St. Thomas University’s environmental policy states “the development of the whole person can be enhanced by nurturing an awareness of the effects of the University and of human activity on the environment by … operating the university in an environmentally responsible manner.” The STU website states that “liberal arts are the best preparation for a life as a leader, a professional and a global citizen.”
If STU wants to nurture responsible global citizens, the University must set an example with its own actions. Accountability for their environmental and global commitments requires the University’s administration to consider the impact of their financial investments on a global scale. University investments generally fail to fully consider environmental and social impacts.
The purpose of an endowment fund is to generate profit. However, as an institution for higher education, STU plays a larger role in shaping social attitudes about the climate crisis. Universities that choose to address the climate crisis and transform their behaviour to align with environmentally sustainable practices will have a significant influence in shaping public views on the fossil fuel industry.
The Canadian government allows private ownership and exploitation of fossil resources because the country currently depends on jobs in the fossil fuel and related industries to generate economic growth, and on fossil fuels to meet social demands.
As long as governments continue subsidizing and supporting fossil fuel extraction, many institutions will not feel pressure to change their behaviour. As well, Canadians will not have adequate support to transition to renewable energy.
Governments supporting the ecological destruction caused by oil and gas production sends a message to investors to continue supporting the industry. Years of inaction have made it clear society cannot rely on the state to make effective changes to combat the climate crisis.
Canada and other western countries follow a neoliberal economic strategy, aiming to maximize profits while disregarding planetary boundaries. Neoliberalism assumes infinite growth is possible by extracting resources and exploiting nature indefinitely.
It views nature as ‘capital’ which individuals should claim ownership over and profit from, relying on the environment to supply the ‘product’ without consideration for the Earth’s natural limits of extraction and assuming infinite growth is required to achieve maximum profit.
This view is reflected in the majority of universities’ investments, as their main goal is profit maximization, without much other consideration.
In contrast, a political ecology perspective includes ecological governance and degrowth, arguing that it is possible to achieve financial stability by establishing a steady economy that fluctuates within planetary boundaries. Shifting to this perspective would require a transformation of social understandings and attitudes, and a change of norms and values within governing bodies.
Fossil fuel divestment campaigns aim to foster and support a transition towards this perspective. The fossil fuel divestment campaign at STU aims to create a shift among values, ethics and morals regarding how the University invests its money.
The political ecology perspective helps end the misconception that fossil free investments cannot be successful. A study conducted on three of the largest American pension funds (CalPERS, CalSTRS & PERA) found that the pension funds missed out on a combined $19 billion USD in investment returns over the last decade by investing in fossil fuel stocks.
Political ecology recognizes that all aspects of the Earth are interconnected and interdependent, and that nature has intrinsic value separate from human benefit. Integrating this perspective into the attitudes of the Board of Governors and financial advisors at STU could create a greater awareness of the impacts of the university’s investments.
A shift in perspective would mean supporting and profiting from progressive, sustainable economic sectors, making STU a leading example of what environmental and social responsibility should look like. The divestment movement began from the ground-up by citizens who became frustrated with the lack of action and tainted goals of those in positions of power.
Fossil fuel divestment campaigns on university campuses aim to put power back into the hands of citizens through a ground-up approach, by pressuring administrations to take financial support away from fossil fuel businesses. It also sends a message to governments that citizens and institutions want to see a just transition to a renewable energy-driven economy.
The environmental justice perspective is introducing new values of respect for people, community and nature to redefine development through a more sustainable lens. It calls for a redefinition of democracy that protects the most vulnerable populations in society from the most powerful majorities.
Divestment provides STU with an opportunity to reshape and transform our role as an environmentally responsible global citizen. By divesting our endowment fund from fossil fuels, we are directly taking back our power by choosing not to support environmentally destructive industries.
If STU’s administration starts viewing our investments as a tool to motivate and support sustainable sectors, we have the potential to make positive impacts in our society rather than destructive ones. As an educational institution, we have the power to influence positive transformations within our society and seek effective climate action.
This is Hannah Moore’s second article in her fossil-fuel divestment series. Read her first article, Universities funding planetary destruction.
Hannah Moore is a fourth year Environment & Society major at St. Thomas University, the leader of the STU divestment campaign and a researcher on the RAVEN project at the University of New Brunswick.