Yesterday morning, 100 of us got dressed in black and made our way down to the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road. We entered the public gallery at 10:30am and milled about for several minutes, waiting for the sharp sound of a whistle. At 11:01, the whistle was blown and we dropped to the ground. We ceased to be Collection visitors and turned into a human oil spill.
As passerby awkwardly stepped over us on the way to the gallery cafe and coat check, we shouted “Wellcome, Wellcome, Wellcome! Divest, Divest, Divest!” and “Shareholder resolutions are not climate solutions,” among other chants. Lying there, back on the cold floor, staring at the bright florescent lights of the Wellcome Collection lobby ceiling, you had to wonder how you got there. What series of events led you to take your place in a sea of people lying on the floor on a brisk Saturday morning in April?
Over the past few weeks, 182,000 people have signed the Guardian’s petition asking the Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to divest from fossil fuels. These 182,000 people have received exactly 2 replies from the Wellcome Trust. The first was in the Guardian. You can read it here. The second was posted on the Wellcome Trust’s blog here.
The central argument of these replies is that the Wellcome Trust can do more good by engaging with fossil fuel companies as shareholders rather than through divestment. When pressed on the track record of past shareholder engagement efforts, Jeremy Farrar, the Director of the Wellcome Trust, hides behind a need to protect the confidentiality of the organisation’s discussions with fossil fuel companies. He says that the Trust’s influence works over time and points to the success of shareholder resolutions occurring at Shell and BP as clear signs of the effectiveness of this strategy.
Yet Mr. Farrar ignores the fact that while these resolutions are being passed, Shell is swiftly progressing with careless and unnecessary arctic drilling and BP has sold off, shut-down or vastly underfunded the majority of its renewable energy projects. As Terry Macalister reports in the Guardian, “BP management says it supports the resolution but ultimately believes that politicians must take primary responsibility for tackling global warming and hastening in a low-carbon future.” Mr. Farrar misses the point of divestment. It’s not about changing the fossil fuel companies. It’s about changing the world in which they operate and removing the political and financial ties that bond their interests to our own.
Individuals, like Jonathan Poritt, have spent decades working with fossil fuel companies to change them from the inside out. And now these same individuals are giving up on that effort. Increasingly, we are realising that shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies does not work and it is particularly futile when considering the abbreviated time we have in which to cut emissions and transition to a zero carbon economy. BP knows that shareholder engagement doesn’t work and that’s why it supports such efforts. Why doesn’t the Wellcome Trust realise this?
This brings us back to the floor of the Wellcome Collection. What do you do when the Wellcome Trust doesn’t listen to the views of 182,000 people, when the Trust ignores what’s in the best interests of the millions of people it aims to help? Well, you pay them a visit. You have people like Mark and Danni give impassioned and convincing speeches in the middle of the lobby. You blow up a giant carbon bubbles and release them over a sea of horizontal activists. If you are like Charlie and David, you tape fossil fuel company logos all over your body and gradually dance/sing them off you.
But the most important thing is that you get engaged. That is why you are on the floor at 10:30am on a Saturday. That is why you blast oil spill selfies all over the internet. This is what real engagement looks like. The Wellcome Trust shouldn’t look to maximise its influence as investors. Its staff, its grantees and its supporters are so much more than investors. We all are so much more than investors. We are human beings with an active stake in the world we create and the world we leave behind. The Director and the management of the Wellcome Trust should consider the influence they can have as a force for social good and not just as a muffled voice in a fossil fuel boardroom.
So we have to ask ourselves, should we listen to the ghost of Henry Wellcome? Should the Wellcome Trust divest?
If you have an answer for the Trust, please send them a message or tweet. This is only one of many engagement opportunities between the divestment movement and the Wellcome Trust over the next few months.
Watch this space.