A growing movement around the world, the Go Fossil Free campaing is mobilizing people and institutions to unclothe themselves by moving their investments away from the fossil fuel industry. Surprisingly, churches are leading the way.
"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?" – The Book of Isaiah, 58
Stanford University, the World Council of Churches, the City of San Francisco, the Canadian Medical Association, the First Presbyterian Church of Florida – these are a few among the 980+ municipalities, universities, churches, religious institutions, and pension funds worldwide that have taken up the global call to 'divest.' That is, organizations like these are undressing themselves from outmoded outfits by pulling out their investments from the coal, oil, and gas industries. And the undressing comes timely – even if it's not entirely new.
Back in the day, the Letter to the Ephesians exhorted its first hearers to "put off" the old self and to be renewed in the mind and to "put on" the new self. It was a call to become dressed with truth and love as the core badges of the New Humanity inaugurated by Jesus (Ephesians 4).
Could such call be actualized today, and expanded into every sphere of life as we face the threat of climate collapse?
There are many who believe so. Today, the fossil-free 'divestment' campaign has come to the rescue as a boycott of sorts, stripping away the garments of fossil fuel companies that continue to disguise themselves as angels of light. Instead of reaping from an industry that is wrecking the planet, the divestment movement is inspiring institutions and church communities to pray, get naked from the old self, and reclothe themselves by putting their money where their mouth is.
Climate Change is a Moral Issue
According to former Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu, the issue is rather straightforward: “It makes no sense to invest in companies that undermine our future. To serve as custodians of creation is not an empty title; it requires that we act, and with all the urgency this dire situation demands.”
Truth be told, the divestment movement will not address all the challenges of climate change. But it will help; just as it did in achieving other social victories. Backed up by some churches, divestment campaigns were used to unmask the segregation of black people through apartheid in South Africa. They were also deployed to create a broad public awareness about the harmful effects of the tobacco industry (back in the day when the cigarette lobby tried to convice us that smoking didn't create lung cancer).
In a similar vein, today’s fossil-fuel divestment movement is sending a clear message through the public megaphone, continuing to create far-reaching ripples of awareness. The campaing is also exposing the rather beastly (and profane) behavior of some governments and fossil fuel corporations that refuse to embrace the renewable energy transition.
The role of churches and faith-based institutions
To the surprise of many, the global Go Fossil Free campaign lists churches and faith-based institutions worldwide as those topping the list with close to 30 percent of the institutional divestment pie, which keeps growing beyond its current level of $7.17 trillion USD. (Over 58.000 individuals have themselves divested around $5.2 billion.) Besides the World Council of Churches, other religious bodies include the Episcopal Church in the USA, the Church of Sweden, the Church of England, and the Lutheran World Federation. But dozens and dozens of small parishes and congregations are also contributing their grain of sand.
To be sure, divestment is important but it's not enough. Even if our use of fossil fuels came to a suddent halt, our economic system based on growthism would still perpetuate the bottomless bellies of financial systems like Wall Street’s. As long as our addiction to endless growth – even to so-called 'clean growth' – is left untouched, sooner or later we'll hit another ecological boundary (be it soil depletion, water shortages, fisheries extinctions, etc).
That to say that divesting from fossil fuels will work only as long as we funel our funds into other 'slow-money' industries that are genuinely protecting people and places. And, honestly, that's a hard find these days of green-washing – although certainly worth the hunt. And it's certainly a project where our churches should be focusing their reflection and pouring their creativity, in order to honor the good-old blessed calling of being peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).
How Then Shall We Re-invest?
Regardless, the energy transition calls for 're-investing' in citizen-owned and cooperatively operated energy co-ops. Think of strengthening the local economy. Think of prioritizing substantial energy retrofits in existing buildings. Think of designing walkable communities. Think of passive building design and regional renewable energy grids.
These are a few questions we can ask when seeking to support low-carbon coalitions in your municipality or to reinvest in renewable energy operations:
Is the initiative prioritizing urban reconfigurations that cut down and eliminate the need for energy consumption in the first place?
Is priority given to mass public transit run on renewables and to building high energy efficiency into the existing built environment?
Is the alternative energy operation democratically owned and operated (for example, citizen co-ops, social enterprises, community interest corporations)?
After reconfiguring urban spaces and cutting back energy consumption, is priority being given, first, to onshore wind turbines, and only secondly, to solar farms, solar rooftop, and geothermal?
To stress it again, the call to 'un-clothe' our institutions from fossil-fuels is only a starting point, not the ultimate destination. One gets naked but only to be clothed again. In fact, the scale of today's global challenges demand to be 're-clothed' entirely anew, bringing to mind Paul's ancient summons: "And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony" (Colossians 3).
That was surely a personal call to be lived out in day-to-day relationships. But faithful churches and all sorts of institutions of good will are showing that it's not only necessary – but also possible – to extend the scope and clothe themselves with a quite different set of garments.
Edwardo Sasso is the co-founder of Earthkeepers and the author of A Climate of Desire - a book reconsidering the original roots of Christianity to more fully enable us to respond to the challenges of climate change