Op-Ed, 580 words

My Oily Heirloom

Divesting from fossil fuels required breaking a family tradition.


I’ll feel empowered when ExxonMobil convenes its upcoming annual shareholders meeting. Oddly, that’s because I’ve sold all my stock in the company.

Shareholders like me and some major institutions, including New York State’s $178 billion pension fund, have urged the oil giant to change its business model for years. But the company shows no sign of listening.

Divesting my shares lifted a great burden. I’m both a direct descendent of one of the corporation’s early executives and an architect devoted to green building practices.

My great-great grandfather Lauren J. Drake was a classic American success story. He started out as a clerk in a small store before becoming a railroad conductor and what the Chicago Tribune called a “roustabout wrestling barrels of oil” in Keokuk, Iowa. In his 1918 obituary, the newspaper said he served as “a confidant and business adviser of John D. Rockefeller” and “the other great petroleum wizards.”


(Photo: Thomas Hawk / Flickr)

At the height of his career, my forebear led both Standard Oil of Indiana (which later became Amoco, then part of BP), and then Standard Oil of New Jersey. That firm became Esso, then Exxon. It’s now ExxonMobil, one of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies.

The Standard Oil stock my great-great grandfather bequeathed to his survivors appreciated tremendously for a century. Shares were handed down — at deaths, marriages, and births. We all benefited from this legacy. Indeed, those assets financed most of my education.

But I chose a different path.

I became an educator on environmentally responsible architecture. My home is run on a mix of vegetable oil, solar panels, and other renewable sources, and I drive the first Prius sold in Connecticut. Yet I hung onto my Exxon stock, figuring it was better to seek change from within.

I wrote letters to Exxon’s management team and consistently cast shareholder votes for greater transparency, better governance, and corporate environmental and social responsibility — such as addressing climate change.

Just like some descendants of Standard Oil founder Rockefeller himself, I saw little change after years of advocacy. Once revelations surfaced of the degree to which ExxonMobil suppressed its own evidence regarding the industry’s global-warming potential, it hit me:

What am I doing?

I can be thankful for what my forebears provided me. But if that gift undermines my family and our planet’s very future, now is the time to change course.

I sold all the shares belonging to my immediate family late last year. I’m now reinvesting that money into greener things, including small-scale hydropower at my home in an 18th-century grist mill.

With virtuous irony, the education paid for by the company that became ExxonMobil encouraged me to think, challenge, and discover. This source of wealth helped me become a discerning, rational person — and when necessary, an activist.

My great-great grandfather felt an obligation to ensure the well-being of his family’s next generations, so he left us valuable assets. One of my biggest family obligations is ensuring the well-being of future generations on a stable, fertile, and healthy planet.

I’m not trying to vilify my great-great grandfather for what ExxonMobil has done. But we can blame the people and companies who are now recklessly and knowingly ignoring our common peril. Whatever brings on your own epiphany, I hope you’ll see that it’s time to divest from fossil fuels and invest in a climate-friendly future.

Lindsay Suter, AIA, LEED AP is an architect practicing sustainable design who guest lectures at Yale University and other schools. A supporter of the Divest-Invest movement, he lives in North Branford, Connecticut. DivestInvest.org
Distributed by OtherWords.org

  • Jack Wolf

    Thank you. I divested over 10 years ago when I realized that fossil fuel driven climate change was irreversible. Oddly enough, even with a heavy env. science background, I hadn’t realized the affect of CO2’s long lived nature on the system. Or, maybe until that point, I had assumed that since our government obviously knew about the dangers, they must be doing something. (Boy was I wrong!) Regardless of why the light bulb went off, it did. And now I strive to alert others. Best of luck to you, young man, cause we are going to need it.

  • Nathalie

    Glad all that wealth didn’t corrupt him. However Standard Oil is the reason we have wars in the middle east so I’m not sure how selling his shares and going green is really helping all those millions killed in the middle east. Maybe he could speak up on behalf of the refugees fleeing the ME cause all the oil companies are salivating to get their pipelines built from a divided ME.

    • ESGreco

      Lindsay is sharing his story after selling his shares and deciding to replace them with assets that contribute to climate solutions because he wants to encourage others to do the same thing.

  • Kenneth Weiss


  • Alex Waldman

    yea dude, applaud your divestment, but you have the power to make much more change by exposing the inner dealings of the company (and its operatives). If I were you I’d realize that spending my money on my own fun eco-architecture projects at my home is superficial and I wouldn’t feel redeemed until they’re in jail, which I’d devote the rest of my life to making happen. Just saying.

    • hfmcm

      Did you not read what the man said? He doesn’t work for Exxon and never did. Why would you think that this shareholder would have any more knowledge of “the inner dealings of the company” than any other Exxon shareholder, when he is not even in the oil business? The whole point of his message is that shareholders don’t have power.

      • Alex Waldman

        i did read it. I would assume that someone who grew up in a family of (major?) shareholders going back generations would know something the general public doesn’t, and want to make right on all the damage the money his family enjoyed came from. But you are correct that its wrong to assume this. Lindsay, what do you think?

        • hfmcm

          I honestly think that’s highly unlikely. These aren’t family-owned corporations.

        • Michelle Stirling

          Right. 80,000 employees, many in highly specialized fields. What do you think, he’s psychic? Please.

  • davoyager

    It is long past time for people directly affected by the human caused climate change of global warming to begin law suits against ExxonMobil and others in in this industry who can be proved to have known of the consequences of their actions over these past several decades. The vast wealth of the oil industry is insufficient to undo the damage it has done but only by removing that wealth can these corporate titans be stopped.

  • Michelle Stirling

    Maybe you will study a little geology. Once you have a glimpse of the 600 million years of earth’s history that the Exxon geologists have, you’ll be sorry you sold. The world runs on fossil fuels – 3 cubic miles of them 1 cubic mile is OIL. Only 0.01 is wind and solar.

    • loretta (Gsquared)

      Oil/fossil fuels are a finite resource.

      • Michelle Stirling

        Yes – or so we thought. Seems we keep making more finds. But so what? What is the replacement? The magic solution?

        • loretta (Gsquared)

          That’s just it–there is no “magic solution”.
          There is a combination of things that are a solution–which poses a problem for those incapable of holding more than one thought at a time.
          And no–fossil fuels ARE a finite resource. There are no more dinosaurs available to brew more.

          • Michelle Stirling

            Then why are we wasting this precious resource on building wind farms and solar farms that use so much energy inputs for so little energy return and that need to be wastefully backed up 100% of the time by fossil fuels (unless one happens to have nuke or hydro around).

          • loretta (Gsquared)

            What is your source for those claims, please?
            Your fossil fuels perspectus?
            PS–your clumsy pivot away from the lack of any dinosaurs available for brewing more fossil fuels is noted.

          • Mobius Loop

            We are in a transitory phase of switching to new technologies. Your statement makes no allowance for the emergence of new technologies and in particular the emergence of new energy storage technologies.

            You ask why invest in these types of alternative energy technologies?

            The American Physical Society provides a starkly clear answer to that question:

            “The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.”

  • JR2020

    Without fossil fuels the world would be a much poorer, meaner place where people would be living much shorter, nastier lives. With the wealth he gained, largely thanks to the availability of cheap energy, the author of this article would likely be unable to afford his fancy, no doubt very pricey, new fossil-fuel-free, solar and vegetable oil powered home. He’d be living much nearer the edge, assuming he were alive at all.

    There is no reliable scientific evidence that human contributions to global warming are causing a crisis that justifies anywhere near the level of hysteria we’re seeing. To the contrary, the best scientific evidence we have, ie. actual measurements, show that the climate is much less sensitive to the recent rise in atmospheric CO2 than predicted by the hysteria inducing theory employed in climate models.