This Curious Institution

This is good.

Seventeen foundations controlling nearly $1.8 billion in investments have united to commit to pulling their money out of companies that do business in fossil fuels, the group announced on Thursday.

The move is a victory for a developing divestiture campaign that has found success largely among small colleges and environmentally conscious cities, but has not yet won over the wealthiest institutions like Harvard, Brown and Swarthmore.

But the participation of the foundations, including the Russell Family Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America and the John Merck Fund, is the largest commitment to the effort, and stems in part from a push among philanthropies to bring their investing in line with their missions.

“At a minimum, our grants should not be undercut by our investments,” said Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the Wallace Global Fund, which is practically divested of fossil fuels already and is coordinating the effort among foundations. “If you owned fossil fuels in your investment portfolio, it became increasingly clear to foundations that they own climate change, and they’re potentially profiting from those investments,” at the same time as they make grants to fight the issue.

If you participate in the economy to the tune of $1.8 billion, you don’t control a lot — but you control a hell of a lot more than any of us normal people do individually. These motions to divest from fossil-fuel investments are a quantum leap in moral agency on the part of these fund managers.

The arguments against leaving fossil fuels in the ground are startlingly similar to those used about the economic necessity of slavery.

“There have always been slaves; without them our economy would collapse.”

When William Lloyd Garrison began agitating to end the great societal evil of slavery, the Civil War was decades away, and much of the public couldn’t have cared less about the issue. But Massachusetts’ voice of conscience helped build a movement that transformed our society and hastened the end of a humanitarian crime.

Well, here’s another crime: our ready exploitation of what Bucky Fuller called “energy slaves” — the easy and convenient amount of work we can do while freely burning fossil fuels.

In 1987 commentary on Fullers energy slave theory, author Stephen Boyden commented that “in the USA, the daily use per capita of energy is around 1000 MJ; that is, each person has the equivalent of 100 energy slaves working 24 hours a day for him or for her…. In some developing countries, the rate of energy use is less than the equivalent of one energy slave per person.” [8]

By becoming dependent on these conveniences, we’ve become slaves in turn — to the corporations which sell us the fuels which compromise our planet’s health and all our lives for countless generations.


“We have always burned fossil fuels; without them our economy would collapse.”

Well, we’ve now realized that a fossil fuel economy is as morally corrosive as a slavery economy. Good on at least a few investment managers for recognizing that to profit from global warming while disbursing occasional sops to climate activists is akin to doling out surplus income from the slave trade to abolitionists: a moral impossibility.

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