On a lovely spring day, Earth Day, we drove forty minutes from our home in Chester, one of the poorest cities in Pennsylvania, to the headquarters of Vanguard, a company that manages more than $7 trillion in financial assets. In the lovely blooming semi-rural areas we passed through on our way to Vanguard’s headquarters, the idea of catastrophic climate change seemed remote. Yet Chester, one of the poorest cities in Pennsylvania, is the location of one of the two largest incinerators in the U.S. Run by Covanta and financed by Vanguard investments, this massive incinerator, the dirtiest in the country, burns trash trucked in from numerous cities and states up and down the East Coast. In the past, Covanta has found it easier to pay fines for violating the law rather than to install all the legally required filters. They pump toxins such as lead, mercury, and arsenic into air over the city, where rates of asthma, heart disease and cancer are high, diseases with a known connection to breathing toxic particulate matter.
My husband and I are concerned not only about this dangerous pollution where we live, but also about the environmental racism involved in locating such an incinerator in a poor city that is 70% black. And more than that, we are seeking and praying to find our role in facing the challenges that threaten all life on Earth. How does God want us to live and act in this time of climate crisis? How can we help transform a culture that is headed toward disaster?
So we traveled to the Vanguard headquarters in lovely Malvern, PA, a place of multi-million-dollar homes, and joined 150 other people for an inter-faith demonstration to plead with the company to use its enormous financial power to help turn around the climate disaster being fueled by their support of the fossil fuel industry and other dangerous investments. The event was organized by Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT). Many in attendance were Quakers, but there were also significant contingents from other faith-based groups, including POWER, a grassroots coalition of over 50 congregations committed to racial and economic justice on a livable planet, and Dayenu, a movement of American Jews “confronting the climate crisis with spiritual audacity and bold political action.” Many of those who gathered at the entrance to Vanguard’s headquarters had participated in a five-day walk that began on Monday at the Covanta incinerator in Chester. On Wednesday afternoon there had been an interfaith Passover “street Seder” in front of a local Chase bank branch, demanding a sustainable and thriving future for all of creation. Chase Bank is one of the world’s largest funders of fossil fuels, and Vanguard is Chase’s largest investor. The street Seder, focused on confronting the “Carbon Pharaohs” who fund climate change, was coordinated by a coalition including Exodus Alliance, Dayenu, Jewish Youth Climate Movement, and Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light. The Earth and Justice Freedom-Seder text they used was written by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center, who participated in the event. A total of 300 people took part in the walk or in one of the demonstrations during the week.
On Friday morning the crowd who gathered in front of Vanguard’s headquarters ranged from toddlers to elders, including parents with small children, all of us united in our concern for the future of this planet. The government of our country is not adequately admitting or addressing the extent of the climate crisis that’s unraveling Eco-systems on which all life on this planet depends. The interfaith groups that joined in this week-long walk of witness and protest are hoping to mobilize people of faith to address the biggest challenge of our time and transform the powerful financial investors who are currently propping up the fossil fuel industry, an industry which for decades has not only been spreading misinformation about the causes of the climate change in which they are playing a calamitous role but also blocking the necessary shift to sustainable forms of energy that could create a hopeful future for all.
Because this demonstration was based in faith, it recognized that the CEO and employees of Vanguard are people with children and grandchildren, people who also have a desire for a livable planet. The demonstration included not curses, but prayers and blessings for the wise management of the huge financial power that Vanguard wields.
My husband and I were very moved by the speech of a 19-year old Philadelphia college student, who told us that when she won an award in high school, she invested the money in Vanguard, for her retirement. With a microphone in hand, she asked Vanguard, what kind of world will we have when it’s time for her to retire? She pointed out that the investment giant should be protecting her future retirement and investing only in companies and projects that lead to a sustainable future, rather than investing in the continued destruction of systems of life. She has helped start a chapter of Dayenu on her campus to engage other students in faith-based climate action.
A similar demonstration was held the same day at the European headquarters of Vanguard, in London. And on the day before, a coalition of groups around the world had united in a campaign called “Vanguard S.O.S.” Vanguard’s founder, John Bogle, named the company after the HMS Vanguard, a 74-gun ship of the eighteenth century that was involved in a decisive battle against the French in 1798. Until very recently, an image of the ship was used as a logo for Vanguard. The new climate campaign “Vanguard S.O.S.” is an appeal to the financial giant to Save Our Ship, in this case the life systems of planet Earth, which are sinking in the rising waters of climate change.
On April 20th, Reclaim Finance, an international group that highlights the link between finance and climate change, issued its annual scorecard of companies that manage investments. Out of 30 major asset managers, Vanguard received the lowest score on their climate commitments and was at the bottom of the list. Lara Cuvellier, at Reclaim Finance, says that “Vanguard is one of the top two investors in companies developing new coal projects and holds $130 billion in the 12 biggest oil and gas expansionists, and there is not a single policy in sight from Vanguard to restrict investments in fossil fuel expansion or even use its shareholder voting power to hold the world’s biggest polluters accountable.”
Bill McKibben, author and founder of 350.org and Third Act, says that, “Vanguard is the quintessential example of an institution that could be doing so much good for the world, and is instead sticking to a business-as-usual mode that is ending in tragedy for the planet and its people. … Imagine how blinkered you’d have to be to be earth’s second-biggest asset manager and not using that power to help ward off the greatest emergency humans have ever faced. It’s tragic, but it’s also maddening — and that anger will propel action as people demand accountability.”
In response to the pressure and publicity targeting Vanguard, the day before Earth Day the company had issued a statement expressing its concern about climate change. Speakers at the demonstration in Malvern applauded Vanguard’s tiny initial step of recognizing the problem, but noted that making announcements or creating a special fund for sensitive investors has no impact at all if the overall funding actions of the company do not change. What is needed is for Vanguard and other giant investment companies, as well as the banks they fund, to set environmental standards for the companies in which they invest and refuse to fund projects that are environmentally destructive and contribute to further climate change. Choosing a life-affirming course may, in the short term, cause their profits to decrease. In the long term, however, none of their investors will have a good return on their investments if Vanguard does not turn around their ship and steer in the direction of keeping the planet livable.
The Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) worked hard and long to organize this week of walks, talks, actions, and demonstrations. They were led by a team now seasoned by years of strategic and creative non-violent direct action campaigns against large companies invested in extreme extraction methods and dirty energy. The current campaign director of EQAT, Eileen Flanagan, is the author of Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope, which describes EQAT’s successful non-violent direct-action campaign to get PNC Bank to stop investing in blowing up mountain tops to extract coal. “Whether we are living on the front lines of air pollution, students concerned about our future, or Vanguard customers concerned about the wisdom of these investments, we all have a stake in correcting Vanguard’s destructive course,” Flanagan says.
Many people who participated in the demonstration at Vanguard headquarters in Malvern, PA have investments with Vanguard. EQAT encourages those who have such investments to hold onto them and to use their leverage as shareholders to help change Vanguard’s policies. There are a variety of ways to support EQAT’s work and the ongoing Vanguard S.O.S. campaign. Flanagan teaches in her writing and online courses that there are many roles that people need to play to collectively transform consciousness and culture, and to work for a livable planet. In this time of peril and change, each of us is called to listen to the inward guide and find the roles and actions to which we are called in working with the Spirit for a hopeful future.
Earth Day S.O.S.: How is the Spirit calling, leading, or nudging you to help change consciousness and culture, or to live, serve, or witness for a sustainable life on Earth?
© 2022 Marcelle Martin
* * * * *
Marcelle Martin, the author of Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey, and A Guide to Faithfulness Groups, is a core teacher of the upcoming 9-month in-person and online faith and leadership program, Nurturing Faithfulness. Co-sponsored by New England Yearly Meeting (Quakers), the program starts Sept. 2022 at Woolman Hill retreat center. Information can be found here or through the New England Yearly Meeting website. Here’s a video in which the core teachers, Marcelle Martin and Hilary Burgin, speak about the upcoming 2022-2023 program. In this video prior participants speak about their experience.