Smoke & Mirrors: The New Ethos of Fossil Fuel Divestment

Maya Stewart

The stage was set. As I sat at the back of Carleton University’s cramped English lounge, I observed the nervous anticipation that filled the space around me. Perhaps no one had expected such a large turnout. It seemed somewhat amusing, the ritualistic nature of the movements within the room. Strangers all around me were shaking hands and uttering small talk in hushed whispers, trying not to disturb the sanctity within the room. A show seemed like it was about to begin.

And then, the curtains fell back with a “swoosh”, and it had suddenly begun. The moderator emerged, Sara Collins, a PhD student in the Department of Biology, to present to us with the reason for our gathering. Only the occasional sound of shifting of limbs, now: a hand rubbing a jaw, a back shifting straight to get a better view. All of our eyes were set on the speakers before us, as if waiting for the wisdom of prophets and deities.

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“Scientists have done the math…” The moderator began her speech. She spoke eloquently, straightforward and clear. Her speech was the materialization of the scientific method, I thought. She told us what we were all aware of, the reason why we had gathered: that everything has been calculated, measured, and weighed. The facts stand as plain as day. The numbers can’t be denied. There is no need to flourish it: carbon emission is a problem. A big part of that problem is fossil fuels. So, how does divestment from companies that exploit fossil fuels fit into that picture? What does divestment do for environmental activism? The moderator seemed to hear this unasked question. She ended her speech just as she had started it: “It simply means getting rid of . . . ”

For some reason, I can’t remember how she finished that sentence. But that is okay. That was our question anyway, tossed to us like a kid who’d gotten lost on the way to Grandma’s house. “Divestment simply means getting rid of what?” My head turned from the moderator to the audience members, who all turned expectantly towards the four speakers before us. It was like everyone was silently asking, “What do we do with it? Where should it go? It’s not my kid, you know.”

The topic that had drawn us all in was quite clearly on divesting from fossil fuels. But the real argument amongst the speakers would actually become, “What is the goal of divestment?” As the first speaker was cued for her spot in the limelight, I realized the “play” had begun. How would it end?

Her name was Bilan Arte, the Deputy Chair of the Canadian Federation of Students. She spoke largely about the impacts of environmental activism on campus, and about divestment as a tool for social change, how education and the divestment of fossil fuels could be used like a beacon of change to gather both the student body and the public alike, in the name of “environmental justice.” The ultimate aim would be to freeze accounts associated with private organizations involved with fossil fuels, to divest, and to invest in renewable resources. Her point was that, as she aptly claimed, “The goal is to have the institution divest.”

But, what is the true goal of divestment? This was the question of focus in the next speaker’s speech. His name was Michael Bueckert, PhD Candidate for the Department of Sociology and Political Economy. He introduced an analytical analysis of the effectiveness (or rather, the lack thereof) of divestment. “In economic terms,” he said, “divestment is really irrelevant”. He spoke about the difference between corporate investment and personal intent, and that public divestment in the stock market could have unpredictable consequences. In the end, Michael argued that ethical investment “is really tricky,” that the primary goal of the divestment movement is symbolic, and that divestment is ultimately not a solution to the fossil fuel problem.

The third speaker, Lenore Fahrig, a faculty in the Department of Biology, spoke of the ultimate consequences of fossil fuel usage and carbon emissions that will plague us in the near future if we do not quickly desist. She claimed that the people’s voices combined with green energy investment and conservation will create change. In contrast to Michael’s speech, she called for the necessity of rapid divestment, as the solution to the serious issue of climate change.

The fourth speaker, Kevin Skerrett, a CUPE research officer, spoke of the seven constraints on shareholders and investor activism. While he claimed to be sympathetic to Lenore’s argument, he agreed with Michael in saying that divestment is at the end of the day ineffective. He believed that the ultimate goal is to get fossil fuel companies to move away from fossil fuels, and to change corporate behavior. But this would call for a change in the very way our economy functions, as the political sphere is becoming increasingly dominated by private sectors.


The conversation and questions that arose in the questions section of the roundtable reflected the discord that existed amongst the speakers. I could not help reflect on the difference between the beginning and the end of our conversation. As we left the room, there seemed to be a complete and utter lack of consensus as to what to do – is divestment a fruitful pursuit, or are its trees barren for want of effect? What is the goal? The conclusion of our roundtable seemed to be that the discussion was not nearly that simple, and that the solution was as complex as the problem. It stood in start contrast to the simplicity and clarity of the moderator’s opening speech. I still wish I could remember what she had said. That would be the answer, would it not? So, we must keep asking hard questions, until we find the right answers. Once more: “It simply means getting rid of . . . ” what?

Maya Stewart is currently a third-year undergraduate student of English and Philosophy at Carleton University. Her writing has been published in various places, including Anthem Little Mag and Carleton University’s Learning Log.