Fossil-Fuel Divestment: I Did it for My Soul

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:21

Some years ago, I was assigned the task of cleaning up a struggling company burdened with millions in unpaid debts. Along with numerous business contracts and operations, I was handed a portfolio of life insurance policies on former executives of the company. If any of them should happen to die, I would have my hands on millions in insurance proceeds that could be used to address pressing company problems.

Well, it happened that one day, word came that one of those executives had fallen seriously ill, perhaps near death.  This man was struggling for his life. But for me, those tantalizing insurance proceeds blinded me to the unfolding mortal drama. I had money at stake, and a job to do. His death – shockingly, in retrospect – would be my gain. I had money invested in a man’s death.

As I look back on this sordid episode, the teaching of Jesus becomes clearer to me than ever: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Stated another way, what we invest in will shape the deepest core of our identity, what the Bible calls our souls. They shape what we love, and what we fear; and what we believe. They get us up in the morning, and keep us awake in the wee hours.

Investments shape souls. Jesus tells us so.

After coming to my senses, I swore that I would never invest in death again. I am too morally fragile to tether my fortunes to the harm of others. My soul cannot bear the danger.

Over the years, this commitment has kept me away from the “merchants of death” and conflict minerals, and steered me toward ethical products of many sorts. In recent years, however, a more sinister and pervasive threat has come into focus. Climate scientists in 2014 warned that energy companies like Exxon, Shell, PetroChina and Chevron – which derive their value from enormous reserves of recoverable fossil fuels – will have to leave about 80% of those precious reserves in the ground, if the world is to have a chance of avoiding global climate mayhem.

The divestment campaign is gaining strength. 350.org

The fossil-fuel divestment campaign gaining strength globally. 350.org

That means that four out of every five barrels of oil, or tons of coal, or cubic feet of natural gas that these companies have discovered and developed must eventually be written off.

The market value of fossil fuel reserves today – including the 80% that can’t be burned – is valued at around $27 trillion, a sum which dwarfs the famous U.S. national debt. This means that there is a very, very bad day of reckoning ahead for someone. Either all of humanity will endure unspeakable suffering or worse, or those who invest in the fossil-fuel companies will suffer huge losses.

It became clear to me that investing in fossil fuels is no longer a retirement strategy, or a way of mitigating market risks. It is a decision whether or not to align my soul with unfathomable harm to virtually all of humanity and to all of God’s beloved creation. If I’ve got my own personal slice of those carbon reserves (whether by buying a share of ExxonMobil or by investing in a mutual fund that does), I make money, or avoid losses, only if the entire creation groans and suffers under the weight of climate calamity.

The Bible tells us, in Romans 8, that the whole creation “waits with eager longing” and has been “groaning together in the pains of childbirth,” waiting for a day when something really special begins to happen. And what, specifically is the world is waiting for? You don’t have to look hard: It’s waiting for “the revealing of the sons of God.” You know, women and men like us, who have been adopted as “sons,” who have been given “the spirit of sonship,” who come into the Creator’s presence and boldly call him “Father,” and follow him with the allegiance of family.

Now, Christians have many views about how and when the redemption of the Creation will ultimately unfold. But all of us can agree on this: What God promises to do ultimately, he requires his children to work for in their own time. Yes, God is reconciling all things to himself in a broken world, but he’s appointed his children as “agents of reconciliation.” It’s no good telling ourselves that we can abuse the creation now, since God will renew it at some future “restoration of all things.” Of course, it’s possible that this may be true, but a dreadful surprise almost certainly awaits those of us who knowingly flout God’s purposes in reliance upon divine intervention at a later time

And that brings me back to my promise not to invest in death.  If my Father’s suffering creation really is waiting for the intervention of someone like me, what if I show up with a heart molded by treasures invested in the creation’s harm? In a world on a strict carbon budget, what if I’ve made a bet with my life-savings that we’ll blow through that budget – not once, but five times over? What if my retirement or my prosperity depends on catastrophe for everything that waits for my help?

“God can still save his world,” perhaps you say? Well, certainly. But what about me? What about my soul?

There are lots of good reasons why Christians are choosing to get out of the fossil-fuel business. I did it for myself. For my truest self. I did it for my soul.

Okay, let’s go carbon-free. But how?

It’s one thing for an individual saver to decide to get out of harmful energy investing. But, I’ve found, doing it is another matter entirely. First of all, before selling your existing investments, you’ll have to consider the tax effects. Some will have unrealized taxable gains in their existing holdings, which will be triggered upon sale. So in April a year from now, you may be faced with taxes you weren’t expecting, unless you have offsetting losses.

And then, for small investors like most of us, we can’t just call our investment department like the Rockefellers do (yes, they’re divesting!), and give the order. Most of us will look for sustainable mutual funds, whether we do them on our own or with the company selected by our employer for our 401(k) or 403(b). And here’s the problem: They can be expensive, they can lack diversification, and some aren’t that well-rated. But there are a number you can choose from, and the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment has compiled lists of sustainable mutual funds and account managers with fossil-free indexes that you can use to start your own research. I narrowed down my list based on my own needs and long talks with my advisor, and settled on three:

  • Parnassus Endeavour Fund (PARWX): Large-cap US equities; growth stocks; no energy shares; 1.07% gross expense ratio (GER); Morningstar 4x; 5-yr. return 16.29%
  • DFA Sustainability Core 1 (DFSIX): Mid-cap US equities; growth & value stocks; selections based on proprietary environmental assessment; 0.33% GER; Morningstar 4x; 5-yr. return 15.94%
  • DFA International Sustainability Core 1 (DFSPX): Large-cap non-US equities; growth & value stocks; selections based on proprietary environmental assessment; 0.52% GER; Morningstar 3x; 5-yr. return 6.66%

For me, the process took several months. I had to overcome my own misgivings, and a degree of skepticism from advisers. I had to prayerfully consider the potential impacts on savings I had cultivated over decades. But in the end, I made the changes.

My choices were sensible by financial metrics. But as a follower of Jesus Christ, I realized that there were far more important issues in play than risks and returns. I think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he asked: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)

Yes, gain and loss may well hang in the balance. But for me, so does my truest self. And I’m not going to forfeit that for anything – least of all, for harmful oil profits.

Note: Some other sustainable funds:

  • Green Century Balanced (GCBLX)
  • Green Century Equity (GCEQX)
  • Pax World Growth A (PXGAX)
  • Portfolio 21 Global Equity R (PORTX)

2 thoughts on “Fossil-Fuel Divestment: I Did it for My Soul

  1. Nathan

    I think this piece is an important reminder. In general people make money in 2 ways: through employment and through investment, including retirement savings. I think it’s very easy to be aware of the ethics of one’s employment, but not really consider the ethics of investment. Because I tend to be more removed from the investment process it feels like less of a responsibility, but I can’t really think of a good reason why I should be less accountable or responsible for the ethical impacts of where I invest savings than I am for the actions I perform on a daily basis.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Fossil Fuel Divestment: Good Ethics & Good Earnings | BelovedPlanet

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