mardi 19 mai 2015
Yesterday, Brett Scott - activist turned broker turned activist ("I actively explored the financial sector for subversial purposes") - joined us in Brussels to speak about his vision on divestment.
The divestment movement is international and while franchised by the organisation 350.org, heavily dependent on small, local groups of volunteers. This is also the case in Belgium. Mathias Balcaen, working for the Greens, volunteering at Greenpeace and leading the campaign in our country, illustrates its current fragmented character: "Something is moving within political parties as well as in some universities, for instance in Ghent and Brussels - but the active person there will leave to do an Erasmus year soon."
"Divestment campaigners claim a creative say in how the future will look like"
Recognizeable contexts for Brett Scott, who has supported groups worldwide in their work on divestment. He starts by scetching a framework for divestment campaigns: "First: the world around us is a product of past investments. What we do now, will have an effect on the situation twenty years from now. Secondly: that is a highly political thing. Investors tend to systematically deny this political dimension of investments. Like the technicians developing surveillance devices, they determine how our world will look like. They would never say they do, they say they have no choice." Which brings us to the last piece of the framework: "We do have different choices on how the future will look like. That is the power of young people engaging in divestment campaigns: they claim the right to have a creative say in what the future will look like."
"Divestment does not function on its own. It is often said that divestment was successful in the battle against Apartheid in South-Africa. True, but divestment alone has not brought Apartheid down: there were also public marches, political pressure, economical sanctions, etc. Just like that, the campaign to politicise investments has many other elements to it. Sustainable finance managers often don't get the importance of the role activists play; they even get irritated by them.
What they tend to forget is that groups like Greenpeace are the reason their jobs exist! Divestment pushes the debat, so that more moderate activities will follow."
Fossil fuels: what the fuck?!
Scott sees three goals in divestment campaigning: "On the long term, you want to delegitimize. Somebody who is at a party telling people he runs a fossil fuel fund, should be expecting to get a serious 'what the fuck?!' - a bit like saying you're a pedophile. We have to change the social norm. The medium-term goal would be that through divestments movements, political and media actors get a license to question investment decisions. It gives them a chance to show that they're not alone in this campaign. Like what happened to the Occupy movement: now every university professor refers to them, even though they weren't part of it - even often critisized it at the time. But they can go ahead with it in more mainstream settings. The short-term goal to me is the actual divestment. You can have an impact impact with this if it's a really big investor, but mostly it's limited. This often is put forward in media as an argument that divestment does not work. Therefore it's important to realize that this is not the ultimate divestment goal."
Breaking down defense mechanisms in the financial sector
"There are two tendencies in divestments campaigns nowadays: either they claim that investments in fossil fuels are no longer profitable (for instance using the carbon bubble argument), or they claim they're just wrong ('you're an asshole for doing this'). Activists tend to be more comfortable with the latter argument. The first has the advantage of tapping into the investor's language, but it takes more to change the norm. People in the financial sector often say they are constrained. It's true that they have certain constraints, but they use them for convenience. To get through this, we have to pay attention to these constraints while not buying into them. We have to ask ourselves the question: how can we break down the defense mechanisms in the financial sector?"
First, let's identify the layers of defense. "We've got 1) the denial of political power ('we are just serving our clients') in favour of 2) a passive market ('if we don't do it, somebody else will'), 3) blinded by apolitical pseudo-science 4) blinded by internal ideologies, 5) deferring responsibility to third parties like models and regulators." We should not settle for this. Brett Scott's recommendations on how to reply vary from 'you are not a robot', to 'there are already embedded norms that stop you investing in certain profitable but unethical activities' and most of all 'you are prioritizing narrow short-term interests of few over broader long-term interests of everyone': "Money only has as much use as the world in which you can use it. People might agree we would be better off with less profit in een safe and beautiful environment than with a lot of profit in a dangerous, unstable world."
Is saving money really the only thing people want?
FairFin illustrates how the BankWijzer project takes advantage of the current lower interest rates: people get little interests on their account anyway, so why not choose an ethical bank for that matter. Scott: "It can be useful to tap into the rationality of financial profit. But at the same time it might be an insidious narrative. Because: are people only really looking for money and savings? Isn't that an image primarily put forward by media and advertising? People do want different things as well, like a pleasant living environment for instance, meaningful relationships - or having impact."
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