Authors at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this past weekend have called for the festival to drop its main sponsor, Baillie Gifford, over their £5 billion investment in fossil fuel companies. Bestsellers such as Zadie Smith, Katherine Rundell and 100 other authors have signed an open letter to the festival organisers, pledging to boycott the festival next year if they do not cut ties with the investment fund.
Whenever instances such as this occur, it sparks conversations about what is the best way to go about protests. Should we kick up a fuss and throw soup at a painting, chain ourselves to the railings or boycott arts and cultural festivals? The festival director, Nick Barley responded to the author’s letter in a statement, inviting authors into conversation about the issue. His main point – it’s complicated, can we talk about it? Can we figure out a way through this together?
The thing is, Nick Barley is not wrong, it is complicated. His statement mentioned that Baillie Gifford also invests in sustainable development, specifically the Danish windfarm specialist, Ørsted. The £5 billion that Baillie Gifford has in fossil fuels is 2% of their investment portfolio, but let’s not forget that £5 billion is a lot of money. A further 5% of that portfolio is committed to developing clean energy solutions. Barley also speaks to the recent struggle of arts and cultural institutions securing funding – they need private sponsorship from firms such as Baillie Gifford in order to survive. The reality of this has become incredibly messy and involved and yes, complicated. But it is precisely because it is messy and involved that we should not shy away from issues such as this, that we should confront the entanglements and relationships between who sponsors our cultural events and the agendas that we set at those events.
The climate crisis was an important issue at the book festival – Greta Thunburg was scheduled to speak, but she pulled out earlier this month. Others such as Mikaela Loach, author of It’s Not That Radical: Climate Action to Change Our World, staged a walk-out in the middle of her scheduled talk. The irony of the agenda not quite reflecting the sponsorship of the festival is apparent.
Words are powerful things, and as writers we are painfully aware of that. The power that exists in the worlds that we imagine, in the world that we create, is significant. When cultural institutions take sponsorship from any investor, they make them part of that world, they give them legitimacy and the social capital that comes with it. Baillie Gifford, and those like them, are seen to be doing a good thing for society and culture, so they must be good too, right? The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction is the perfect example of this. Their name is not associated with the intricacies and complicated nature of their investment portfolio, but with a book prize.
The time for conversations is past. As wildfires raze Maui, as Europe experiences one of its hottest summers on record, and as the UK and Ireland shelter from one of its wettest, conversations alone will not serve us any longer. This summer is yet another stark reminder that we can have no new investment in fossil fuels.
At the end of the day, ‘complicated’ doesn’t cut it, not when it comes to our future and the future of our home. All of these conversations and invitations to talk only lead us around in circles and without tangible commitment and action from Baillie Gifford and other investment funds, then they do not deserve to sit in conversation with us. We need divestment from fossil fuels now, and until those investment firms completely divest, they should not be welcome at our arts and cultural institutions and events.
You can sign the petition and do more to support the author’s protest here: https://linktr.ee/divestedbookfest