Grassroots keepin’ it in the ground

This story by Frank Odenthal is published in THE BEAM #13.


Taking a look back:’s grassroots campaign “keep it in the ground” is a success story – and not yet finished.

By taking a step back, sometimes solutions for complex problems seem to be surprisingly easy. If you don’t want carbon in the air, leave the raw materials that produce it in the ground.

That‘s the approach the Keep-it-in-the-ground movement chose as a starting point in the 2000s. It was a time when the George W. Bush administration made way for further oil and gas explorations on vast areas of public land. Especially indigenous peoples were forced to watch historical levels of extraction of fossil fuels on their lands.

That‘s where a newfound organization of environmentalists took action: The 350 in the name stands for 350 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide, which has been identified as the safe upper limit to avoid a climate tipping point. That was in 2007, when was founded. As of today, we are way above 415 and rising.

Fighting the Keystone XL pipeline, with which crude oil from Canada should be transported to refineries in the US, was the first milestone for, as co-founder and current CEO May Boeve recalls. “Winning a fight in such an iconic case gives huge momentum.”


Environmental activists blocking a disputed mine in Germany in 2016 © Environmental activists blocking a disputed mine in Germany in 2016 ©


It‘s a fight between David and Goliath

At that time, in 2011, the project ‘Keep it in the ground’ was introduced. The idea of divesting out of harmful industries, especially out of fossil fuel production was inspired by the divestiture movement against South Africa‘s apartheid regime, Boeve says. “Like in South Africa, it started like a fight between David and Goliath.” And getting investors, banks, insurers, and anyone who is in the financial sector to get out of investing in what‘s harmful to the planet is truly a fight against Goliath.

But guess what: David is getting bigger and bigger. As of today, an amount of astonishing 14,6 trillion Dollars have been divested out of fossil fuels. Not too bad for a campaign that started just a few years ago.

“The very first city to divest in the US was the city of Seattle”, Boeve says. “And that really gave us momentum, because it showed that an entire city‘s holdings could make a powerful decision like this.” The Rockefeller family divested, too. That also was quite a signal, as the Rockefellers made their entire fortune out of oil. “For them to say: No more, this is wrong‘ was a powerful statement”, Boeve recalls.

Most recently Harvard University just declared to divest. “That‘s important not only because of the size of their portfolio but also how influential Harvard is in the world“, May Boeve explains.” Think of the number of people who run other institutions that have some affiliation with Harvard. And I‘ve even heard anecdotally that other organisations that were on the fence of divesting, did it once they saw that Harvard did it.

There‘ve been other very large wins, like the New York state pension fund divested, which in terms of value of money was an enormous commitment, since it is worth $224 billion. Even some of the most notable faith institutions have divested, like the Church of England, and that also sent a big ripple effect, according to Boeve.

It‘s a success story, but will it have a happy ending? “With the climate problem, the odds are not good”, says Boeve. “But I‘m still optimistic.”


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