Divestment Is Not Just a Symbolic Gesture

Photo by Drake Wong

On December 5th 2019, much to the disappointment of students and staff alike, McGill made the disheartening yet unsurprising decision to once again avoid divestment from the fossil fuel industry, meanwhile ignoring both the votes of its own senate and the voices of its own community. 

Despite the path towards divestment being illuminated by neighboring universities UQAM and Concordia, McGill remains rooted in place, justifying its decision with the threat of financial loss as a result of pulling from fossil fuel portfolios. 

This isn’t the first time the university has decided against divestment. In 2013 and 2016, McGill was faced with the same choice. Both times, it was deemed unlikely that the Board of Governors would halt investments in the fossil fuel industry. 

Three times now, McGill has had the opportunity to disengage from the industry that is largely responsible for the rapid decline of our planet. Throughout the campus, cries heard from students, organizations like Divest McGill, and staff have rallied together in demand for climate action. In September 2019, nearly half a million members of the Montreal community gathered to protest climate inaction right outside McGill’s doors, and now, the school has even lost a professor as a consequence of its failure to divest. 

After eighteen years of teaching at McGill, Professor (Prof.) Gregory Mikkelson resigned on December 12th after learning of McGill’s refusal to divest once again. Having taught environmental ethics and biology, Prof. Mikkelson stated his resignation was a “matter of conscience,” believing that staying a part of a fossil-fuel supporting institution counteracted his knowledge and passion in the field of climate action. 

It’s quite the ironic offense coming from one of the top research institutions in Canada. 

Prof. Mikkelson’s resignation has been expressed as a loss for our university. His decision was one of both ethical and social significance, reminding us of how urgent the climate situation is. Not only that, but the professor also made the point that in its refusal, McGill is essentially “undercutting” academics and research gone into proving the danger of climate change. It’s quite the ironic offense coming from one of the top research institutions in Canada. 

And yet, McGill’s name still remains high on a list of investors. And its defense? The claim that divestment is merely a “symbolic gesture—” a meaningless act of social posturing that would in reality do nothing to preserve our planet. At least it seems meaningless when compared to the plan McGill has devised to overall reduce carbon emissions. 

Although I commend McGill for attempting to decrease their carbon footprint, their denouncement of divestment as “simply” a social statement is more difficult to support.

And sure, it may be challenging, but combating climate change isn’t going to be an easy task either. 

When asked why the Board of Governors turned down yet another chance to divest, Principal Suzanne Fortier claimed that a move towards divestment would merely be symbolic. After all, fossil fuels make up only two percent of McGill’s portfolio. To be more specific, only 32 million dollars. And besides, it would likely be a difficult financial maneuver, since it would involve divesting from all other portfolios that didn’t explicitly ban fossil fuels. 

I am no financial expert, so I can’t argue that divestment would be a straightforward endeavour. As with all risky monetary moves, it very well could lead to a loss for McGill. But if divestment, as Principal Fortier claims, would only be symbolic because of the small fraction that fossil fuels make up in the school’s portfolio, why not do it? And sure, it may be challenging, but combating climate change isn’t going to be an easy task either. 

Throughout history, revolutions have been built from symbolic actions.

The discredit of symbolic gestures the Board of Governors has offered us in place of concrete justification is frankly pathetic. Since when have we decided that symbolic actions are of no use? Throughout history, revolutions have been built from symbolic actions. If we revisit September, I seem to recall an entire march taking place that provided a symbolic representation of the unrest in the current generation youth, who are most affected by climate change.

Reducing the university’s carbon footprint is, without a doubt, a fantastic idea. However, divestment is a chance for McGill to take those first steps towards solving this crisis. Small, symbolic steps are still steps.

I could make the argument that since our neighboring universities have both made plans towards divestment, that McGill should too. But this isn’t about UQAM, or Concordia. This is about you, McGill. This is about McGill’s chance to listen to students. This is about McGill’s passion for our futures. Will it aid in clearing our path, or will we succumb to a life of victimhood? Is McGill willing to remove itself from the unchecked capitalism that is making life at home uninhabitable? 

It’s up to McGill. 

It irks me a bit that the school who, in the beginning of the year, posted “waste educators” in New Residence to monitor what bin my scraps ended up in is the same institution that in 2018 held an investment pool of $1.6B in the fossil fuel industry. 

McGill, it’s time to wake up. Our planet’s health is in dire condition; any action, whether direct or symbolic, is desperately needed. We’re running out of time, and fast. This goes beyond economic inconveniences, compost bins, and paper straws. The futures of the students at your university and around the world are on the guillotine.  

McGill is a university. Its job is to create futures for the upcoming generation, not play a part in the destruction of them. Jared’s engineering degree won’t do much for him if Earth is uninhabitable.

Unless he has a plan for relocating us to Mars.

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