Divestment and Crowd Power

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“Divestment” campaigns are not new. As a South African, born during the heat of Apartheid, that word has been in my vocabulary for a long time.

But for those who are unfamiliar: divestment is, most simply, the opposite of investment. But used colloquially, it refers to political campaigns that encourage financial backers to pull out investments in a certain type of business, because of said business’ ties to political, moral, or social issues. From the 1960’s until South Africa’s first democratic election, almost exactly 20 years ago, college campuses, activists groups in cities, and organizers around the world pressured investors, whether at endowments, in governments, or in private companies, to pull their investments out of companies doing business with the South African government. The work of anti-apartheid activists on the ground, political leaders in exile, and this global divestment trend combined to make a potent force in bringing down apartheid.

Since then, tobacco, arms dealing, and most recently climate change have all been targets of divestment campaigns. Oppressive governments face sanctions from other governments, but also face pressure through divestment campaigns, which are almost always organically developed.

Today, Stanford University announced that it would divest from coal mining companies, what has been part of a mainstay of fossil fuel investments for many institutions for decades upon decades. This came by as a result of pressure from 350.org, from students and alumni of Stanford university, and as part of a global movement to push the university down the moral path to a sustainable, morally aligned future.

Universities are a particularly potent breeding ground for divestment campaigns, because the student body and alumni body are both a built-in community of potential organizers, and the funds that drive a university are largely bottom-up, and certainly vulnerable to public opinion. But as more and more companies become crowd-powered, and the internet forces transparency and accountability onto broader groups of organizations, we can expect much more of this in the coming years.

The implications of crowd power are heady, indeed.

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