Will the real Billionaires please stand up?

posted by Josh Ran

I don’t mean to start sounding like a broken record, but I really do love it when I scan the news and find reports of actions challenging banks’ investments in coal….that I didn’t even know were happening! Today, my quick morning peruse of the blogs rewarded me with tales of Billionaires in Asheville, Raleigh and Chapel Hill sipping dirty (coal) martinis in Bank of America Branches and making sure that bank customers were well aware that their money is being used to finance coal.

Then, further into my reading I stumbled upon the news that activists in the UK are threatening the largest financiers of coal in that country with a consumer boycott unless they pull out of dirty energy financing. According research by a coalition of activists and groups that includes Friends of the Earth UK, Platform UK and People and Planet, Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC and Barclays have invested close to 30 billion pounds sterling into coal projects and are behind behind the new E.ON coal-fired powerplant in Kingsnorth, Kent where 50 activists were arrested this week alone.

A bank contact of mine once commented rather snidely that it ‘sounds like you’re losing control’ when I told him that the bank campaign had grown far beyond RAN in the past six months. ‘Control? I wondered? Who ever said anything about control?’. The thing about social movements is that they are messy and diverse and colorful and …… decentralized. Yes, there is a tremendous value to a united voice – and I believe that a quick scan of the blogs and media coverage coming from bank campaigners around the US and the UK will show a remarkable sophistication of analysis and strategy, linked with common demands but strengthened by a diversity of tactics that range from shareholder activism, to non-violently hijacking coal-trains and raucous street-theater antics like the Billionaires for Coal. It may appear a little rag-tag sometimes, and it’s abundantly clear that there’s no one singular puppet-master at work. Which I suppose might be a confusing concept for someone working in a bank to grapple with. I mean, if no one is in control, who the heck do they talk to? Which frankly, isn’t a bad question but probably the subject of another post.

I wish I had thought of saying all of that in response to my contact’s comment – but in actual fact I think I responded with a blank stare and a mumble. Very (uncharacteristically, I swear) uncool of me. But as this opposition to banks financing of coal continues to grow and spread, I’m sure it won’t be the last time that someone says: ‘Will the real Billionaires please stand up?’ only to be answered by a thunderous sound as thousands of people get to their feet.