On Saturday afternoon General Assembly delegates overwhelmingly approved divesting the Unitarian Universalist Association of most of its investments in companies that produce or process fossil fuels, including oil, natural gas, and coal.
The vote was held after the required 30 minutes of debate, during which speakers were divided nearly evenly among supporters and opponents. Opponents generally thought that divestment wouldn’t have much effect. “It only creates the illusion we are doing something,” said one speaker.
The supporters were led off by Tim DeChristopher, a member of the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, Utah. He served 21 months in prison from 2011 through 2013 for disrupting a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas auction in which he successfully bid for tracts he had no intention of paying for.
He is currently a student at Harvard Divinity School. He told the assembly on Saturday, “Many of us in this room and in the larger religious community have been engaging in this issue in a lot of ways, including through our congregations, civil disobedience, and challenging corporations and governments.
“All of those efforts have been worthwhile and all of those efforts will continue. But a lot of us engaged in those efforts have been running up against the political power of these corporations. This resolution is about challenging that political power. Through this resoution we will be joining a much larger movement.”
The divestment resolution was carefully crafted over the past year and had the support of environmental activists, including the UU Ministry for Earth, as well as the UUA administration.
The resolution permits the UUA to keep some fossil fuel stocks in cases where the UUA is engaged in shareholder actions seeking environmental justice. UUA Treasurer Tim Brennan is a strong advocate of shareholder actions and the UUA has had significant successes in modifying behavior of corporations in several areas including worker rights.
At a mini-assembly on Friday on the resolution the Rev. Peggy Clarke, of the First Unitarian Society of Westchester, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, did propose one amendment, but it was defeated. Clarke asked that the UUA not be allowed to keep any fossil fuel investments. She said she didn’t believe that shareholder activism would work with this issue. “We’re not talking about asking a company to make a minor modification. We’re talking about the core of the industry. No activism will work in this case.”
Scientists say that if life on earth is to continue to be sustainable fossil fuel companies would have to leave much of their oil, gas, and coal reserves in the ground. No changes could be made in the resolution when it was considered by the entire body. No delegate count was taken, but the resolution won by an overwhelming margin.
Terry Wiggins, of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, led the crafting of the agreement over the past year, along with the UU Ministry for Earth, the UUA Socially Responsible Investing Committee, and UUA Treasurer Tim Brennan. Wiggins has said she hopes congregational leaders will go home from GA and lead their own congregations in divesting.