Divesting from Fossil Fuels in Cincinnati and Beyond

- Posted by Publications Committee in Resources | 7 min read
By Marjorie McKelvey Isaacs, Community Friends Cincinnati

     Cincinnati…is always ten years behind the times. —Mark Twain

Coal-fired power stationWhen our Earthcare Committee clerk at the time, Bill Cahalan, first suggested that Community Friends in Cincinnati divest from coal, oil, and petroleum stocks, it sounded like a foolish waste of the Cannon Fund, our small, informal endowment. The idea of divesting seemed like impractical idealism because the Cannon Fund supports social justice and personal spiritual growth activities. If the fund lost value, there might not be money for trips to Pendle Hill or raised garden beds in the meetinghouse yard. In our monthly meeting’s Earthcare committee, some members opposed divestment while others felt it was desperately urgent. The more some people objected to divesting, the more others, in a frustrated attempt to change their minds, expressed intense concern about the future of the planet. These arguments were so intense that two active members left the committee. Earthcare committee stopped meeting for four months. Negative interactions had paralyzed our committee.

There was an assumption that divested mutual funds would involve only green energy companies, and one divested fund does reflect that philosophy.  Since green energy companies are all newer, smaller companies and confined to one economic sector, such investments would be very volatile. Then in 2013 and 2014, several socially responsible mutual funds with years of good performance became divested by selling off their small fossil fuel holdings. Reviewing their track records revealed good performance over many years.  It seemed a real movement was building with divested mutual funds.  Our Stewardship committee discussed divesting, and then brought a divestment minute forward.  However, members of the committee itself were unfamiliar with the divested mutual funds, and two business owners opposed divesting. The two explained their reservations  and then were emailed  a reassuring reply, point by point. That action was met by silence, and not a spiritual one. They answered neither emails nor voicemails.

We had a meeting-wide threshing session on divestment from fossil fuels where no one voiced opposition.  However, during private discussions, the two articulate business owners remained perplexingly reluctant, even when given information about the well-performing, ethical, divested mutual funds. They saw divestment as yet another Quaker attack on for-profit business, until emails expressing appreciation of their professional work finally re-opened communication.

In spring of 2014 Community Friends Earthcare committee wanted to move divestment forward.  By late May there was only one remaining monthly meeting for business before yearly meeting. That would provide a crucial opportunity for encouraging divestment, if our monthly meeting could become an example of successfully adopting a divestment minute.

By keeping in close touch with the presiding clerk, repeatedly asking what was needed next in several areas, holding an emergency meeting of the Earthcare Committee to write and revise a  minute, and persistently trying to keep things moving, the proposed divestment minute reached business meeting in June of 2014.  If it passed, we could become the first monthly meeting west of Philadelphia to divest, and hoped to encourage others at yearly meeting the following month. If left to “season,” the clerk of our threshing session had predicted, our divestment minute might lose momentum forever.

Finally, the proposed minute was read aloud. The threat of a fierce argument during business meeting frightening people into a demand for seasoning hung over the room. Postponing divestment discussion  by deciding to season would bring a flood of instant relief to some. That calm could be experienced as  reflecting the will of God, and they might be right, whether those of us in favor sensed it or not. A time-limited seasoning period could actually carry a welcome obligation to engage in constructive communication and worship to find unity.

Earthcare committee had provided information about divestment options and rationale for weeks. Would that be enough? There were a few questions, then silence. “Do Friends approve?” the presiding clerk asked. Brief silence. Then, in Cincinnati, Community Friends divestment minute was approved, one month before yearly meeting.

Earthcare committee quickly arranged a display table for Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting. Bright with bouquets of local native flowers in mason jars, the table displayed our newly approved minute and information about the issues and financial divestment options. Back home later at Community Friends’ fall Quakerfest party and variety show, we presented a skit to help people feel good about having passed the divestment minute. In the skit, Sarah Scattergood wailed, “Now that we divested, I’ll have to just eat beans forever.” But Letitia the Inner Light reassured Sarah, “We all can make green lifestyle changes one step at a time.”

That skit was useful again during our presentation at Miami Quarter the following February 2015. We needed humorous relief after our inevitably serious explanation of climate change over recent history.  The mini-workshop finished with time for questions and comments. Faith Morgan, co-clerk of the Quarter, and a professional environmentalist, objected to divestment. Only lifestyle change would solve the major problems, she said. There in front of 30 people from monthly meetings throughout the quarter, I knew arguing about the importance of divesting would be bad strategy—Faith Morgan knew more than I did about environment, and she would “win.” But instead of  frustration with people who want to slow divesting down, I suddenly felt a positive connection with Faith’s true statement. It was a peculiarly peaceful Quaker moment. She was right, I found myself calmly agreeing. Divesting is a only small step, easy and practical.

Two months later, having attended the mini-workshop, Lonny Burger had seen the ethical value and simplicity of divestment. After brief discussion with his meeting, Miami Monthly, he phoned Friends Fiduciary and changed their investments to the Quaker Green fund.  “It was the right thing to do, so we did it,” Lonnie said.

In April 2015 a divestment minute was on Miami Quarterly Meeting’s agenda. We distributed a new handout with the rationale, and a list of divestment options. The handout was clear and brief, making the decision simple and practical, so it did not provoke fear or argument. When our Miami Quarter co-clerk called for discussion, there was none. After what felt like a long silence, she asked, “Do Friends approve?” Miami Quarter of Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting then approved a divestment minute, following Haverford Quarter of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to become the second quarterly meeting in the United States to divest.

We may repeat the divestment mini-workshop for people in Whitewater, OVYM’s other Quarter, this summer to gain support for a divestment minute at Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting this July. The Yearly Meeting clerk says it could happen. We are hoping that advocacy by Young Adult Friends would encourage everyone wanting to give the upcoming generation a better future. It would be fun to become the first yearly meeting in the U.S. to divest, but we would be even happier to be surprised and beaten to it by other
yearly meetings.

If divesting from fossil fuels is really such a minor issue, why bother? The simplicity and convenience of divesting can obscure its importance. No other current significant strategy results in a concrete action from just a letter or phone call. With an issue as big as climate change, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the magnitude, and the risks involved for each person and the planet itself. We need to take smaller steps that contribute to a sense of empowerment. By affirming that divestment is only a small step, part of a bigger issue, the Earthcare committee interrupted a vicious cycle. There was less resistance to divestment when  presented as the small practical action it truly is. Therefore there was less inclination to try to persuade resistant people with facts about imminent climate disaster, which lessened the fear that may provoke resistance or avoidance. When we stopped frightening people with climate change disaster facts, they stopped responding by postponing action, which calmed our need to provide more disquieting information. Together we broke a vicious cycle to find a peaceful way forward. f

MINUTE ON DIVESTMENT

Community Friends is committing itself to divest our funds from fossil fuel energy companies’ stocks as soon as reasonably possible. This divestment effort must also keep our investment practices in line with all of our values. Community Friends needs to use this first step of divestment from fossil fuel stock to begin addressing the challenges of climate change, overconsumption, and overpopulation. The Meeting will work on developing programs and proposals for helping us live with a smaller ecological footprint, both as a Meeting and as individuals. We will also work toward developing relationships with others outside our Meeting who share our concerns.  f

The Friends in Unity with Nature Committee, Stewardship Committee, and Cannon Fund Trustees were directed to implement this minute and regularly report on their progress. 7/13/2014