Optimism abounds at Dayton divestment conference

by Maureen Fiedler

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When President Barack Obama announced to the world on Friday that he had rejected TransCanada’s application to build the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, there was surely no better place to be than at a conference of committed environmentalists.  When the news broke, there was universal applause, glee and relief -- all rolled into one.

The conference I was attending was a highly informative gathering at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, a Marianist school, that focused on divesting from fossil fuel stocks and reinvesting in renewable energy.

More: "Dayton divestment conference delves into ways to leave fossil fuels behind" (Nov. 12, 2015)

I was one of the speaker/panelists at the conference because my community, the Sisters of Loretto, voted unanimously in July to divest from fossil fuels. As I was narrating the story of how we arrived at that point, I recounted our “environmental education” over 25 years, highlighting our role in defeating the Bluegrass Pipeline in 2014.

That was a pipeline that would have carried the waste products from fracking fields in Ohio and Pennsylvania across Kentucky (including our Motherhouse grounds) and on down to the Gulf of Mexico. Three communities of women -- the Kentucky Dominicans, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the Loretto Community -- organized a movement that defeated that pipeline after months and months of protest and publicity.

After I told the story and the role of Loretto, I said that we regarded it as a precursor to our hoped-for rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline by President Obama. Then, only 2 or 3 hours later, he came through! I had to convince folks that I had no advance knowledge.

At the same conference, it was especially wonderful to see a panel of three young women -- from the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University and Boston College -- applaud Obama’s decision. All of them had protested Keystone, and two of them had been arrested in the protests. They rightly celebrated their part in this early success in their lives.

But it was also clear that the large Catholic universities where they study had resisted fossil fuel divestment -- Georgetown in June voted to divest from coal stocks -- despite strong student movements. 

In the midst of all this, the University of Dayton has become a leader in environmental and sustainability education. It is the first and only Catholic university to have voted to divest from all fossil fuels. And it has established the Hanley Sustainability Institute to teach young people the art and science of sustainable living in a world facing drastic climate change. Clearly, one of the most popular documents on that campus these days is Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’, on Care of Our Common Home.”

As a part of this, divesting from fossil fuels, primary culprit in causing climate change, is pivotal.  It is a moral statement announcing to the world that a person or an institution is not willing to profit from the destruction of the planet. Interestingly, those at the conference describing these divestment decisions reported that the fossil-free portfolios have not lost any value in the process, and in many cases, have profited a bit from new investments. 

With the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris almost upon us, it was good to see at least one sign of hope. 

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