What kind of world do we want to retire into?
A report published this week reveals that in 2021 Shell remains the fossil fuel company receiving the most investment from local authority pension funds across the UK – £266 million in fact. This equals roughly £40 for each of the 6.8 million members of the Local Government Pension Scheme.
The revelation comes hot on the heels of a UK Supreme Court ruling earlier this month which confirmed that Shell can be sued in London for the pollution of water and land caused by its operations in the Niger Delta. This landmark decision piles the pressure on Shell, who have long resisted attempts from Niger Delta communities to put them on trial. It also creates a precedent that all transnational corporations headquartered in London can be held accountable for the environmental destruction and human rights abuses that their subsidiaries commit abroad.
The legal wall protecting companies is crumbling, thanks to decades of hard work, resistance and campaigning from communities in the Niger Delta. Shell will be seriously worried about this ruling as the company seeks to maintain a respectable image in the Northern countries from which it gets most of the investments that enable its devastating operations to continue.
In this context, what does it mean for UK local pension funds to still invest so much in companies like Shell? The new report from Platform and Friends of the Earth reveals that local councils invest close to £10 billion in the 200 worst fossil fuel companies on the planet – with 40 per cent of all UK pension funds’ direct investments going straight to only three companies: Shell, BP and BHP.
This poses important questions for democratic oversight: we know that we cannot trust such companies to run in the interest of the many. They have never hesitated to harm those standing in the way of profit, especially if they are people of colour. In 1995, Shell was complicit in the execution of the Ogoni 9 by the Nigerian Military – environmental activists from the Niger Delta who were leading a movement for reparations in the face of community and land devastations caused by oil extraction in the region. Today, many other local communities are fighting against Shell’s fossil fuel extraction, from Fife in Scotland to Cabo Delgado in Mozambique.
Local authorities’ pattern of investment in major oil corporations reflects Britain’s violent past. Shell, BP and BHP are all intimately connected with its colonial conquests across the globe – including in Nigeria. And while official colonial rule by Britain has long been abolished, big corporations headquartered in the UK have maintained a colonial mindset in the way they operate, perpetuating the idea that it is acceptable for black, brown and indigenous lives in the Global South to be sacrificed for the purpose of maintaining a status quo of flourishing British capital. This mindset has translated into real-life atrocities for centuries.
The Shell Supreme Court verdict is therefore one historical blast among many (remember the anti-racist protests from last year) which shows that the tide could be turning on our colonial past, as well as its present day ramifications. With pressure mounting on the world’s biggest corporations to clean-up and pay reparations, what does it mean for the 6.8 million ordinary people who have pension fund money invested in such corporations? Perhaps the question we should centre instead is: what do we need to invest in to create a future that will be worth retiring into?
There is also a shift happening in our collective consciousness with respect to the environment, as we reckon with having reached the point of no climate-return. The conversation on environmental stewardship has become one that nobody can afford to tap out of. There is also a growing understanding that pandemics like Covid-19 are a direct reflection of how badly we have treated the environment. The constant expansion of extractive business is disrupting species of virus living in so-called ‘natural’ habitats. And that’s not the only way in which the fossil fuel industry harms our health: in 2018 alone, the burning of fossil fuels caused more deaths than tobacco-smoking and malaria combined.
Each of us have a choice in front of us: who will we trust to build the future? Do we want to use our precious pensions to prop up the giant corporations most responsible for wrecking the planet and devastating communities? If not, are we ready to push for a radical shift in investment – one that creates local resilience, care and healing?
Those who won their case against Shell earlier this month – the Bille community and the Ogale people of Ogoniland – are showing us the way towards the latter. We shouldn’t be afraid to see centuries-old power structures crumbling if we understand that justice for those most affected by pollution and climate change is justice for us all.
When shaping the world of our retirement we should invest in new ways of relating to the environment and each other, empowering and standing alongside those who’ve been building solutions for decades. In the UK, pension fund investors can take inspiration from the councils who choose to invest their pensions in wind farms, community-owned solar power co-operatives or social housing projects, for instance. The path out of the pandemic is a crucial time to raise ambitions, focus on what matters for local communities and put the foundations in place for that liveable future to be possible.