Divesting like a Rockefeller

Last weekend, the descendants of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller chose to divest from fossil fuels. Stephen Heintz, chairman of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, said that the founder of Standard Oil “moved America out of whale oil and into petroleum. We are quite convinced that if he were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy.”

The move is ironic, of course, and there are some who argue that divestment from fossil fuels is a poor financial move that would accomplish little. However, the detractors forget that perception can be a powerful force. Widespread institutional support of a social movement can affect change, and if a democratic institution perceives a force to be powerful, it will respond in kind.

Though other funds have divested from fossil fuels in the past, this particular pledge has far more symbolic weight. The fact that an American dynasty built on oil wealth would willingly turn its back on the source of its power is a sign that the fossil fuels are not the safe bet they once were (that is, if we assume that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is a rational actor making a decision in its own best interest). In fact, if more institutions decide to shun them, their market value will continue to decrease.

This is not to say that fossil fuels do not compose a critical component of our everyday lifestyles. However, accepting that we are not held to them simply because of our previous ties is the first step in moving to a more widely accepted change for businesses as well as individuals.

It is important to remember that we are not beholden to fossil fuels as a source of wealth. The allure of fossil fuels is a human construct. Just as we’ve put oil and gas at the centre of our lives, we can, with some effort, wean ourselves from them. If we choose to do so (and we can), they will eventually lose much of their value. With a concerted effort, public pressure through divestment can work, and has worked before. One need only look at another divestment campaign, one that drew attention to apartheid-era South Africa. Though the economic effects were miniscule at first, by the time the movement gained traction in the United States, it became a genuine force the South African government had to face.

There has never been a better time to question our institution’s support or investment in fossil fuels to push for a future where large companies no longer require a stake in an unsustainable and harmful process. Divestment starts with a change in our perception and continues up through our institution as we shape it. There are strong economic arguments for moving away from fossil fuels as investments, but to be open to them, we need to stop being so fatalistic when it comes to our environment. Our environmental destiny will be determined by the choices we make, and we should not stick to what we know while giving a collective shrug towards the consequences of inaction.

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