The End of the World as We Know It: Divesting from Injustice and Reinvesting in Another Possible World

by Edward Sloane

Once upon a time, the conservative political commentator Francis Fukuyama said that with the collapse of the Soviet Union we had reached the end of history. Others joined the chorus; globalization had made the world flat and capitalism was here to stay.1 Today the confident and triumphalist mood of the 80s and 90s has been severely shaken as the reality of climate change sinks in and promises to usher in a very different historical epoch. Indeed, we are conscious of reaching an end, but as we look around the fear is that it might be the end not of history but of humanity. At the same time, activists are showing us that another world is possible, encouraging institutions to divest from fossil fuels, severing their financial ties to the fossil fuel industry by “getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous.”2 At the same time, this movement has been controversial particularly among Catholic institutions, the majority of which have been reluctant to make this move despite strong pressure from students and other activists. These institutions often cite the ability to advance institutional mission.3

In a 2017 article published in America Magazine, Jim McDermott, takes this latter position, suggesting that shareholder advocacy is the more ‘Catholic’ option. McDermott, tellingly cites Francis G. Coleman, the executive vice president of Christian Brothers Investment Services, “which manages nearly $7 billion in assets for Catholic groups around the world.” McDermott notes CBIS’s skepticism toward divestment as a strategy, “at the same time, at C.B.I.S., the question of writing a group off speaks to a challenge of our faith. ‘When do you stop talking to the sinner?’ asks Mr. Coleman. ‘It’s a fundamental faith question. And our faith teaches us you don’t stop talking to the sinner. Our belief is that if you keep talking there’s always the possibility for faith and evangelization.’”4 In the article, McDermott fails to engage the voices and reasons of activists or the voice of Earth itself. He also fails to take divestment seriously as a Catholic option. His perspective remains firmly within a top-down, status quo model that privileges the voices of elite managers as authorities.

Indeed, this has been the dominant model within Catholic Social Teaching. In the encyclical on socio-economic development, Populorum Progressio, Paul VI’s proposed program for development places agency with managerial elites and experts. Privilege is given to “public authorities,” “industry,” and “international agencies,” which are viewed together as “the primary agents of development.”5 Something new is happening with Pope Francis and greater attention is being given to the preferential option for the poor and Earth. It is the thinking of those who are most marginalized that ought to inform our institutional practices and structures. The Catholic Committee of Appalachia in the recent People’s Pastoral, The Telling Takes Us Home, refers to this as “the magisterium of the poor and of Earth.”6

While some remain skeptical the movement for institutional divestment from fossil fuels is growing, including among Catholic institutions. As I prepared this article, 40 Catholic institutions issued a joint commitment to divestment through the grassroots efforts of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, citing the influence of Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment.7

Indeed, in Laudato Si Pope Francis offers a strongly worded critique of both consumer capitalism and the fossil fuel industry. Francis accepts the scientific consensus on climate change, asserting that climate change is happening at an alarming rate, its primary causes are anthropogenic (human-caused), and the first world and the elites of the two-thirds world share the primary responsibility while also being shielded from its worst effects.8

Given Pope Francis’s strong words in Laudato Si, I think it is necessary to name shareholder advocacy as an insufficient strategy for addressing the enormity and seriousness of the climatic crisis. In conversation with Pope Francis and the divestment movement, I would like to explore four reasons that Catholic institutions should move away from shareholder advocacy and focus on building power and alliances within the divestment movement. I claim that divestment is more consistent with a Catholic ethic.

First, divestment builds power at the grassroots. It is an effort to put public pressure on industries. This makes it fundamentally different from shareholder advocacy, which is fundamentally a top down strategy. Fossil fuel divestment is part of a larger cultural and political shift that aims to restore democracy and lift up the voice of the voiceless. To this extent it is similar to the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and NoDAPL. The divestment movement began at the grassroots among poor people in the world’s sacrifice zones, and the work of groups like 350.org brought these disparate movements to public attention, connecting these many local movements in a global network—a movement of movements.

Pope Francis has been quite clear that fundamental social change in the struggle for justice will only come from the grassroots. It was to this end that he initiated the World Meeting of Popular Movements. He addressed this movement when it gathered in Bolivia saying, “the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change. I am with you. Keep up your struggle and, please, take great care of Mother Earth.”9

Second, divestment aims to erode the social and moral capital of the fossil fuel industry. Critics of the divestment movement often claim that it is unlikely divestment will financially bankrupt the fossil fuel industry. Though this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, I think this is a common misconception of the aims and purposes of the movement. Although, there is some evidence that it is impacting the finances of some fossil fuel companies.10 Critics suggest that shareholder advocacy is a better strategy. However, the shareholder advocacy approach has been equally ineffective on this front and industry influence, spending, and resources outstrip any impact investors might hope to exert, which is one of the reasons that divestment has gained such momentum in recent years.11

However, to focus on the financial argument misses the point. Divestment is a moral, and I would say spiritual, argument. When the fossil fuel industry loses any moral high ground it becomes difficult for them to enjoy the influence in our society that they currently enjoy. If supporting the fossil fuel industry becomes akin to supporting apartheid or big tobacco or abortion (I’ll say more about this below) then politicians hoping to be re-elected will begin to distance themselves from the industry as they watch their base get organized in opposition. The subsidies this industry enjoys will dry up as they shift to the renewable energy sector. This requires a revolution in values.

Pope Francis, in Laudato Si, is highly critical of the consumer society which treats the beings of Earth as mere resources and which has turned the planet into a “pile of filth.”12 Pope Francis clearly states that more-than-human beings and the earth system have a dignity and worth of their own apart from usefulness to humans.13 Too often we take pleasure in the purchase of consumer goods rather than in the ability of another being to thrive. We delight in having more things rather than enjoying relationships with one another and with other beings and allowing these other beings the same. On the scale of values the weight is always tipped toward Western, white, male, cis, upper-middle class humanity, and share holder advocacy generally fails to question this set of cultural, economic, and ecological structures and ways of thinking. Divestment aims to change the way we think about the impact that fossil fuels have on human and more-than-human enjoyment, what it is that we enjoy and value, and, perhaps most profoundly, what we understand our human vocation before Creator to be.

Third, divestment is part of a wider strategy of reinvestment. Divestment is an unfortunate choice of words, because it speaks in the negative. Like all coins, divestment has two sides, and the other side is about re-investment. For institutions, such as a religious order, a Catholic university, or the church as a whole, divestment-as-reinvestment means thinking positively and imaginatively about the world we hope to create. It is, in this sense, related to the spiritual work to which our Christian vocation calls us, the building the Kingdom of God or, as I prefer, the Peaceable kin-dom of God. Rather than asking those with power to change, we can give active support to those whose social vision aligns with our own—investing in community-based economic institutions such as co-ops, credit unions, renewables, public services, and so forth. There are many organizations whose mission is to help institutions make these transitions in a way that is financially responsible and does not threaten the ability of the institute to continue advancing its mission.

The community-based institutions and renewable energy technologies cited above are often lacking capital and this slows the ability of these institutions to develop and build power. While divestment might not bankrupt ExxonMobile if it is coupled with reinvestment it will provide those working on solutions at the grassroots the financial capital to make their visions reality and increase their influence. It is about being proactive.

Of course, lifestyle changes and engaging in political and frontline advocacy are important too. Simple things like taking public transit, going vegetarian or vegan, growing some of our own food, buying local dairy and produce, and finding ways to reduce our water use are wonderful practices that can constitute a spirituality of divestment. Likewise, attending protests, engaging in civil disobedience, and using our influence at the polls can translate personal spiritual practices into public spiritual witness.

We are all (at least in the Western world) complicit in a system that has so far relied on fossil fuels—this includes shareholder advocates I might add. Indeed, there are many websites that allow us to chart our global footprints. Everyday, I awake to the fact that even my own relatively low impact lifestyle is unsustainable. If everyone lived my lifestyle it would take roughly 2.5 Earths to sustain it. On May 22nd of this year, I will ‘overshoot’ the ability of Earth to sustain my lifestyle.14 The average U. S. American uses 4 Earths.15 Shareholder advocates I would argue are more complicit. They give their money to extractive industries when they could give it to those who are working on solutions. Again, divestment frees us for proactive investing.

Finally, the USCCB includes divestment as a reasonable investor strategy.16 USCCB includes three principles to guide investment. These are: do not harm (non-cooperation with evil); active corporate participation; and positive strategies. Shareholder advocacy fits with number 2 and is the one most commonly recommended by the USCCB. Indeed, it is the one they recommend for care of creation. Divestment-reinvestment, as an integrated approach, falls under 1 and 3. The USCCB instructs divestment from corporations that actively support the procurement of abortion, racism, or gender discrimination, among other things. In no case does the USCCB instruct against divestment but leaves this an open question. I argue that with the publication of Laudato Si we need to revise the church’s position on divestment as it relates to fossil fuels.

Pope Francis is clear that the industrial scale burning of fossil fuels must cease without delay: “there is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing renewable sources of energy…We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels–especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas—needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”17 Pope Francis also makes care for creation a right to life issue, invoking care for creation and anti-abortion as growing from the same consistent ethic.18 We have entered into what biologists call “the 6th great extinction.” We are hemorrhaging species life due to anthropogenic climate change caused in large part by the industrial burning of fossil fuels. These losses are sinful as they are not necessary and can be prevented. The Catholic Catechism states, “it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.”19

Given the moral weight of an encyclical, the urgency of the encyclical’s tone, and the link to right to life issues, I would argue that the USCCB should update their guidelines to instruct divestment from fossil fuels. Some Catholic institutions, many protestant institutions, and institutions representing many other faith traditions, have already taken this step. The truth is Catholic theology and practice is far behind that of our Protestant brothers and sisters.20

Much has changed regarding the ecological crisis, and as I watch the Trump administration roll back environmental regulations21 on extractive industry I can’t help but worry about the impact across Appalachia; I can’t help but think the time for shareholder advocacy is over. Despite the elegiac mood that surrounds us in this age of extinction, climatic change, and economic injustice fueled by extractive economies, I have no interest in writing elegies—without apology to J. D. Vance. I continue to believe another world is possible, but it requires that we divest ourselves from the extractive mindset that encloses other possibilities—literally putting up barriers and walls to protect the status quo and keep out other voices.

Ultimately, I push for divestment because of its effort to shift power and instantiate a revolution in values. We need to work toward re-investing in local economies, examine our sociocultural values and the place of Earth within our social, political, and moral imaginations, and we need to rebuild the political ecology of grassroots democracies, privileging the authority and power of those effected directly by an issue. I think divestment and reinvestment alongside lifestyle changes, political advocacy, and direct action is the best way to do this. We could call it an integral political ecology, echoing Pope Francis’s language of “integral ecology.”22 Because divestment is principally a moral argument, I think faith-based institutions must take the lead.

I do not mean to criticize the important work of those Catholic institutions that have effectively utilized shareholder advocacy in the past. Indeed, those who have taken this strategy seriously are witnesses for all of us who seek a more just way of living in relationship with Earth. The successes that have been had with this strategy should be celebrated and entered into the dangerous memory of our collective witness to a faith that does justice. However, as climate change worsens and the divestment movement builds power, I would invite all Catholic institutions, especially those living in industrial sacrifice zones like Appalachia, to more seriously consider divestment as a future strategy for living into the vision of Pope Francis.

Edward Sloane is Coordinator for Service and Justice Experiences at Villanova University and a doctoral candidate at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. His research focuses on place and community based pedagogy in religious education and multispecies justice. Ed is a board member of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia and co-founder of Wild Church West Virginia.

[This article appears in the Summer 2018 issue of PatchQuilt, the publication of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia.]

  1. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York City: Free Press); Milton Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005).
  2. https://gofossilfree.org/divestment/what-is-fossil-fuel-divestment/.
  3. For one example see, Mary Yuengert, “Boston College Speaks Up About Divestment, Climate Justice,” in The Gavel (March 11, 2015), available at http://www.bcgavel.com/2015/03/11/boston-college-speaks-up-about-divestment-climate-justice/.
  4. Jim McDermott, “Does Divestment Evangelize or Enable the Fossil-Fuel Industry?” at AmericaMagazine.org (August 7, 2017), available at https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2017/08/07/does-divestment-evangelize-or-enable-fossil-fuel-industry.
  5. Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, par. 25-35.
  6. Catholic Committee of Appalachia, The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us, A People’s Pastoral from the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (Spencer, WV: CCA, 2015), 7.
  7. Dennis Sadowski, “40 Catholic Institutions Plan to Divest From Fossil Fuels,” at AmericaMagazine.org (October 3, 2017), available at\ https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2017/10/03/40-catholic-institutions-plan-divest-fossil-fuels.
  8. Pope Francis, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, par. no. 23, 48-51. Hereafter cited as LS.
  9. Pope Francis, “Participation at the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements: Address of the Holy Father” (July 9, 2015), available at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/july/documents/papa-francesco_20150709_bolivia-movimenti-popolari.html.
  10. William MacAskill, “Does Divestment Work?” in The New Yorker (October 20, 2015), available at https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/does-divestment-work. Naomi Klein gives the example of Shell Oil in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 358.
  11. Divest and Reinvest Now: A Statement from Theologians, Ethicists, and Religious Leaders in Support of Fossil Fuel Divestment and Clean Energy Reinvestment by Faith Communities, available at http://www.greenfaith.org/programs/divest-and-reinvest/divest-reinvest-statement.
  12. LS, no. 21.
  13. LS, no. 69.
  14. The ecological footprint calculator I used is available at https://www.footprintcalculator.org/. There are many others available as well.
  15. Charlotte McDonald, “How Many Earths Do We Need?” at BBC.com (June 16, 2015), available at http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33133712.
  16. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines” (November 12, 2003), available at http://www.usccb.org/about/financial-reporting/socially-responsible-investment-guidelines.cfm.
  17. LS, nos. 26, 165.
  18. LS, no. 120.
  19. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition (Washington, DC: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2000 [1994, 1997]), par. no. 2418.
  20. For a partial list of faith-based institutions that have divested see http://www.greenfaith.org/programs/divest-and-reinvest/listing-of-known-religious-divestment-efforts. You can also learn more about the movement for faith-based divestment and the faith-based argument at greenfaith.org.
  21. Eric Beech, “U.S. EPA Reverses Policy on ‘Major Sources’ of Pollution,” at Reuters.com (January 25th 2018), available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-epa/u-s-epa-reverses-policy-on-major-sources-of-pollution-idUSKBN1FF075; Stephanie Ebbs, “Trump EPA Spends First Year Rolling Back Environmental Regulations” (January 16, 2018), available at https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/trump-epa-spends-year-rolling-back-environmental-regulations/story?id=52162794; Michael Greshko, Laura Parker, Brian Clark Howard, “A Running List of How Trump is Changing the Environment” National Geographic (April 24, 2018), available at https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/03/how-trump-is-changing-science-environment/.
  22. LS, no. 137.

 

 

 

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