By Brian and Marie Harlech-Jones, Canberra Regional Meeting
During mid-May 2014, we decided to divest from our bank, one of the Big Four, and switch all of our accounts, including our SMSF and credit card accounts, to a bank that had a declared policy of not lending money for the exploitation and utilisation of fossil fuels. Using a template from the “Divestment” section of the 350.org web site, but adapting it to our own words and sentiments, we sent a letter to the CEO of the bank to explain what we were doing and why. In the letter, we also informed the CEO that we would let our friends, acquaintances and family members know what we had done, and would encourage them to do likewise.
For the record, switching banks is a little more complicated than it might seem at first sight. Although it is a simple matter to actually open new accounts, when you are our age, it takes a bit more effort to convince the bank that you are credit-worthy and can thus be trusted with new credit cards. However, the aspect that really takes time and effort is identifying and rescheduling all the debits and credits that have been working like clockwork for many years and that you have almost completely forgotten about–everything from the energy accounts to council payments and the RTE e-tag, not forgetting PayPal and a few (very small!) annual payments of royalties. By the time we had completed that part of the task, we felt that we really had shown determination and a commitment to divestment.
Also for the record, after consulting the information on the 350.org web site, we opened our new accounts with a credit union-like bank that has a policy of not being involved with fossil fuels. We like the community-service and client-ownership features of our new bank, and we have been more than satisfied with their facilities and service. So far, all good and no problems!
In the meantime, we wondered why our “old” bank did not acknowledge our letter. Surely elementary courtesy, not to mention good PR, would have dictated at least a short note saying, “So long, been good to know you!” Anyway, we heard nothing at all from the bank.
After switching to our new bank during mid-May, we transferred almost all our funds from the old bank accounts to the new accounts, stopped using the old accounts, and stopped using the old credit cards. All of the old accounts lay dormant for two months while we made sure that there were no debits and credits that we had forgotten about. Then, during mid-July we telephoned the bank and asked that the accounts should be closed. The bank official asked why we were doing so, and we told her about fossil fuels and divestment. She seemed to be genuinely interested in the matter, so we referred her to the 350.org web site for more information. Then, still helpful and courteous, she discussed the arrangements that were necessary to close the accounts.
Less than twenty-four hours later, we got a telephone call from someone in the PR department of our “old” bank. She said that she had been informed that we had closed our accounts and that, upon looking through our records, she had come across the letter that we had written during mid-May. In fact, she tried to give the impression that the bank had only just received the letter! Then she embarked on a long, awkward, and rambling defence of the bank”s record in protecting the environment, funding renewable energy, and so on, while admitting that they also funded fossil fuels. In return, Brian thanked her for her explanation and told her that, although we had been well served by the bank, we were part of a growing divestment campaign that, we hoped, in time (sooner rather than later) would reduce fossil fuels to the reputational level of tobacco, and would accordingly reduce the social capital of anyone or any institution that was involved with the same. Brian also said that we had experienced the effectiveness of the anti-apartheid divestment campaign from the inside, and that, according to what we had read, the fossil fuel divestment campaign was growing much faster and looked as if would be much bigger than the anti-apartheid campaign. The bank official said that she had never heard about “social capital” but would find out more about it. The conversation ended there.
Currently, there are two points of view on divestment and bank accounts. One view is “fight”, which means keeping your money with the institution but using it to try to bring about change. The other view is “flight”, which means withdrawing your funds and telling the company or institution why you have done so.
Since we have chosen the “flight” path, we have had a number of discussions with people who, while sharing concerns about fossil fuels, personally or institutionally have chosen to leave their funds where they are and, hopefully, to use them to “fight”. We have conceded the validity of their point of view and, sometimes, have wondered whether we have lost the ability to exert influence in future by choosing “flight”. However, after our recent experience, we now think that “fight” is an ineffective option because banks and other institutions will just shrug off attempts to influence them as long as your accounts are still on their books. They know that it takes a bit of effort to actually switch to a new bank and, while pretending to engage with you (or perhaps not, as in our case), will laugh up their sleeves at your representations.
So, after our experience, we think that anyone who wants to use the funds at their disposal to counter the use of fossil fuels should relinquish the “fight” approach and should implement “flight” as soon as possible. That way, you will be taken seriously.
Another positive feature of our divestment action was that we got to speak about some of the issues with at least two people who said that they would have a closer look at divestment, fossil fuels, and related matters. In addition, it is likely that other people read our letter and/or heard about the case, thus gaining enhanced awareness of the issues. While we are not so naive as to think that these contacts are going to result in immediate and significant action, it is useful to have brought the matter to the attention of people who, it appears, were relatively uninformed.
And, finally, our experience suggests that there would be a real impact if many Australian Quakers, both individually and institutionally, and perhaps some of their friends and relations as well, closed their accounts with the “Big Four” banks. With bank accounts, “flight” is the way to go. It is one sure-fire way to translate words and sentiments into effective action.