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DEAD: Fossil Fuel Divestment

The Divestment Student Network (DSN), a central force in the campaign to get colleges and universities to sell off investments in coal, oil, and gas, has closed. DSN co-founder Greta Neubauer sent a final email on July 31st announcing that the website, studentsdivest.org, was officially defunct and staff had departed for other work. The last class of DSN Fellows, a group of students and recent graduates sent across the country as community organizers, completed their training in June and will spend the summer working with other environmentalist groups. But no more DSN Fellows will follow their carbonless footprints.

Four years ago, when the DSN was founded, fossil fuel divestment was on its way to becoming a juggernaut movement, bowling over students and college administrators terrified to appear global warming “deniers.” But in the last eighteen months, the movement has tapered to a tiny fad—in part due to the rise of new campus excursions in activism, such as Black Lives Matter. Now, it has gone the way of the dinosaurs whose relics activists alleged were being burned up in gas tanks. The DSN joins the ranks of extinct activist movements that proved unable to adapt to a change in social climate.

Back in 2015, I predicted that the divestment movement would run out of fuel. My study, Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels, offered an encyclopedic look at the campaign that, at that time, was taking the country by force. The New York Times was running profiles of Swarthmore College students who had invented the first fossil fuel divestment campaign in 2012. Bill McKibben, perhaps the country’s leading environmentalist, picked up the divestment idea, promoted it in a sweeping Rolling Stone article, and refocused his international activist group 350.org around the divestment idea. McKibben launched a nationwide pro-divestment preaching tour in 2012, and by 2015, more than a thousand divestment campaigns began. Stanford, Georgetown, and Pitzer were among the prominent institutions that pledged to divest, lending the movement an air of credibility.

The Divestment Student Network, founded in 2013 by many of the students who had come up with the fossil fuel divestment idea in the first place, took on the role of training students. McKibben and 350.org provided the funds, professional activists and organizers, and the veneer of intellectual seriousness that propelled the movement into the mainstream media. The DSN provided the grungy feel of a home-grown activist club and became a central hub for the individual students who held set-ins, vilified their non-divesting administrations, and attempted to organize the faculty members on their campuses into pro-divestment armies.

But the movement turned out to be a sham. Most of the colleges that decided to “divest” from fossil fuels sold off only a few shares to placate protesters. The protesters, in turn, had to confront the inconvenient truth that selling stocks in oil, coal, and gas companies does nothing to invent new energy sources or make them affordable and reliable. They tried to ignore the more sober environmentalists among their ranks who realized that yanking investments from particular companies doesn’t curb pollution or affect the globe’s temperature.