against corporate power—the battle to end American businesses’ support of the apartheid regime in South Africa, a battle that took place with President Reagan and a Republican Senate looking on. As an undergraduate at Princeton, Massie was involved in the effort to force campuses to divest their stock holdings in those companies—a fight that spread across the country and led hundreds of colleges, pension funds, and state and local governments to alter their portfolios; later, when Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison, one of his first trips overseas was to the University of California, where he thanked students for their role in the freedom struggle. When it came time to write his doctoral dissertation at Harvard Business School in the 1980s, Massie focused on the lessons of the struggle, a thesis he later turned into the eight-hundred-page prize-winning book Loosing the Bonds. “The divestment campaign was not just directed at the companies,” he said when we talked last month. “It was designed to isolate the companies doing the wrong thing by pressing people who were on the fence. Thousands of people challenged Harvard, and challenged the churches, asking them, ‘Given your mission, how can you possibly hold this stock?’”

With South Africa liberated, Massie went on to other things. Lots of other things. He became an ordained Episcopal minister; he was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in his native Massachusetts (in a bad year, up against the Gingrich contract-with-America GOP groundswell). And he took up the global warming fight, bringing his expertise to bear as president of Ceres, a national coalition of environmental and investor groups. He went on to found the Global Reporting Inititive, one of the first attempts to hold businesses accountable for their carbon emissions. Beginning in the mid-1990s, in the first flush of global warming activism, he and his colleagues “went to corporations with a sense of urgency, as well as a set of ideas and some proposals. We told them they needed to adopt an environmental ethic as part of their core strategy. When companies showed some willingness to talk about how they would work—in the supply chain, in production, and so on—we’d sit and talk with them. If a company blew us off, we’d work with friends in the investment community to file a shareholder resolution on the grounds that their refusal jeopardized the interests of many, including shareholders. We said, in essence, ‘These are critical question which must be addressed. You have a choice, whether you want to work with us publicly or privately.’” It’s powerful work, continuing to this day.

But two things happened. One, Massie got sick. Or, rather, sicker. Born with hemophilia, he’d been one of the first Americans to contract HIV, back in 1978, long before before blood transfusions were monitored for the disease. But because of a fantastically rare genetic mutation that was not identified until recently, he never developed AIDS. By 2003, however, his liver was mostly shot, wrecked by hepatitis C. He had to stop working—I’d call him and talk for a few minutes late in the morning, which seemed to be his strongest hours of the day. It was an epic battle—which he won. Three years ago a liver transplant restored him to fighting trim (and even cured his hemophilia!).

The second thing: the science about climate change darkened, to the point where the slow changes corporations were making no longer seemed adequate. “I’m persuaded we’re running out of time,” he says. “As the urgency rises, so does the need to intensify the struggle, as the ANC would have said.” What he means, among other things, is that we need to make the very same demand for justice and accountabilty that tipped the scales during the apartheid battle. “It’s time for people who say they’re on your side to prove it,” he says. “Sell the damned stock. Every church, every college, every institution presented with this challenge has to come to terms with it. Some will say, ‘Right, okay.’ More will hem and haw. You’ve got to push.”

So that’s what we’re doing. The day after the November elections, 350.org is launching an effort to build that movement. A nationwide roadshow will, we hope, breed some of the same fervor that fueled the anti-apartheid fight. It was wrong for college endowments to profit from apartheid. It’s completely nonsensical for them to pay for educations with investments that will guarantee there’s no planet on which to make that learning count. Pension funds can’t sensibly safeguard people’s retirements by investing in companies that wreck the future. The CEO of ExxonMobil this summer threw down the gauntlet—climate change was real, he said, but the company wouldn’t adapt its business plan. Instead the planet would need to move its “crop production areas,” an impossible task and a supremely arrogant demand. And so we’ll push.

These days Massie spends most of his time running the New Economics Institute, a think tank that grew out of the ideas of E. F. Schumacher and focuses on everything from small-scale agriculture to indexes for measuring human satisfaction. “Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with the way our economy delivers jobs, products, opportunities,” he says. “We see this unhappiness bubbling up all over—Occupy is a great example. But Americans are also very creative, so there are strong experiments popping up across the country—local currencies, local food. These are still small and scattered, and need to be broadened—that’s our role.”

But none of that can happen, of course, if the planet’s burning up. So Massie’s promised to help with the push toward divestment—promised to help shake the tree at this ripe moment. He’s a clergyman, after all, and knows the great moral choices of the day simply can’t be avoided. In Lowell’s great phrases:

Some great cause, some great decision,
offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
’twixt that darkness and that light.

If we miss this chance to stabilize the planet, the next one will come deep in geological time. That’s urgency defined, and action demanded.

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Bill McKibben is editor of the Global Warming Reader and the founder of 350.org.

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