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Dissonance and Divestment: Profile of An Activist

June 27, 2017

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.


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“Why should people divest from the fossil fuel sector?” Lisa Renstrom pauses and thinks. “Let me count the ways.”

This piece is an updated excerpt from Chuck Collins’ new book, Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good (Chelsea Green). Chuck Collins is director of the Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies where he co-edits Inequality.org.

“We want to revoke the social license of the fossil fuel industry to destroy our planet,” she declares, in an unwavering resonant voice. “The fossil fuel industry—big oil, gas, and coal—is undermining Earth’s habitability for future generations. They have lied to us and used their political lobbying power to block alternatives. They have committed crimes against humanity.”

Lisa Renstrom is a co-founder of the campaign to engage individuals in the divestment movement. Divest-Invest is a national network promoting divestment from the fossil fuel sector and reinvestment in renewable energy and a just transition.

Image RemovedRenstrom grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, daughter of a hard-working Swedish immigrant who created several patented hair curlers, including a popular pink, foamy hair roller that gave bounce to a generation of women’s hair before and after World War II. This led to the formation of Tip-Top Products, a company that was so successful that it enabled Renstrom’s father to finance the development of a number of resorts in Acapulco, Mexico.

Renstrom was studying business administration in 1981 at the University of Nebraska when her father died. She immediately stepped in to manage three of those resorts. “I got my MBA by fire in Mexico,” she told me. Though she spoke fluent Spanish, it was challenging as a young, blonde female to venture into a rough-and-tumble Mexican business environment. The resort managers fraudulently claimed an ownership interest and Renstrom refused to back down. They filed criminal charges against her.

In Mexico’s “guilty until proven innocent” justice system, Renstrom spent six months in Reclusorio Oriente, a sprawling women’s prison in Mexico City, separated from her ten-month-old infant daughter, Alex. Renstrom believes her prison time was invaluable. “It was an unbelievable experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world, even though at the time I didn’t know if I would be swallowed up in the system.”

For four months she didn’t see her daughter. “It was painful to hear her name, knowing I couldn’t see her,” Renstrom said. After that, Alex was allowed to visit her in prison on weekends.

“You’re not facing your death, but you’re certainly facing limitations—the loss of your freedom, the loss of being able to live the life that we take so much for granted: showers, cleanliness, friends, family.” Eventually, the plaintiffs dropped all charges, and Renstrom sold the resorts in 1993.

“After that, not a lot of things scare me,” said Renstrom. “The experience of jail made me less patient with injustice than I was before.”

Maybe this explains Renstrom’s tenacity to address the climate crisis. Divest-Invest first gained attention in September 2014, at a press conference to announce $50 billion in divestment pledges from individuals and institutions, including philanthropic foundations, colleges and universities, and local governments. Rockefeller Brothers Fund, built with money from the Standard Oil company, pledged to divest its endowment of $860 million.[i]

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South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a champion of the antiapartheid movement that deployed divestment strategies, addressed that press conference by video.[ii] “The destruction of the earth’s environment is the human rights challenge of our time,” said Tutu. “Time is running out,” he implored. “We are already experiencing loss of life and livelihood because of intensified storms, shortages of fresh water, the spread of disease, rising food prices, and the creation of climate refugees. The most devastating effects are visited on the poor, those with no involvement in creating the problem, a deep injustice.”

In the antiapartheid movement, Tutu argued against corporations profiting from investments in South Africa. About fossil fuels, Tutu said, “no one should profit from rising temperatures and seas, and human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

“We are on the cusp of a global transition to a new safe energy economy. We must support our leaders to make the correct moral choices.” For Tutu, this includes freezing further exploration for new fossil fuels and discouraging politicians from accepting money from a fossil fuel industry that blocks action on climate change. “Divest from the fossil fuels and invest in a clean renewable energy future,” said Tutu. “Move your money out of the problem and into solutions.”

The actor, Mark Ruffalo, who played the Incredible Hulk in a recent release of the superhero movie, The Avengers, joined Renstrom at the press conference, too. There, he called upon all the “Avengers”—including the actors who played Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, and Thor, to also divest from fossil fuels.[iii]

As Donald Trump pledges to withdrawal from the Paris accord, the Divestment movement is gathering steam.  At the end of 2016, Divest-Invest issued an update: Over 680 institutions and 58,399 thousand individuals worth $5.2 trillion had pledged to pull their investments out of fossil fuels.[iv]

“It’s a tribute to the movement,” said Renstrom. “More people are taking the step. And the risks of investing in carbon burning are playing out in the marketplace.”

For Renstrom, divestment has a political objective, to weaken the legitimacy of the fossil fuel sector in order to regulate and put a price on carbon emissions. It is also a deeply personal choice.

“If you are truly aware of the global impacts of climate change, they compel you to take personal action and ‘be the change.’ It is not easy in a world that is just beginning its shift to renewable energy. I do small things, compost and grow food, ride my bike, buy secondhand clothes—small acts of personal witness. The ‘aha’ moment came when I realized that I could move my money, withdraw it from the legacy industries and invest in the companies of my future. That is when I felt power and the dissonance began to lessen.”

For Renstrom, being invested in the fossil fuel sector, profiting from an association with this nasty industry, was added “dissonance” in her life. “To live out of alignment with one’s values and knowledge is bad for your health. It’s like having an annoying noise—a bell or a tuning fork—ringing in your head all the time.” So, she pulled out; then she became interested in motivating others to do the same.

“It is hard to live in this world with integrity. I think it must be like growing up Hindu in a culture that holds cows sacred and then being forced to be around people eating beef all time. On some very basic level, it physically hurts to be out of alignment with your values and beliefs.”

Renstrom’s interests don’t stop at divestment. She also wants to better understand how to democratize finance and invest locally in projects that make our coming transition a just one. “It’s not enough to move money into the renewable energy sector,” she stresses. “We also need to redirect our economic system so that it aims towards goals and metrics that support life, and a common good.”

This additional layer of purpose isn’t something that everyone understands—yet. “I was sitting with a group of hedge fund guys,” Renstrom says. “We all know we need to move $30 trillion in capital to the renewable energy sector by 2050. When the finance types talk about an energy transition, it is a conversation about rearranging the chairs at the top of the economy. That will not work long term. We need a transition that democratizes finance and broadens ownership, bringing the excluded to the table. If the transition favors the few, they lose eventually and we all lose.”

[i] John Schwartz, “Rockefellers, Heirs to an Oil Fortune, Will Divest Charity of Fossil Fuels,” The New York Times, September 21, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/22/us/heirs-to-an-oil-fortune-join-the-divestment-drive.html

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mm7PBHFdYCQ

[iii] Brian Merchant, “Mark Ruffalo Wants the Avengers to Divest from Fossil Fuels, “ Motherboard, September 17, 2014. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/mark-ruffalo-wants-the-avengers-to-divest-from-fossil-fuels

[iv] http://divestinvest.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2016-1pager.pdf

Divestment placard image via jamesennis/flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 license.