Friday, April 25, 2014

Divestment, the Feel Pure Choice

My congregation’s Climate Justice Committee, along with Bill McKibben of, recommends divestment from fossil fuel stocks.  However, UUA Treasurer Tim Brennan,  (UUWorld Summer13) who believes, “the world is hurtling toward climate change disaster,” distinguishes between divestment, which is not effective and something that actually is effective, disinvestment.
Disinvestment means the refusal to provide start-up capital (Initial Public Offering).  It’s an effective move because corporations need more capital to expand and profit.  Brennan points out that it was disinvestment that was effective dismantling apartheid in South Africa.  
On the other hand, divestment means selling off stock in a corporation in the secondary market.  However, the corporation doesn’t care who owns its stock and gets a share of the profits.  Besides, if one party sells, someone else will buy.  Only if almost everyone sells, will the value of the stock decrease in value.  Then indirect effects come into play, such as managers’ portfolios decreasing in value, employee stock options being less attractive, and the corporation having less bargaining power.
However, an organization that continues to own stock in a corporation can collect the corporation’s profits as dividends to use for good.  Moreover, shareholder activism allows the organization to influence the other stockholders and the Board of Directors, also for good. Besides, brokerages charge fees for stock transactions.  Hence, divestment wastes time and money that could be diverted to good works.
Since fossil fuel corporations deliver concentrated, storable energy, they aren’t going broke any time soon, in my opinion.  And on the alert for ever more profit, they will go green as soon as it’s economically feasible.  For instance, Big Oil Chevron, one of the world’s leading producers of  geothermal energy, is also developing solar energy and non-food biofuels.
Corporations make money by selling what they produce.  If nobody buys their products, they go broke.  So, instead of divesting, our congregation could affect fossil fuel corporations’ profits by refusing to buy fossil fuels, and using only our solar panels.  Though I doubt we’re willing to forego our gas heat in the winter and most of our electricity.
Surely an astute politician like Bill McKibben understands the difference between divestment, refusal to own stock, and disinvestment, refusal to provide capital.   Is he taking advantage of the fact that most people conflate the two?   Most of us, not having the odd million to throw around, can’t disinvest, but we can divest through our churches, other organizations, or our personal portfolios.  Hence, divestment involves many more people than disinvestment ever could, thus gaining adherents for the climate movement.   (, founded in 2007, has grown to the point where it can get 50,000 people at climate rallies.)
Fossil Free, a website promoting divestment, says it’s wrong to profit from wrecking the climate.  In other words, divestment comes down to a purity issue, allowing an organization to avoid sullying itself from what it considers morally questionable ventures such as alcohol, tobacco, guns, or nuclear and fossil fuels, without affecting those ventures.  (Note that nuclear energy doesn't generate CO2.)  Divestment falls into the same category as eating organic food because it’s pure, not because it’s nutritionally superior.
The resolution concludes “Finally, be it resolved that we the members of the Fellowship shall urge each other to divest from personal holdings in fossil fuel corporations.”  Instead of encouraging spiritual growth, we’re encouraging fiscal purity.  What a go-ahead for self-righteous busybodies!
We’ll be voting on this issue at the annual meeting next month, but I won’t be able to speak at the meeting because I need to wear a gas mask to breathe at church where the CO2 concentration is over 2000ppm in the sanctuary, six times the 350ppm goal.