In February, the British government announced a new Tory-led parliamentary measure that will inflict “severe penalties” onto local governments and public institutions that boycott goods and services on an “ethical” (as opposed to purely financial) basis, including divestment. Planned to coincide with British Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock’s visit to Israel in February, the move is transparently directed at the international Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement to end Israel’s occupation of Palestine, but further includes “companies involved in the arms trade, fossil fuels [and] tobacco products.”
As UK Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn told The Independent, “The government’s decision to ban councils and other public bodies from disinvesting from trade or investments they regard as unethical is an attack on local democracy.” It also sets a worrying precedent for campaigners on a range of issues. Aside from being a blatant attack on free speech, though, the new rule begs the question: What happens when boycotts and divestments become as practical as they are ethical?
Divestment and boycotts alike are part of a broader campaign to remove the social license of an industry – or set of companies profiting off a certain moral harm – to operate. More so than to funnel capital out of bad actors, the goal is to stoke a cultural and political context in which benefiting economically from whatever terrible thing particular corporations are doing becomes impossible. Take the case of fossil fuel divestment: Even if every university endowment in the continental United States were to jump ship on ExxonMobil, chances are strong that the company would either not miss the money at all or find new investors to replace it.
If ExxonMobil were a high-performing stock with sterling financial prospects for the future, as it has been historically, then divesting from it – choosing to forgo an otherwise solid investment – would be a purely ethical move. If, for whatever reason, that stock were to become unprofitable, then discerning whether a divestment were taking place on political or pragmatic grounds would become more difficult.
Uniquely, in the case of fossil fuels, movement and market forces are fusing into a newly unprofitable environment for companies like ExxonMobil – and an all the more confusing context for Britain’s new ban.
The think tank Carbon Tracker, comprised of financial professionals, has argued for years that coal, oil and natural gas companies are grossly overvalued, drawing their high prices from fossil fuels they’re unlikely to be able to dig up. Their most recent report finds that as many as $2 trillion in corporate assets could be “stranded” by some mix of regulation and climate catastrophe.
Between sinking oil prices and a new – if still undefined – global resolve to end the era of fossil fuels after December’s climate talks in Paris, Carbon Tracker’s predictions appear to be coming true. As J.W. Bode at The Ecologist points out, New York teachers already lost $135 million off their pensions thanks to investments in the oil and gas industry, where stocks are now reaching 10 year lows. Fifteen Australian pension funds gave up a collective $5.6 billion betting on fossil fuels, and even Goldman Sachs is fretting that oil could drop below $20 a barrel before prices rally. When oil prices were still high, the world’s largest investment manager, BlackRock, had created a fossil free fund. And the fossil fuel divestment movement, of course, had by that point already begun to drag the industry’s reputation through the mud, joining a newly militant, visible climate movement and putting pressure on world governments to reach an agreement at COP21 and wean off of coal, oil and natural gas.
Fossil fuels are idiosyncratic, investment-wise. Tobacco corporations and those profiting off of the occupation (think Sabra hummus or Caterpillar, which primarily makes construction equipment) are not exactly backbones of the global economy. Eighty percent of Israeli chickpeas don’t need to remain in the ground to avert global catastrophe. But movements alone can make them unfashionable, creating new norms within the investment community that turn the tide away from companies harming people and the planet, and prompt wider policy shifts. At least in the United States, this has already happened with regards to firearms and tobacco; it’s now standard for large-scale institutional investors to screen those industries out of stock portfolios. Divestment was also one of several drives at South Africa’s apartheid regime that ultimately led to its unraveling, even if the companies under fire didn’t face massive losses.
As Corbyn also noted, the new ban would prevent any of this, and potentially leave British pension funds and student unions with toxic investments. At their best, movements can make “ethical stances” – like those the British government is now attempting to stamp out – common sense, something in which UK conservatives might do well to invest.
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