WILLIAMSTOWN — The main argument against divesting from fossil fuel stocks often put forward is that someone else will purchase your shares and the Exxons of the world will continue doing business as usual. That assumes the reason to sell the stock is to change the companies involved in releasing the carbon that is heating the earth.
There may be a better reason. How individuals or institutions invest their resources defines who they are. On that basis recently the First Congregational Church in Williamstown decided to divest its $2.3 million endowment from fossil fuel energy and drilling companies.
While another strategy might be to maintain holdings, in order to use your votes to alter a company's course, it is hard to imagine that one dedicated to producing oil, say, could become instead a major producer of solar power, enlightened as that would be. Unfortunately, industrial history provides ample evidence that companies cling to their cores even when circumstances have radically changed — witness the Walter A. Wood Company in Hoosick Falls, which continued to manufacture horse-drawn farm equipment long after the advent of the internal combustion engine.
Another argument that institutions use against divesting is that their primary good is their religious or educational mission, say. To support it, they believe they require the maximum income from their holdings, which they fear might be imperiled by divesting.
A simple test question
The world is full of examples of whether or not the ends justify the means. In most cases, including this one, justifying is really rationalizing, and any apparent positive result may be short term. The simple test: What kind of a world are your resources helping to create?
Furthermore, a prudent investor might want to withdraw from fossil fuel companies solely on the basis of the challenges they face in 2015. Their stocks are down and, depending on how rational you believe the world to be, likely to continue down in the face of the success of green energy.
Yet another argument against is that companies and portfolios are multifaceted. They engage in activities you approve of as well as those you don't. Sorting the good from the bad is confusing and complicated. Fortunately help is available, including lists of those most responsible for climate change.
There are socially responsible investment funds, which sometimes reveal as much as anything else that one person's view of socially responsible is not another person's. Better to have a more sharply defined target, such as fossil fuel. May be best, as the church decided, to tailor your own holdings, even though that means using resources to pay a manager.
Individuals and institutions may feel that addressing climate change by taking steps to reduce their own greenhouse emissions is a preferable route. It is a wonderful route — and a worthy companion to divesting. The church, for example, has made many moves to green its building. Once again, though, the issue is how does your investment define you.
Another aspect of divestment is that it implies reinvestment, the opportunity to put your resources into companies the missions and methods of which you wholeheartedly approve. Investing can be joyful.
At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.