Fossil Fuel Divestment As Part of ‘Spiritual Worship’

Wes-Divest-meme-bannerRecently Bill McKibben ( wrote a short note to readers of Tikkun magazine that serves as a good update on the fossil fuel divestment movement as a tool for combating climate change and shifting us toward a renewable energy economy.

Over the past year I’ve met with a number of groups discussing “the divestment strategy,” comparing it to the anti-apartheid divestment movement (see Loosing the Bonds by Robert Massie). In those conversations I’ve seen very good people come out for and against the use of this tool.

I’m avowedly “pro.”

Those who are “con” usually get there because 1) taking on financial industries is outside their area of expertise so it seems impossible or 2) it will divert too much “people energy” away changing federal policies.

Regarding the first I say: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” It’s okay to acknowledge that you don’t know any thing about how to make the numbers add up so that investors see that the better, more stable, investment is in the long-term renewable market. There are people who DO know these things and they can help those who don’t.

Regarding the second, as Bill McKibben says, “this is not the time to keep your powder dry.” Everyone needs to be doing the thing that makes most sense for them to do. If you are a direct action-type then chain yourself to a bulldozer or picket and pray in front of Exxon. If you are an accountant, then work on redirecting investments. As it says in Romans 12, “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them … .” We must not think of “people-energy” within a paradigm of scarcity, but in one of abundance.

If we are able to act in these ways then this is what Paul means when he says to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

I don’t mean spiritualizing actions for political gain. I mean that your “spiritual worship” has political implications. Tending and tilling and caring for the world God made for us is the first and most basic form of spiritual worship, our first commandment.

Whether we are defending American Midwesterners from the Keystone XL pipeline or the First Nations and mining families that live near the Alberta tar sands mining pits or working with our churches, universities, and townships to redirect funds to renewable energies and away from fossil fuels, we do all these things to reject a planet-killing economic system and protect the world as God intends. We do these things as part of our “spiritual worship.”–Rose Berger

Below is Bill McKibben on divestment:

Tikkun readers don’t need my financial advice—I’m not exactly a stock market guru. Still, I did write the first book for a general audience on climate change (way back in 1989), and I did found the first big grassroots climate campaign (, so perhaps I can make a few observations about why the fossil fuel divestment effort has become the fastest-growing effort of its kind in history, according to Oxford University. And about why we need your congregations, your colleges, and your cities to join in this effort:

1) The fossil fuel companies aren’t normal companies. In the last few years we’ve come to understand that they have five times as much carbon in their reserves as we can safely burn if the world is to meet its agreed climate target of limiting rises in temperature to below 2 degrees. That is to say, if they carry out their business plan, the planet tanks. There’s no longer any real dispute about this—everyone right up to the World Bank has confirmed the math.

2) What this means in turn is that if you hold these stocks you in effect are wagering that the planet will do nothing to limit climate change. If we tried as a world to meet that two-degree limit—if we followed the principles put forth by all our leading religious and scientific bodies on this issue—the value of these stocks would plummet. HSBC, the world’s second-biggest bank, found that the values of these stocks would be cut in half by effective climate action.

3) Usually, dealing with companies doing something wrong, we can apply lesser kinds of pressure: proxy voting, say, on shareholder resolutions. But in this case there’s not a flaw in the business plan that can be corrected—the flaw is the business plan. Responding to such pressure earlier this year, Exxon—richest company on earth—said it would make no adjustments and thought it was ‘highly unlikely’ that they’d be restrained from using their fuel. That is, they said they’d burn the planet, and they didn’t think anyone could stop them

4) These companies and their investors also play a crucial role in sustaining the current system. If you invest in Exxon, you’ve helped send millions to climate-denial ‘think tanks.’ If you invest in Chevron, you helped send the largest corporate campaign contribution in history, designed to make sure that climate deniers kept continued control of the Congress.

5) These positions are immoral. If it’s wrong to wreck the planet, it’s wrong to profit from the wreckage. Don’t trust me—listen to Desmond Tutu, perhaps the most revered faith leader on the planet at the moment, who earlier this year sent out a clarion call for divestment, especially for those of us who take the Scriptures seriously. “It is a responsibility that begins with God commanding the first human inhabitants of the garden of Eden ‘to till and to keep it,’” he said. “To keep it; not to abuse it, not to destroy it.” If, like me, you’ve traveled to places already devastated by climate change, then you know what he means. The one big study on this subject predicts that fossil fuel will take 100 million lives by 2030.

6) Divestment is not a single easy solution to global warming. It will not bankrupt the fossil fuel companies. It will, however, begin the process of politically bankrupting them, and making it harder for them to bend Washington to their will. In May, Christiana Figueres pleaded with faith leaders in a speech in London to divest immediately. By divesting, she said, faith groups can provide a “moral compass” to the planet’s other leaders. “Leaders of faith groups, from Christians and Muslims to Hindus, Jews and Buddhists have a responsibility and an opportunity,” she said.

7) And they can fulfill that responsibility without undue financial risk. In fact, study after study has shown that if endowments had divested of fossil fuels a decade ago they would have made far better returns over the period. And investors of all stripes are now calculating the risk that comes with the ‘carbon bubble’—all those reserves of coal, gas, and oil that can’t be burned if we’re to come to terms with climate change.

8) That’s why Anglican dioceses across Australia and New Zealand have divested, and why the United Church of Christ has urged its member congregations to divest, and why an astonishing array of cities (Seattle, Providence and dozens more) and colleges (from tiny Unity College to mighty Stanford) have begun the process as well. Here is a chance for the Tikkun readership, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and the community you represent, to show its solidarity with young people and with poor people and with the rest of Creation. I hope you take it.–Bill McKibben

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