Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

It’s been a long, cold winter. Not to mention expensive due to heating bills depleting bank balances for those fortunately possessing enough scratch to pay their utilities. For others forced to wear sweaters around the clock and sleep with three dogs to stay warm while keeping the thermostat tuned just above freezing to save money, it may take months before reaching a zero balance on the monthly propane/gas/natural gas/electricity statement.

Imagine how prohibitive those bills would be if we relied on the so-called renewable energy schemes rather than relatively cheap and plentiful fossil fuel sources to warm our igloos and power our personal vehicles and those oh-so-necessary snowplows. In a word borrowed from Thomas Hobbes, it’d be brutish.

Love it, hate it, or just plain indifferent, U.S. dependence on fossil fuel energy will remain relatively unchanged for the foreseeable future. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates our appetite for carbon-based power will hold steady more or less until 2040: “The fossil fuel share of energy consumption falls from 82% in 2012 to 80% in 2040, as consumption of petroleum-based liquid fuels declines, largely as a result of slower growth in VMT [vehicle miles traveled] and increased vehicle efficiency.”

However, there exist several groups who seemingly care not a whit about the plight of the poor attempting to heat their homes, and they’re not cold-blooded capitalists, cranky-pants Ayn Rand acolytes or even the dreaded Koch brothers. In fact, some of these groups come across as more or less benign at worst and spiritually enlightened at best – religious shareholder activists. Writes Dana Hull in the San Jose Mercury News:

As the effort to pressure colleges, cities and religious institutions to divest from fossil fuels gains traction, a small but growing number of individual investors are examining their retirement funds and portfolios with an eye toward eliminating their exposure to coal, oil and natural gas.

The ‘Go Fossil Free’ movement, driven by growing concern over the impact of climate change, is the latest iteration of what’s known as ‘socially responsible investing,’ in which individuals and institutions examine their portfolios for companies whose businesses offend their political or ethical views, whether it’s gunmakers, tobacco companies or, in this case, businesses involved in the petroleum industry

Hull quotes Will Lana, senior vice president at Trillium Asset Management:

[A] Boston-based firm that is the oldest independent investment adviser devoted exclusively to sustainable and responsible investing. Trillum manages $1.4 billion and does not invest in coal, oil or gas companies or utilities that generate most of their electricity from fossil fuels.

‘Roughly one-fifth of our clients are fully divested from the fossil fuel sector,’ Lana said. ‘For certain investors, the approach makes a lot of sense.’

The Go Fossil Free movement is largely being organized by author and environmentalist Bill McKibben and 350.org, the climate change organization he co-founded. The group has a ‘Personal Divestment Roadmap’ on its website that urges individuals to find out how much they have invested in fossil fuel companies and to consider investing in a clean energy future.

Trillium, for readers new to the topic of religious shareholder activism, frequently joins the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, As You Sow and Boston Common Asset Management by submitting resolutions to corporations in which they invest. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but what these religious shareholders grant is a certain grace on the cheap for the groups for which they’re carrying water – some of which are nasty pieces of work indeed. McKibben’s CV reveals several affiliations with George Soros’ funded organizations, including receiving substantial monies from the Tides Foundation (nearly $200,000 in 2013 and more than $100,000 in 2012). McKibben additionally is a trustee for the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy with which he shares an agenda described by Michael Berliner as advocating “not clean air and clean water; rather, it is the demolition of technological/industrial civilization.”

According to the website Discover the Networks:

In 2012, 350.org launched a ‘Fossil Free’ campaign exhorting educational, religious, and government institutions to ‘immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within 5 years.’

As noted by the National Review’s Stanley Kurtz in March 2013:

What McKibben now leaves unspoken may actually be the most important part of his argument. Yes, there is more to happiness than material possessions. Family, friends, and community are what count in the end, and capitalist modernity is often in tension with these essential human goods. Unfortunately, McKibben mischaracterizes the American way of life as a worship of possessions as ends in themselves. That is unfair. Meaning in America has traditionally come from faith and all that it elevates, including family and work. Moral balance does need to be restored, and yet we cannot repeal modernity. We’ll need to work with the modern world, not against it, finding ways to harmonize community and faith with the economy we have. Living in an increasingly isolating, secular, and materialist universe, McKibben’s young followers seem intent on turning climate apocalypticism into a substitute religion. That won’t fill the gap. You can run from the economy, but you can’t hide. And catastrophism alone will not a morality make.

What McKibben and others of his ilk – including the religious shareholders of Trillium, ICCR and AYS – ignore is the call by Christ in Matthew 25:37-40 to care for the “least of these.”

If we Go Fossil Free as desired by the religious shareholders for whom McKibben serves as a secular messiah, those of us who struggle to pay our heating bills today may find it impossible in coming years. Those who can’t afford it today simply will find themselves out in the cold. That is unless, of course, we follow the wisdom of Christ rather than the dangerous, inhumane path desired by McKibben.

The Good that Business Does

The Good that Business Does

Robert Kennedy notes Christian social thought has paid less attention to business than the prevalence of the latter would merit. Professor Kennedy, with experience in the business world and expertise in theology and management, begins to redress this deficiency in this monograph.

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  • Daniel Parker

    I love this kind of writing. Several assumptions made in order to hold the conclusions of the piece. Interesting to consider alternative cleaner energy such as wind and solar as archaic and backwards. And when we consider “the least of these,” might be a good reminder that we have more “least of these” now than we ever had. I have yet to see a broad sharing of wealth with the “least of these” from current mining of resources, and not sure how christian it is to burn resources if we know it impacts another free resource we’ve been give to use (air, water, etc.) without cost. there is some kind of false notion here that if we are able to get at the resource, and able to smoke it or burn it, then it must be God’s providence and we shouldn’t question it. Lord help us.

    • BruceEdwardWalker

      “there is some kind of false notion here that if we are able to get at the resource, and able to smoke it or burn it, then it must be God’s
      providence and we shouldn’t question it.” Nice straw man argument there, Daniel Parker. Why not try addressing what I actually wrote?

      • Daniel Parker

        he who hath ears, let him hear…

  • Roger McKinney

    I wonder how many of those investors are connected to the electric grid where most of the power comes from fossil fuels. Divesting from fossil fuels is cheap and easy; there are plenty of alternatives. It makes hypocrites feel like they’re doing something when they’re not. If these people weren’t hypocrites they would buy wind and solar power equipment for their homes and get off the grid.

    I encourage these hypocrites to continue to divest. That will make the price of oil and gas stocks fall so I can buy more.

  • Eden Keeper

    I feel like your piece is missing something. Why does divestment from fossil fuels mean that rates will go up? Aren’t there government protections in place that monitor ratepayer increases? And do gas and oil companies really NEED to spend $100 million/day to search for new reserves in order to keep our rates low? Other publicly traded companies, like Walmart, don’t need billions of dollars from investors in order to keep their prices low. I’m not an economist, but there seems to be a step missing in your logic.