Individual divestment: the power of personal choice

fossil_free_photoThe People’s Climate Rally on September 21, 2014 — 400,000 people marching together on behalf of Mother Earth — galvanized both my individual divestment and my entry into the divestment movement. I felt a thrill of empowerment as I proudly signed the pledge on the website. Although I had already removed some investments in oil, gas, and other extractive industries from my portfolio, I was spurred to further action by the divestment pledges of the Rockefeller Brothers Funds and others. If the heirs to an oil fortune felt it was time to exit this market sector, what was I waiting for?

Pledging to divest woke me up. I realized that pulling my money out of fossil fuels was a positive action, an empowerment that I could share with others. Although the divestment movement is rightly targeting major investors such as state pension funds and university endowment funds, each individual investor can also vote with his or her dollars.

My divestment pledge also inspired me to take a much closer look at my portfolio. The pledge I signed states, among other things:

Where I have direct control over the individual companies I invest in, I will:

  • Make no new investments in the top 200 oil, gas, and coal companies.
  • Sell my existing assets tied to these oil, gas, and coal investments within 3-5 years.
  • Invest in a sustainable and equitable new energy economy.

With this pledge, I realized that I had to examine all of my investments in index funds and other mutual funds as well as in individual companies. My investment adviser was, thankfully, happy to respond to my requests.With a couple of meetings and a few phone calls, I pruned my portfolio of both direct and ancillary investments in fossil fuel companies. I also learned that my investment bank has an associate in charge of “socially responsible investing”, and that many clients are making similar requests. Although my advisers made the expected suggestions regarding staying invested in order to engage in shareholder activism, my decisions were respected and promptly enacted. The power had been in my hands all along: it’s my money; I can choose where to invest it.

Individual divestment, like institutional divestment, is an ongoing process, not a single action. I’m continuing to work with my investment adviser to keep my portfolio free of fossil fuel companies and related industries, and I have been in dialogue with my investment bank’s director of investment planning about the bank’s socially responsible investment initiatives.

I’m under no illusion that the act of divesting from fossil fuels, even by very large investors, will suddenly stop the juggernaut that is Big Oil. The pressure on Big Oil to reform is made up of a myriad of actions and reactions, ranging from the individual to the governmental, from conservation to carbon pricing. The struggle is not easy, and it will continue for a long time. Although some fossil fuel companies are beginning to pay lip service to the realities of climate change, they continue to pour hundreds of billions of dollars per day into prospecting for more oil and gas in extreme environments, using dangerous and toxic technologies. These “business as usual” practices seem not to be influenced by scientific evidence or any concern for the health of Earth, our common home.

So, why divest? Every divestment of any size sends a message to Big Oil that business as usual is not an option. Widespread divestment can help revoke the “social license” for these companies by affecting the shared belief system (aka the “stock market”) that keeps them in business.

Don’t like Big Oil? Take your money away; drive less; educate yourself and others about what we need to do to save the planet. Above all, divest.

Sandy Emerson, a member of Fossil Free California, has a portfolio of stocks, bonds, and funds as a result of her career in the software industry.


Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone