Australian Jesuits divest from fossil fuels

Brian F McCoy, SJ

I have in the Province Office a few dot paintings.  One of them is by an Aboriginal artist who was instrumental in bringing the Walmajarri people back to their ancestral land I 1979, after a cattle station was established on it in the early twentieth century.

His painting is a map, but reveals more than a map.  It describes the contours of the land, creek and waterholes.  It also notes the ancient sites of significance and the places of spiritual meaning and story.  I never saw or appreciated any of those deeper levels of meaning when I first visited in 1974.  Over time, through friendships and in participation in ceremonies, I came to see and value much more what it means to walk upon this land.

It has been clear for some years that human beings will need to reconsider our relationship with the land if we are to preserve our world for future generations.  The more we learn about the interconnectedness of life, the more we see how our decisions and actions can have far-reaching impacts, particularly on vulnerable communities in the poorest parts of the globe.

“Poverty, social exclusion and marginalisation are linked with environmental degradation”’ (GC36, Decree 1, Companions in a Mission of Reconciliation and Justice, #29).  Bringing these challenges together, our work today must focus on building right relationships with God, with each other, and with creation (GC35 Decree 3, repeated in GC36, Decree 1, #21).  We know as Christians that where we have failed in our relationships, a process of reconciliation is needed.  We are asked to make commitments of ourselves to set right what has been broken.

This is why we speak of Reconciliation with Creation in our response to our environmental challenges.  In committing ourselves to reconciling our relationship with creation, we are asked to reflect on the impact of the choices that we make on the environment and on vulnerable communities around the world.

Our new Reconciliation with Creation task force, which has been put together by Jim Barber, has been reflecting on these questions for us at the Province level.  They have identified some valuable work that is being done in our schools, our retreat and residential houses, at Jesuit Social Services and in other ministries, which we hope to highlight and build on across the Province in the coming months.

The task force has also put forward some proposals for the Province around the impact of our investments and activities which I will outline below.

Divestment from fossil fuels

The Province has funds that must be managed in ways that will sustain the ongoing work of the Society in Australia.  The key principle of the Province’s investment strategy is that all investment decisions must reflect the mission and values of the Province.  The Society of Jesus has developed and implemented ‘Responsible Investment Guidelines’ to assist in this.

Investments should not be made in companies in which there are serious concerns about their response to social justice and environmental issues.  Industries which the Province would consider conflicting with its mission and values include tobacco manufacturing, gambling, pornography and prostitution, manufacture and distribution of armaments, and coal seam gas.

Our guidelines currently adopt two screening methodologies: negative screening, avoiding investment in organisation or industries which have a negative impact on society and the environment; and positive screening, searching for investments that contribute positively to society and the environment.  The Province has a number of investments in companies that contribute positively to society and the environment, including social bonds, wind turbine farms and solar energy.

Moving forward, we will be working closely with our external asset managers to develop strategies to assist the Province in divesting in fossil fuel or tier 1 companies as detailed in The Australian Institute report in March 2014 Climate proofing your investment: Moving funds out of fossil fuel, with the view to adding this to our screening requirements.

In the light of our commitment to reconciliation with creation, we believe that divestment is an ethical, impactful and valuable opportunity to consider for not only the Australian Province but all Australian companies.

Flights for Forests

Travel brings us together and can be important in building relationships across Australia and around the globe.  However, aviation is also one of the leading contributors to climate change.

The Flights for Forests  initiative was launched by the Jesuit Conference Asia Pacific in 2011.  It provides a way to offset the environmental impact of travel by contributing $5 to the initiative for each flight taken.  Funds contributed to Flights for Forests are used to support forestry and other environmental regeneration projects across the region.

I strongly encourage Jesuit communities and ministries to consider committing themselves to making voluntary contributions to this scheme based on your budgeted flights through the year.  The Province will be making quarterly contributions to Flights for Forests, based on budgeted annual flights, and so I am also asking ministries to budget for their own contributions to this scheme.  Invoices based on the budgeted amounts will be sent out quarterly from the Province Office.  By making these regular contributions, we hope we can become more conscious of the impact of our activities on the environment.

Flights for Forests currently supports projects in the Philippines, Cambodia and Timor Leste.  However, as the initiative grows the hope is to expand the number and reach of the projects that it supports.  I encourage you to also consider if there are environment projects connected to your own ministry, particularly in areas and communities that are vulnerable, that could be supported through this initiative.

Neither of these new initiatives mean that we stop looking for ways to improve our carbon footprints in the way that we undertake our ministry.  Individuals and ministries should also be considering whether travel is always essential, and whether other ways to make connections such as videoconferencing are more viable.  We should look at our use of resources, and find ways to run our works more sustainably.  And we should consider how we encourage the many people we interact with in our ministries to consider more deeply their own relationship with creation.

Along with this article for World Environment Day, we have a prayer resource that communities and ministries might use together.  While the challenges might seem insurmountable at times, we should remember that as Pope Francis said recently, for Christians “the future does have a name, and its name is Hope.”  As we build partnerships across our Province, and share ideas and initiatives on how to better manage resources and reduce our impact on the environment, I hope that we also find encouragement in the knowledge that God is with us in our efforts.

Photo credit: gc36.org

Brian McCoy, SJ is the Provincial Superior of the Australian Province of the Society of Jesus and committed the Australian Jesuits to joining the Jesuits in English Canada and Italy and with other organizations around the world in responding to the call to divest from fossil fuels.  Jesuit Communications Australia first published this reflection at the Australian Province website in a special edition of Australian Jesuit News.

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