A response to Li Pan’s “The oil industry divestment campaign isn’t working”

In a column last week, author Li Pan argued that the responsibility for easing society off of fossil fuels lies with the consumers. As the argument goes, fossil fuel companies are only supplying what “we” demand. Real change has to involve consumer sacrifice. What Mr. Pan suggests is that more effective campaigns should call for more awareness, carbon taxes, subsidies, and investment in green energy alternatives. Mr. Pan makes valid points, but the actions he calls for are not sufficient to address the climate crisis. This response will explain why fossil fuel divestment can bring about real change.

Keara Lightning-Alexandra Scandolo-IMG_3213

Keara Lightning, divestment advocate. ALEXANDRA SCANDOLO/THE VARSITY

As Nehiyaw Iskwew (translation: a Cree woman), I look at our consumer choices as an expression of self-determination. René Tenasco, councillor of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Council in 1992, stated in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: “Self-determining peoples have the freedom to choose the pathways that best express their identity, their sense of themselves and the character of their relations with others.” Whether or not we want to contribute to climate change, each day we are forced to. Self-determination is a term frequently used in discussions of Aboriginal politics, but in this context, all Canadians who value the environment and the well being of future generations have little self-determination — little freedom to choose pathways that are true to their values.

As Mr. Pan says, “consumers will need to make significant sacrifices.” His mistake is setting those goals at odds with divestment. Combatting climate change requires massive shifts in political power and infrastructure. The fossil fuel industry is politically powerful — it spent an estimated $213 million lobbying US and EU descision makers in 2013 alone. We need to take away its legitimacy. If we can take away its legitimacy, we can take away its political power and the massive subsidies it recieves. We will force parties to build a fossil free economy that can meet our needs equitably.

Arguing that responsibility lies with individual consumers to reduce demand relies on the assumption that we all have the ability to do so. It’s no surprise that organic foods and environmentally friendly products are associated with the well-off. The majority of consumers don’t have the time, money, and energy to devote to making sure everything they buy is good for the planet — they’re trying to work precarious jobs and take care of families. Even if a majority of consumers make a concerted effort to curb our consumption, our society at large will continue to be reliant on oil. There is a qualitative difference between me divesting from fossil fuels, and U of T, Canada’s most prestigious university, divesting.

We don’t have a lot of options to express a love for the life of this planet in our day-to-day lives. We don’t have the power of fossil fuel companies to donate millions to political lobbying. Our university is supposed to represent our values. To do that, U of T must divest from fossil fuels.

Keara Lightning is a first-year student at Innis College studying Aboriginal studies.  She is also a member of the fossil fuel divestment campaign at Innis College.

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