December 9, 2013
Nelson Mandela celebrated his 95th birthday this fall, and his vision and commitment have inspired millions. His ailing health, and now his recent passing, have made many of us reflect on how he succeeded in bringing an end to apartheid and creating a democratic South Africa. He achieved what so many still aspire to: stopping a grave injustice. Though many shared his dream for South Africa, Mandela often made choices that were regarded by some as controversial. In particular, his call for colleges and universities to divest their stock holdings of companies doing business in South Africa – a key strategy in the successful movement – was subject to debate.
The idea of divestment generated both vocal support and criticism from businesses, investors, and colleges. These reactions are useful to remember today, as students at hundreds of colleges – inspired by Mandela’s divestment campaign – are leading fossil-fuel divestment campaigns as part of a broad movement to address climate change. Divestment activists then and now have learned that even those who may share the same stated goals often fail to understand the very strategy that may turn out to make the difference.
Nelson Mandela’s decisions frequently drew critiques – when he dropped out of college to support a political protest, and then, when he didn’t return to his village and the arranged marriage that awaited him. His early decision to espouse non-violent actions while blacks were being beaten was widely criticized by allies – as was his change of strategy years later to advocate armed rebellion.
Today, it is easy to forget that Mandela’s strategic and tactical decisions sometimes confused or irritated supporters, since so many of the most commonly circulated images of the famous leader show his composure in the face of injustice. For example, when he called for divestment, others in the movement urged patience, arguing that the campaign would not be effective, or might bring too much hardship to the very same people that the movement was focused on freeing. Yet, he never wavered, confident that divestment was part of the long arc of history that would ultimately realize Mandela’s vision for his country.
By the mid-1980’s, support for divestment was rapidly growing, finding strongholds on U.S. campuses and in many faith and religious institutions. Many iconic institutions were persuaded to divest, which has been credited as the key turning point in the movement to create a free South Africa.
Now, more than 20 years later, the call to divest from fossil fuels is creating controversy again with detractors dusting off many of the same arguments. But that’s not stopping college presidents, faith leaders and mayors from bringing new energy, new constituents, and new power into the climate change movement. Inspired by Mandela’s strategy, this current divestment campaign already is creating the political power and influence to secure the changes we need. History has taught us that each strategy is best evaluated by the goal, vision, options, and urgency – and that in hindsight the controversial strategies were some of the most successful ones. Divestment could play this role again in this generation’s most pressing issue.
Leading fossil fuel corporations have had ample time to transition their businesses to cleaner and safer technologies. But, instead, they chose to first fight the scientific evidence proving climate change and then oppose not only changes in their business models, but even national legislation and initiatives that would have started curbing carbon emission levels years ago and put our country and the world in a safer place today. In this context, using the leverage of divestment is appearing less controversial every day. Investors who stop supporting fossil fuel companies are using a powerful tool to build the political will needed to put measures in place that will help slow down our world’s steadily rising temperatures, erratic weather and growing carbon emission levels.
There are a few bright spots in our work to curb climate change, including President Obama’s plan to cut carbon emissions at existing power plants, but it’s not enough. The erratic weather of this year and the devastating Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines serve as a harsh reminder: there are real life consequences of burning fossil fuels, and there’s an urgent need to escalate our collective action on this issue.
Nelson Mandela inspired us for decades and has now helped a new generation find a way to call for a change, no matter how challenging. Believing in your vision and strategy despite how controversial it might be at the start is one of the most instructive parts of his long struggle for global justice — a gift that he has given to all of us.
Green Century Capital Management
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