An introduction to the divestment movement at McMaster, even if you’ve never heard the word “divest” before. No tutorials required. 

By: Natalie Palumbo, Nicole Graziano, Mymoon Bhuiyan and Adeola Egbeyemi, Contributors

This article is written by members of McMaster Divest.

Instructor: OPIRG Group McMaster Divest
Email: macdivest@opirgmcmaster.ca
Lecture: One-time reading 

History of MacDivest

Welcome to the Winter 2021 one-reading course: DIVEST 1A03! In the context of higher education, fossil fuel divestment involves universities removing their investments in stocks, bonds and other forms of invested funds from the fossil fuel industry. Like many universities, McMaster University currently invests in fossil fuel companies.

At McMaster, the divestment movement traces back to 2013 when OPIRG project Fossil-Free McMaster began to advocate for divestment from fossil fuel companies. Although the efforts of students and faculty of Fossil-Free McMaster led to McMaster creating a committee to evaluate the possibility of divestment of endowment funds, ultimately no further action was taken.

Divestment Evaluation – Details

Moral Reasons

The use and production of fossil fuels are directly tied to climate change. It is a fact that as fossil fuels are mined, carbon emissions enter the atmosphere and raise the global average temperature, causing a host of problems and exacerbating others. 

It’s no secret that fossil fuel companies have been repeatedly linked to human rights abuses and have shown that profits trump human rights, notably on Canadian soil. This is particularly concerning when we consider the effects of fossil fuels on Indigenous populations within Canada, such as oil spills and discharges.

Consider this: How can McMaster honour the promises made in their land acknowledgements if their investments support companies that build pipelines across Indigenous lands, threatening the livelihood and sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples?

How can McMaster honour the promises made in their land acknowledgements if their investments support companies that build pipelines across Indigenous lands, threatening the livelihood and sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples?

We know we sound like huge tree huggers, but hear us out — as students, it is also discouraging to know that our tuition supports an institution that’s invested in the slow roast of the planet by way of fossil fuel companies.

Leadership Reasons

“As a global university, we must recognize the important role we play through all of our sustainability efforts, which include responsible investments,” said McMaster president, David Farrar in 2020.

All universities will likely end up divesting, it is simply a matter of when. How embarrassing is it that in the middle of a climate crisis, McMaster wants to watch and see how divestment impacts other universities first?

This contradicts the idea that McMaster plays a global leadership role, as they are riding on the coattails of global institutions, as well as smaller Canadian universities that have shown real leadership. McMaster prides itself on its achievements, its sustainability efforts included. It would be a hollow victory if McMaster announced its divestment plan after watching other universities divest and assessing their processes. 

Divestment Misconceptions

Misconception 1:

“But when we divest from these companies, we lose our seat at the table as shareholders, we can no longer engage and advocate for them to be more sustainable!”

Sustainability is avoiding the depletion of natural resources to maintain Earth’s ecology. There is no amount of advocacy that can make a company, whose goal is the antithesis of this (i.e. mining natural resources), environmentally friendly. Even if we could, the activism coming from McMaster’s tiny investment could not change a company’s mind anyway.

Misconception 2: 

“If our investment is so tiny, then what is the point? You won’t make a difference with divestment, so why bother?”

McMaster’s investment is small in terms of financial capital, yes, but is massive in terms of social capital. Divestment looks to devalue social capital by sending a message that investing in fossil fuels is not okay. In addition, divestment is becoming an increasingly sound investment decision to make, no matter how small. Fossil fuels seem to be an industry in decline, seeing increasing amounts of trouble regularly.

Misconception 3: 

“Oh, that’s real nice. You want McMaster to divest from fossil fuel companies, while the whole campus uses fossil fuels to run! Very hypocritical for the consumers to divest from the suppliers.”

First of all, if McMaster wanted to research, plan and conduct a smooth, equitable transition to a fossil-free campus, we would be all for it! But McMaster obviously isn’t a top world research university, so that’s silly talk. Divestment isn’t mutually exclusive from going fossil-free, we’re just a part of the worldwide movement for this particular systematic change.

Misconception 4:

“I know investment funds and tuition money are two separate pools of funding. But it’s still university money that should be diversified for a balanced portfolio.”

We agree! Loss of diversification is not good. That’s why there are companies in the energy sector that can be invested in that do not emit carbon dioxide! In fact, MacGreenInvest is a group of McMaster faculty that has been working since 2015 for reinvestment of these divested funds into sustainable initiatives.

The benefits of divestment are that McMaster can begin to actively, mindfully and genuinely invest in green companies and start-ups, forming a reciprocal relationship with the technology and energy sources we want to see thrive in the future. 

We know we haven’t answered all the misconceptions about divestment at McMaster. There are still well-placed concerns about the complexities of removing pooled funding and monitoring progress year-by-year. But once you start thinking about the complexities of how to divest, you’ve already agreed then that divestment is necessary.

Next Steps

Hopefully you, the reader, are now on board with the fossil fuel divestment movement. You’ve aced the exam and secured that 12! Now what?

You can keep up with MacDivest work to move McMaster away from unsustainable investments on Instagram and Facebook. You can sign this petition calling on McMaster to take divestment action. You can even simply spread awareness with your friends and community by, for instance, sharing this article.

As individuals, it would be difficult to convince McMaster to divest. However, as a collective group, in the McMaster community and worldwide, working towards an actual brighter world is possible.

Image courtesy of C/O Nigel Mathias

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