Friday, July 27, 2012

A changed perspective on fossil fuel companies.

In the past, I’ve looked at the manic search for, and voracious lust over new finds of fossil fuels as if the companies were drug dealers, eager to feed our addiction and with cynical disregard for the consequences. Unfussed whether the prey lives or dies, the pusher is disdainful, possibly contemptuous about the addict's weakness – there’ll always be new markets to feed.

Company as addict?
However this morning I idly wondered what happens if you look at fossil fuel companies as the drug addict, instead of the dealer/pusher. Locked into a spiral of habit and dependence, and not knowing quite how to change. Not having the courage, nor the will, nor the need.

When we’re feeling guilty about our behaviour (even if only in a very small way), or if we're demonised, we can become defensive, abrupt and lash out at any critics. We justify the unjustifiable. We see this with addicts of various persuasions. It also seems to fit the behaviour of some companies.


Us versus them scenarios (such as fossil fuel companies versus environmentalists) aren’t particularly helpful and tend to paint people simplistically and without the nuances and complexities that are more real. When we're polarised we're less able to find common ground. When we’re in a corner, with our back against the wall, we’ll fight. That’s normal and to be expected, not only of people, but I suspect, companies too. But it's not helpful. Not helpful for us. Not helpful for our future.

If it's too good to be true, it's too good to be true
Imagine for a moment that the fossil fuel companies and their entourages have unleashed the equivalent of a destructive genie from a bottle. After a 100 or so years, they’ve discovered that what appeared at first to be an extraordinarily welcome product, of the “WOW, look what we can do with this, it’s too good to be true!” variety, has now been found to be too good to be true. This wonder product is part of a package that has morphed into something truly sinister and frightening. A poisoned chalice if you will.

But they didn't know, they're disbelieving and don't want to know that the amazing wonder product could be harmful. Like a drug addict, they seem to be stuck in a pattern of behaviour and dependence that has been habituated over the years.  Change is hard. But demand and support for change is necessary. (Of course it would have been incredibly sensible to become energy companies with a broad product base years ago, rather than relying completely on fossil fuels, but that opens up a different set of issues.) 

Profit with no responsibility for waste
With profits of $375 Million per day, it'd be good to know these companies were paying a fair price to dump their waste the same as everyone else. "Alone among businesses, the fossil-fuel industry is allowed to dump its main waste, carbon dioxide, for free. Nobody else gets that break - if you own a restaurant, you have to pay someone to cart away your trash, since piling it in the street would breed rats." (Global Warming's Terrifying New Math)

Fossil fuel companies appear shifty, arrogant, brutish, uncaring and aggressive when presented with the destructive results of their product. Unlike the child who is called to account for poor behaviour, or the drug addict who realises their life will come to an abrupt end if they continue their chosen path, they've collectively and consistently avoided responsibility - and got away with it. They don't know any other reality ... yet.

To get an idea of where the profits go, Climate Progress is a good place to start. "The entire oil and gas industry spent on average $400,000 each day lobbying senators and representatives to weaken public health safeguards and keep big oil tax breaks, totaling nearly $150 million." (my bold)

A community response?
Perhaps we, as individuals and communities, have a collective interest in supporting change, because no one else seems willing to take up the challenge. I find it impossible to imagine that all fossil fuel companies and their hundreds of thousands of individual employees, their families, friends and communities are proud of what they’ve unleashed. But they haven't spoken out. When will they?

Many employees must feel uncomfortable with the outcome of repeated carelessness; oil spills, unbelievable environmental damage, cruel disregard for native populations. At what stage will these people say “No more”? At what stage will subscribers to superannuation and other funds, both individually and collectively, demand their fund managers act with integrity and invest the funds with a view to a sustainable future?

As Bill McKibben says in Global Warming's Terrifying New Math
international moral outrage and pressure might just help begin a new movement to force change on an industry unwilling to change itself. Movements rarely have predictable outcomes. But any campaign that weakens the fossil-fuel industry's political standing clearly increases the chances of retiring its special breaks. Consider President Obama's signal achievement in the climate fight, the large increase he won in mileage requirements for cars. Scientists, environmentalists and engineers had advocated such policies for decades, but until Detroit came under severe financial pressure, it was politically powerful enough to fend them off. If people come to understand the cold, mathematical truth – that the fossil-fuel industry is systematically undermining the planet's physical systems – it might weaken it enough to matter politically. Exxon and their ilk might drop their opposition to a fee-and-dividend solution; they might even decide to become true energy companies, this time for real. 

Photos D.Abbott. SA
Let's hope change happens soon, because the alternative isn't encouraging.

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