I am a Mexican immigrant and a senior at Columbia University who’s been organizing around fossil fuel divestment since freshman year. Two years ago, I had a bit of a crisis. I suddenly felt disillusioned with the movement—not with the tactic of divestment, but rather with the fact that national campaigns were solely focused on taking down the fossil fuel behemoth. Don’t get me wrong; it’s extremely satisfying to hear of another divestment win, to see the fossil fuel industry take a hit. But I began to realize that while we need people to fight the bad in this world, we also need people creating the society we do want to live in. I want to be one of those people.
That summer, as a 350.org Fossil Free Fellow, I was introduced to the reinvestment campaign. I learned about a way that we, as students, can build off the successes of the divestment movement to fight for what we want. This campaign is one tactic we can use to facilitate the transition out of our current economy into a regenerative economy. But before we talk about where we want to go, let’s talk about where we are now.
Jihan Gearon, Black Mesa Water Coalition; Deirdre Smith, 350.org; Ed Whitfield, Fund for Democratic Communities; and Gopal Dayaneni, Movement Generation discuss reinvestment at the Richmond Our Power National Convening, August 2014 (photo credit: Reinvest in Our Power Network)
America’s extractive economy
Whether or not we care to admit it, our current economy is extractive—that is, it’s built on the exploitation and extraction of human labor and the earth’s resources. It relies on corporations that force workers to work long hours in unsafe conditions for insufficient wages and benefits. It exists by the continual removal of nutrients from the soil, minerals from the mountains, and fossil fuels from underground. This system isn’t working for us today, and it isn’t going to work for us tomorrow. We know that infinite growth is not possible, but this economy depends on it.
In contrast, a regenerative economy satisfies the needs of the present planet without diminishing the prospects of future generations. It builds community wealth by shifting economic power, making workers the owners of their own businesses, community members the decision makers about their resources. It also strengthens the public sector such that it serves the people rather than private interests. A just transition to a regenerative economy restores our relationship to food, Mother Earth and our communities.
A just transition requires accountability, transparency, and solidarity. It exposes the false promises of corporations and governments and values solutions from the people who are most impacted by systemic issues.
This all sounds really great, but it seems impossible, right? There are incredibly powerful forces keeping our extractive economy in place. People in power talk about our economic system like it’s gravity—“it’s just the way the world works.” But a regenerative alternative is not just a figment of the leftist imagination. People wrote the rules for the extractive economy and we can write different rules.
People across the globe have demonstrated that it is possible to justly revitalize their economies. The “solidarity economy” has taken root in many communities throughout Latin America and Europe. Take Argentina, for example, where people saw economic crisis as an opportunity to build an economy more just than the one that had failed them.
Argentina’s solidarity economy: A seed of inspiration
In 2001, the economy of Argentina collapsed. Business executives with capital were afraid, so they fled and left workers without jobs—without their livelihoods. Factory workers realized that although they had been laid off, the perfectly functioning machines they had worked with lay unused. So they decided to take over the factories and claim them as public goods. After many legal and political battles, hundreds of factories came under the democratic ownership of workers. Fifteen years later, these worker-owned cooperatives continue to play a key role in sustaining their communities.
La Base (know as the Working World in English) is one of the organizations that made this just transition possible. La Base offers loans for raw materials, flexible payment schedules, extremely low interest rates, as well as technical assistance to democratically-managed businesses. They only require that loans be paid back if and when businesses are solvent. In doing so, La Base prioritizes the wellbeing of workers and their families. Unlike banks which profit whether or not businesses succeed, La Base’s own success relies on the success of the businesses they support. A remarkable 98 percent of La Base’s loans have been repaid in full. This demonstrates that generating community wealth does not require exploitation nor extraction.
In spring of 2015, I studied abroad in Buenos Aires and got to meet dozens of cooperative members who had been democratically operating their businesses for years. I also got to witness first-hand the way the La Base team practiced their values of open communication, trust, and respect in interactions with worker-owned cooperatives.
This story has not only inspired me to do this work; it has also been a seed of inspiration for a regenerative economy in the United States. Worker-owned businesses and local funds are springing up across the nation with the help of the Working World, La Base’s U.S. affiliate. From a factory occupation in Chicago to the establishment of a democratically owned grocery store in Greensboro, communities across the country are rewriting the rules of their economies. They are building something beautiful.
So what does this have to do with the divestment movement?
Our movement has done incredible things over the past few years. We have built more power for climate justice on college campuses than any campaign before us. We’ve mobilized thousands of students, shifted popular opinion about the fossil fuel industry by running strong campaigns and populated today’s movements with a new generation of organizers. This is incredible work and we should be proud of ourselves. We also know that we have more work to do.
Iliana Salazar-Dodge leads the youth contingent of the People’s Climate March, September, 2014. (photo credit: Yong Jung Cho)
In the past, we’ve been told that it’s not our job to tell our universities where to invest our endowments. We’re not economists or fund managers, after all. But we are part of a movement that measures “returns” differently: we believe an economy is successful when it meets the needs of people and the planet. Defining success in these terms is our best shot at ensuring our collective survival.
We can leverage the power we’ve built in the divestment movement to move our institutions’ resources and build popular support for a just transition. With divestment, we’ve said, “we’re not content with the way things are.” With reinvestment, we say, “this is the way things should be, can be and will be.”
The author would like to thank Movement Generation and the Reinvest in Our Power campaign for writings on the work that informed this article.