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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.

The activist bubble burst in part under pressures from a new national political climate. Where President Obama endorsed fossil fuel divestment, President Trump promised to pursue an “America first” energy policy that includes production of fossil fuel. McKibben, who sat on the Democratic National Convention’s platform drafting committee, no longer enjoys the administration’s ear. The DSN’s Neubauer, in a May email announcing the DSN was preparing to close, cited “a new age of American politics” as the key reason the group was closing down.

The movement also failed to read market signals. For years, it claimed we had reached “peak oil,” predicting that a sudden shortage of fossil fuels would drive an urgent transition to alternative energies. Fracking exploded that vision, leading to an energy abundance that took the wind out of the environmentalist sails. We’re now in the midst of an oil glut that makes wind, solar, hydro, and other energies even less competitive.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel divestment has lost its appeal to many college students. Activism is only fun when you get attention and accolades. Five years after the first fossil fuel divestment campaign began, divestment is now old-hat. Plus, the divestment campaign fed on students’ fears of imminent existential crisis—yet impending catastrophe can only sound believable for so long.

Fossil fuel divestment may linger in its death throes a while longer. And the radical environmentalist spirit that animated the movement, while much suppressed, hasn’t disappeared. Many of the DSN’s staff are moving to the Sunrise Movement, which aims to expose “politicians’ corrupt dealings with fossil fuel industry executives” and build an “army of young people to make climate change an urgent priority across America.”

Still, that description alone shows how much ground the movement has lost. Fossil fuel divestment assumed climate change was already an “urgent priority across America,” and that America needed only to act more radically. Activists are now forced to build the premise that global warming is important and dangerous.

Radical global warming alarmism still enjoys a sizeable activist base, and we should not underestimate its ability to resurge on college campuses, particularly in an age that glorifies the “Resistance.” But for now, let’s savor the victory. Divestment never improved the environment or enhanced students’ educations. For once, reason trumps radicalism.

Rachelle Peterson is director of research projects at the National Association of Scholars and the author of Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels.