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Opinion

Global Divestment Day draws attention to fossil fuels

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February 18, 2015

The Environmental Corps of Sustainability (ECOS) silenced the University Center on Friday, Feb. 13, by forming a human mosaic during the first annual Global Divestment Day, drawing attention to the UW-River Falls Fossil Free campaign, and mobilizing with the 460 simultaneous events around the world.

Nineteen ECOS members, with most of them wearing orange–the designated color to wear by the international campaign–held up signs of the same color to create a blob, which blocked a lunch traffic lane and spelled out “#DivestRF” and “ECOS.” The mosaic was completed with a green and blue earth in the center and orange border. The color and message displayed a visible urge directed towards UWRF, to divest from fossil fuel companies.

Members of the UW-River Falls ECOS club hold signs on 2015 Global Divestment Day in the University Center.
Members of the UW-River Falls ECOS club hold signs on 2015 Global Divestment Day in the University Center. (Photo courtesy of ECOS)

The day of action was organized by GoFossilFree, a branch of 350.org, that focuses on combating climate change financially. The movement urges both public and private institutions of all types to divest their money away from fossil fuel companies, and take on this self-serving industry in the way that will get most of their attention. GoFossilFree.org defines divestment as “the opposite of an investment…it simply means getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous.”

For UWRF, this would mean taking the roughly $150,000 of the UWRF Foundation that is currently invested in fossil fuels and putting the money into sustainable energy companies within five years of committing to divestment. Switching these investments would be a complete reversal, a leap to the other end of the spectrum in terms of energy. Divesting from fossil fuels is only one step we must take to help the Earth’s biosphere recover from the ailments caused by climate change; but, if we don’t start taking actions to help with these symptoms, this sickness could become a terminal disease.

During the week, leading up to Global Divestment Day, ECOS members visited campus classrooms to give a short description of the event and showed a short video created by 350.org and the FossilFree non-profit organization. A four question survey about campus divestment efforts was handed out to some classes as well. One question posed was: “Would you support the university divesting from the fossil fuel industry?”

210 of the 235 marked “yes.”

At the bottom of each survey, a black space gave the option to leave a signature for the divestment petition; the effort grew the total number of signatures to over 500.

The action’s main purpose was to garner signatures and to raise awareness about the petition to divest. When the student body is aware of and supports such an endeavor, change becomes inevitable. The actions taken by ECOS were representative of the 500 signatures that will soon be listed on the GoFossilFree petition. For all the people who have signed, actions taken by ECOS on Global Divestment Day were representative of their support for the cause and how they want their university to represent them financially.

“It’s important for student’s voices to be heard, and I believe we accomplished that goal last Friday,” said Greg Mathews, ECOS president.

This day of action was one of comprehensive mobilization for climate justice advocates. People across the world held flash mobs, vigils, rallies, sit-ins, protests, signed petitions, and called their congressional leaders. The ECOS human mosaic was just one of thousands of actions that occurred on Global Divestment Day.

Individually, it is hard to comprehend how a few minutes of orchestrated time in between classes made a global impact. The group congregated, the photographs were snapped, and immediately handed off to be uploaded to the internet.

Environmental justice organizations are very well connected, keeping frequently updated social media platforms and websites. Within an hour, 350.org had spread our post along with many others. It was inspiring to witness the power of the internet, as our movements quickly became a part of a global effort. Our Facebook photo-shares reached over 2,000 people, and GoFossilFree reports that over 97 million people saw posts about Global Divestment Day overall. In such a well-connected era, the personal is more political than ever before; likewise, what is local is national and global, as well.

The internet provides instant connectivity from all players and can supplement meeting up physically, as was pertinent for political movements in the past. Regardless of the thousands of miles between our actions and those taken in hundreds of cities, the internet united all our efforts as one. This is what the internet should be used for: connecting people from every area of the world to take action for causes they feel strongly about.

The physical actions taken on Global Divestment Day were the first step, which lead to the flood of digital records to the internet; this will lead to more physical actions in the future- activism must come full circle and cannot stop when the exciting elements are over.

A few nearby environmentalist and divestment organizations ECOS affiliates with are MN350, FossilFreeMinnesota at the University of Minnesota, Fossil Free Stevens Point, 350Madison and Fossil Free Oshkosh. All of these organizations in our region also took actions on Global Divestment Day, with human mosaics like ours, divestment meetings, and public protests.

“Global Divestment Day was a very gratifying and empowering day for me, we were able to not only unite with other schools around the UW System, but schools and communities around the world,” Mathews said.

There are hundreds of campus divestment campaigns around the country, but one receiving much publicity as of late is that of Harvard University. Over 72 percent of current Harvard students, 1,100 alumni, 200 faculty members and 65,000 community members, have signed the divestment petition. Even with that sort of support, administrators still refuse to acknowledge that they must do as the students wish and start removing the over $32 million Harvard has invested in fossil fuels.

This has resulted in a lawsuit and weeks of student occupation in the hallways of administration buildings, including all day on Friday, in a “sit-in” form of civil disobedience, and as their action on behalf of Global Divestment Day.

The photos on 350.org show the beautiful actions taken across the world. Climate change activists in Melbourne, Australia, constellated themselves into letters forming the word “divest.” Over 500 Londoners lobbied at Parliament, resulting in public statements from the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, to work across party lines to end the use of “unabated coal for power generation.”

Faith groups across Great Britain gathered to urge the Church of England to divest its £60 million holdings in fossil fuels. Students in Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu took to the streets to protest their universities investments in fossil fuels, just as we were. Citizens of Cape Town, South Africa, made a human mosaic, just as we did.

Divestment efforts of Norwegian citizens were finally successful the week before Global Divestment day. GoFossilFree announced on Feb. 5 that “Norwegian Sovereign Wealth (oil) Fund has divested from a total of 22 companies… totaling billions of dollars in assets…in terms of amount of money it is likely the biggest divestment decision to date… this rapidly growing campaign is having a serious impact.”

This is a huge win for the climate change activists everywhere, and citizens of Earth in general.

This one day of global action is not the last step in the fossil fuel campaign. 350.org, the largest, global climate change activism network throughout the world, will keep Global Divestment Day moving for years to come, until divestment is achieved everywhere. The fossil fuel campaign is the fastest growing divestment effort in history.

The pieces for the human mosaic will hopefully not be needed next year–divestment would ideally be initiated and completed by then. They’ll become merely items in the archive; artifacts of times bygone; lasting memories of actions leading to great decisions.

Universities are often regarded as the highest institutes of knowledge and intellect; therefore, one could argue that these establishments, such as UWRF, should be on the forefront of the decision making that must happen to ensure a high quality of living for future inhabitants of earth. If we wait to divest until a large amount of schools already have, the benefits that come with divesting will not be as great as they could be if done now. The sooner we divest, the more attention we will receive, increasing awareness among potential students who are making the college decision.

The slogan of the Fossil Free campaign is “let’s make fossil fuels history.” Members of ECOS, and the over 500 people who have signed the divestment petition, all agree that UWRF should start taking steps towards doing just that: making fossil fuels history.

Jack Haren is a journalism student with a political science minor. His free time is spent snowboarding, skateboarding, reading, writing, designing, listening, experimenting and living minimally. In the future he wishes to freelance and travel the world.Molly Kinney is a journalism student with a political science minor. She enjoys reading, camping, music, art and exploring new cities in her free time. In the future, she would love to travel the world and cover politics for NPR.Daniel Saunders is a student at UW-River Falls.