Matters Of Debate | Issue 12

Matters Of Debate | Issue 12

Divestment is a good tool to create change

This column is written by the Otago University Debating Society, which meets for social debating every Tuesday at 6pm in the Commerce Building

Affirmative, by By Old Major

The ANZ group is the largest lender to fossil fuel projects in the Pacific region. Recently, Australians have been closing their accounts as a protest against the bank’s funding of these industries. On the 12th of May there were protests here in Dunedin, with people peacefully sitting across the entrances of the two ANZ branches on George St. The Dunedin protesters want ANZ to divest from fossil fuels.

So what is divestment you might be wondering? Divestment is just the opposite of investment. In the same way that you can invest money in a company, you can also withdraw your money from that company. In other words: divestment is the withdrawal of investments.

Divestment has been perhaps most famously used as a tool to pressure the South African government to end Apartheid. Many Universities in the US divested, withdrawing their funds from companies that did business in South Africa. A number of states, cities and national governments followed suit. The divestment campaign had a large impact on the South African economy, and is credited with helping to end Apartheid.

So why should people demand that ANZ divest from fossil fuels? This is a really easy point to make. By lending money to companies in the fossil fuel industry, ANZ facilitates their actions. The use of fossil fuels emits large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is accelerating climate change. 

Needless to say, global warming is bad: glaciers are disappearing, the polar ice caps are melting, sea levels will rise, many animals will die as their habitats are destroyed and weather patterns will become more extreme. Rising sea levels and changing weather is also likely to impact the production of food, leading to food shortages in some areas. Access to fresh water may also become an increasingly pressing issue. So on the whole, climate change looks a bit shit.

We can’t wait around and just hope that things will improve. We’ve caused this and we need to take actions to address it. One of the simplest things that we can do is reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. As individuals we can make choices. One of those choices is to demand that big companies stop investing in fossil fuels. If they instead used their money to fund research into green energy we would all be better off. 

Negative, by Squealer the Pig

Consider the following quote from Margaret Thatcher—a great leader of the British people—on sanctions and divestment in the case of Apartheid South Africa: ‘’[sanctions and divestment] only work by bringing about poverty and starvation and anyone who inherited South Africa would inherit a wrecked economy and the prospects for all people there would be infinitely worse than they will be if we save that economy and come, as I believe we shall, to a negotiated settlement.’’

Thatcher was right. Divestment only hurts people. The whole point of it is to cause financial pressure. The idea is that if you divest enough the group from whom you are divesting will be pressured into submitting to your demands. In the case of South Africa this meant impoverishing the businesses operating in the country in the hope that the government would succumb. 

The problem with this is that businesses aren’t some vague entity. They’re made up of people; people who work for them, and who get goods and services from them. Many people work for fossil fuel companies, but perhaps more importantly, many of us depend on fossil fuels in our daily lives. Cars are a prime example…

Moreover, when you demand that a company, such as ANZ divest from fossil fuels, you’re demanding that other people adhere to your beliefs. If you want to oppose fossil fuels, that’s fine. Don’t drive and don’t personally bank with ANZ. But you shouldn’t demand that other people change their behaviour to suit you. Many people might be perfectly happy that their bank is choosing to invest in an industry that they rely on in their day to day lives. 

If we want to move to greener technologies we need money. You can’t suddenly create a rechargeable car battery that can last a long time from a single charge without investing large amounts of money to do so. Rather than divesting from these companies we should engage with them, and encourage them to invest in green technologies. #bettertogether.

To recap: if you don’t like something, then that’s fine. You can personally boycott that company. Boycotting still has negative economic effects, but that’s the whole point right? You’re trying to pressure them into doing what you want. But at least a boycott is your own decision. When you demand that someone else divest you’re making a decision for everyone. You have no right to do that. 

This article first appeared in Issue 12, 2016.
Posted 12:07pm Sunday 22nd May 2016 by Otago University Debating Society.