Pretty Lawns and Gardens: Why public fossil fuel divestment is a long-term strategy

In “Pretty Lawns and Gardens” I will discuss political ecology, or the study of the ever-important relationships between political entities, economic forces and our shared world. Each week, I will be looking at an environmental issue from an economic or political perspective, with the understanding that what is best for the earth is often best for human society. In this week’s column: public fund divestment in favor of a greener future.

No public money ought to be invested in extractive industries — those companies whose profits come at the expense of the shared good. Sadiq Khan and Bill de Blasio clearly believe this, since the two mayors of London and New York City co-authored a letter in The Guardian on Sept. 10 describing each city’s strategy to divest public funds from non-renewables. “Divestment is a powerful tool and a prudent use of resources,” the mayors wrote.

I agree. Our society faces the consequences of centuries of bad environmental and economic policy; an important corrective step is divestment by public entities from fossil fuels. But it is vital to recognize that divestment is not a one-shot solution; it is a long-term strategy.

On the surface, divestment seems simple. The public sells off all assets involved directly in environment-devastating processes, like the production of coal, oil or peat. This is what Ireland chose to do this past July, jettisoning €300 million in fossil investments, and setting an example for what national divestment can look like. But this is a one-shot. The concept of selling off public investments in fossil fuels is a start, not a finish.

Combined, the pension funds of London and New York exceed the investment fund of Ireland. Their moves should be met with excitement, but should these public entities hold investments in companies like McDonald’s or Tupperware? McDonald’s sells industrially produced food in disposable packaging, which is rarely recycled. Tupperware is a producer of plastic products, and as much a petroleum company as ExxonMobil.

From this perspective it’s clear that a fossil fuel divestment strategy would be incomplete without considering downstream players.

It is a conceivable yet difficult goal to divest from planet-harming companies for the long run. Actively managing public funds with a conscious eye for sustainability will generate returns for the public in more ways than simple dollars, so when the opportunity arises to swap Tupperware for a producer of recycled container products, or an industrial farm for a growers collective, the public should take it.

In the long run, our society will be most successful if we work in concert with our ecosystems politically and economically, developing an ongoing strategy to allocate our economic resources to maximize our environmental health. Investing in cleaner air is an investment in public health, and investing in small farms is an investment in biodiversity and strong local economies. Where economic power can be used for the common good, it should be done. To quote Khan and de Blasio, it is “a prudent use of resources.”