Over the past year, a fossil fuel divestment movement has been sweeping over the globe. Bill McKibben, 350.org, and Fossil Free have played a pivotal role in what has become one of the most widespread and successful divestment efforts in history. It is yet another example of the process Gandhi described: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” As part of this movement, a number of universities, church bodies, and other organizations have made the commitment to divest from the fossil fuel industry. The divestment movement has been especially successful in convincing these institutions to divest from coal, but there is growing momentum for divestment from all fossil fuels.
As is the case with all divestment movements, there has been significant resistance. In relation to universities and churches, this resistance most often comes in the form of a “seat at the table to influence the fossil fuel industry for good” argument or a “we need to invest in companies that will provide the best return” argument. At times, arguments are also made that fossil fuels contribute to global economic stability and world peace by providing a reliable source of energy in the world. The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits of my own denomination (the United Methodist Church) has recently made all of these arguments in its defense of ongoing fossil fuel investments. FossilFreeUMC.org provides a critical analysis of these arguments in a blog titled: “What the UM Pension Board Gets Wrong on Fossil Fuels.” I have addressed the “seat at the table” argument in a blog for Fossil Free UMC titled: “A Seat at the Table?”
When universities and churches say it would be irresponsible to divest from fossil fuels because they would lose the ability to influence the fossil fuel industry in positive ways, that is double speak for “we really don’t want to lose the financial support we get from the fossil fuel industry.” Likewise, universities and churches are not that worried about investment losses from divesting from fossil fuels. There are plenty of good non-fossil fuel investments out there. What they are really worried about is losing donations and other forms of financial support from fossil fuel companies and their executives. The resistance of of universities and churches to fossil fuel divestment is less about their concern for global economic stability, world peace, and world order and more about their concern for their own financial stability and ongoing institution maintenance.
In my state of Oklahoma, the resistance to fossil fuel divestment is especially strong. Our educational and religious institutions have benefited from billions of dollars of financial support from the fossil fuel industry over time. The largest donations to higher education in Oklahoma have come from persons and companies who made their fortunes from fossil fuels, and leaders of our top higher education institutions experience direct and significant personal financial benefit (millions of dollars) from their support of the fossil fuel industry in the form of paid board of director positions with oil and gas companies. The three largest oil and gas companies in Oklahoma have all had sitting university presidents as members of their paid boards of directors.
The financial support of the fossil fuel industry for our churches and universities does not come without strings of influence attached to it. It influences research at our universities, and there are have been well documented occasions when donors from the fossil fuel industry have attempted to influence scientists and agencies for their own benefit and the benefit of their companies, and the success of these companies provides direct financial benefit to the university presidents who are paid to sit on their boards (a significant portion of these payments come in the form of stocks). As Upton Sinclair reminds us, “It is difficult to get a [person] to understand something, when [one’s] salary depends on . . . not understanding it.”See “Hamm sought meeting with OU’s Boren on Okla. quakes in 2011” and also “Oil CEO Wanted University Quake Scientists Dismissed: Dean’s E-Mail.”
Churches and universities risk losing significant financial support from the fossil fuel industry if they move towards divestment. This is the underlying pragmatic reason that universities and churches are resistant to divestment. It is not an easy decision. In many cases our educational and religious institutions have become dependent on fossil fuel money. But at a time when the very future of human civilization is threatened by the reality of climate change and the numerous other ecologically devastating consequences of the fossil fuel industry, those of us connected to universities and churches have to ask ourselves, “How can it be moral or responsible to depend on the industry most responsible for the destruction of our planet for our existence as institutions?”