At an Arts Faculty meeting on November 24, students and professors met to discuss Divest McGill’s petition to the Board of Governors (BoG) which calls for divestment from the fossil fuel industry. After a lengthy discussion, the assembly voted in favour of a motion to endorse Divest McGill’s petition. Because the meeting did not meet quorum, the vote still has to be ratified online.
The previous week, the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) Legislative Council voted unanimously to endorse the petition, which was presented to the BoG’s Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR) in February, alongside a 150-page report on the social and environmental damage caused by the fossil fuel industry. Nearly 11 months later, the committee has yet to issue an opinion on the matter.
At the meeting, Andrew Stein, Kristen Perry, and Emily Boytinck, members of Divest McGill, spoke at length about the importance of divestment in the fight against climate change, and its power to influence public policy.
“It’s really important to recognize that every time a divestment movement has taken place, whether that be divestment from tobacco, or divestment from [the South African apartheid], it has always led to public policy changes,” explained Boytinck, who is also the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP External.
“What we at Divest McGill are asking for is that McGill University align its actions with its stated policies and values.”
Stein acknowledged the importance of individual action to conserve energy and resources, but also noted its inadequacy.
“Where we can have massive impact is on the institutional level, which bridges the gap between individuals and international governmental action. […] What we at Divest McGill are asking for is that McGill University align its actions with its stated policies and values,” Stein said.
The students’ remarks were very well received by most of those present. English professor Derek Nystrom, who brought forward a motion to endorse Divest McGill’s petition, voiced his support for the group’s efforts. “I want to say that the students at Divest McGill are doing [what professors] want our students to do,” he said. “They’re taking the knowledge that they’re learning in their classes, and they’re acting on it to better their world.”
Nystrom applauded the fact that “students at Divest McGill have worked tirelessly on this issue for the past three years.”
“They’re taking the knowledge that they’re learning in their classes, and they’re acting on it to better their world.”
“They’ve done the hard work of scientific inquiry into why we must transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy, they’ve done the hard work of political analysis into the policy ramifications of divestment, and they’ve done the hard work of community outreach in educating the public. They’ve done all of the heavy lifting here. […] We just have to add our voice to theirs.”
Some, however, voiced reservations about the breadth of Divest McGill’s program. Economics professor John Galbraith, for example, suggested focusing the divestment campaign on coal, “a particularly dirty fuel, that we can pretty well entirely avoid.”
“Divesting from oil generally […] is a little trickier, because we all use it,” said Galbraith, “and putting ourselves in the position where we say ‘look, this is not compatible with our values’ seems funny when the university’s burning it, and we’re all burning it.”
Boytinck explained that this was a frequent objection to Divest McGill’s proposals.
“We really understand that society is highly dependent on fossil fuels right now, especially oil,” she said. “But in order for that shift to be made, political action must be taken. As a climate change activist, I recognize that I could go live off the grid – a completely carbon-neutral lifestyle – but I would make no impact on how the rest of society lived. So it’s really important that we don’t disregard political action […] because we’re scared of being hypocritical.”
After a lengthy discussion, the assembly voted to endorse Divest McGill’s petition to CAMSR, with 25 votes in favour of Nystrom’s motion and four against.