Fossil-Fuel Divestment: I Did It for My Soul

By John Elwood 2-09-2015 | Series:
whiteisthecolor / Shutterstock.com
whiteisthecolor / Shutterstock.com

Editor's Note: In this latest edition of our “Disinvest/Reinvest” series, John Elwood reflects on how – and why – he divested from fossil fuels. You can sign up for the final week of our Christian Divestment e-course here.

Investments shape souls. Jesus tells us so.

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

Over the years, these words of Jesus have 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 percent of those precious reserves in the ground if the world is to have a chance of avoiding global climate mayhem.

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 is valued at around $27 trillion, a sum that 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 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 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 big 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 follow God 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, God requires God’s children to work for in their own time. It’s no good telling ourselves that we can abuse the creation now just because God will renew it at the restoration of all things. Yes, God is reconciling all things in a broken world, but God has appointed us as “agents of reconciliation.”

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 that doing it is quite another matter. 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, harmful oil profits.

*Sojourners does not endorse any particular financial services or companies. This is John Elwood’s personal story and is not meant as a substitute for professional financial advice.

John Elwood edits BelovedPlanet.com, a voice for creation care from within the Evangelical Christian community; owns Good Hand Farm, which supports more than 700 organic CSA produce memberships in New Jersey; and serves as an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.

image:  / Shutterstock.com

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Fossil-Fuel Divestment: I Did It for My Soul"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines and acknowledge that my comment may be published in the Letters to the Editor section of Sojourners magazine.

In This Series

Subscribe