There is a way to beat big oil in the fight over climate. Everyone sees that we need to stop burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels create carbon, carbon is building up in the atmosphere, and that build-up is creating global warming and climate change. So big oil and big coal need to be beaten. They need to be stopped. But many see it as impossible. It is not impossible, and I will show you how we can do it. But first, here’s some of the dominant thinking.
The arguments for revolution
My recent criticism of Naomi Klein’s book On Fire! The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal generated a lively discussion, especially with Steve Genco and Ray Katz, two of the more interesting, insightful, and thoughtful commenters on climate change on Medium. Like many climate activists, both of these writers see great forces at work that need to be dismantled to help us solve climate change. Steve Genco, for example, says:
“To lower emissions to zero by 2050 or any other arbitrary date, we must in effect have a COVID shut down every year. And that’s just not going to happen without another massive blow to growth and economic expansion. That’s why we have so far utterly failed to address an existential threat we have known about for decades. If emissions are continuing despite the damage they are inflicting, that means someone wants them to continue. And that “someone” includes every economist and industrialist who believes limitless economic growth is our birthright and destiny. Just ask the World Bank.”
For his part, Ray Katz argues:
“It’s not just petro-plutocracy. It’s also fossil fuel-powered totalitarians like Putin and Bolsanaro.
“It seems that the powerful everywhere under nearly every system owe their positions to oil and gas and coal.
“So, we need to disobey and defang the systems in the United States and China and India and Russia and U.K.”
These writers accurately see that a small number of people control the power positions, that they have those positions because of oil, and they use those positions to make planet-negative decisions that serve their personal greed. The powerful few resist climate change and use their incredible wealth and power to thwart what the planet and everyone on it needs in service of their own greediness. The view is that the oil oligarchs are in bed with the politicians because of their money, the system is corrupt, and the only way to beat big oil is to overthrow the system.
The problem, of course, is that climate change is not waiting for the overthrow of capitalism. And although there has been resistance to capitalism since it first emerged in the English countryside in the 16th century, no force or system has been sufficient to stop it. Of course, it could be different this time, but there is little that has changed to indicate such success is imminent. Quite the contrary. Even in the face of planetary destruction, capitalism marches on.
But this doesn’t mean we can’t beat big oil. The solution lies in understanding why we cannot shake fossil fuels. The answer has nothing to do with corruption and conspiracy, and everything to do with what oil has done for us.
The problem with fossil fuels — we need them
Our problem with fossil fuels is clear — we simply can’t live without what they provide. Indeed, our need for energy exposes the fundamental problem with the “leave it in the ground” mantra. We can’t start by leaving it in the ground because to start there means serious human needs cannot be met — heat, air conditioning, transportation, food production and acquisition, manufacturing, cooking, lighting, computing, and more. If you tell people that they can no longer use oil or gas or electricity from coal, you can watch the anxiety rise on their faces. I live in Wisconsin — how will I heat my home? I live in the south, where will the air conditioning come from? I have a 40-mile commute to work — how will I get there? Will there be food on the shelves, or will this be like COVID?
You see, it becomes very personal and immediate. The problem for those of us who see the corruption of the big oil companies is that we have no answer to these questions from real people who the oil companies provide answers for. Without an alternative source of energy in place, “leaving the oil in the ground” provokes a perceived existential crisis. People perceive that their existence is at stake. If there is one sure way to provoke social and political opposition, it is by threatening people’s immediate survival.
The obvious answer
What’s needed, then, should be obvious: better alternatives for meeting those needs. If we want to solve climate change, let’s get the alternatives in place! When there is a better way — i.e., cheaper, cleaner, and more effective way — there won’t even be a fight over adopting the technologies anymore. Individuals and businesses will simply adopt them of their own accord. When people adopt products that don’t use or burn fossil fuels on a mass scale, we can actually start to leave the fossil fuels in the ground.
This, my friends, is how to beat big oil. You wipe out the market for their product.
If you have an electric vehicle, you can meet your transportation needs without buying gasoline or engine oil. If you heat and cool your home with a heat pump, you no longer need natural gas, propane, or home heating oil. If you farm with electric machinery and deliver products with electric trucks, you no longer need to buy diesel fuel. And if you then source your electricity from renewables, whether home-based, business-based, or utility-based, you ensure that your provider of electric energy does not need to buy fossil fuels either.
And guess what happens when people stop buying fossil fuels? You beat big oil. The market collapses. There is no reason to pump it anymore.
How do we know? Look what happened when people suddenly stopped buying petroleum-based fuels at the start of COVID. The market did not just collapse, it was inverted. Remember? The price of oil went as low as negative $38 a barrel. Oil companies were paying anyone who could take it $38 a barrel to take it off their hands! It could not be sold. Companies with a product that no one wants and no one needs suddenly have no power. So that, my friends, is how we beat big oil.
But how do we get there?
We make oil and all fossil fuels irrelevant by eliminating the need to burn them, and we do that by providing alternative methods of meeting people’s legitimate needs for heat, air conditioning, transportation, food production and acquisition, manufacturing, cooking, lighting, computing and the other necessities of life. We also do that by providing alternative methods of meeting the legitimate needs of businesses that manufacture things people want and need. Same for churches, schools, farms, government, NGOs, and the like.
This is why technological development is so critical to climate change success. It is not to fulfill a vision of a techno-utopia. Rather, technology provides ways to meet real needs without fossil fuels and to meet those needs better and cheaper. Here are a few examples:
Transportation needs can be met with EVs, but ranges need to improve, as do charging times. When EVS can go farther without stopping than ICE vehicles, and when their charge times come down to near that of a gas tank fill-up, the gasoline market will dry up in a hurry.
All appliances that can be improved in electric efficiency reduce the total amount of electricity needed to be generated, and therefore hasten the demise of fossil fuel-powered electric generation plants. Appliance efficiency is essential.
Until recently, the best solar panels were about 23% efficient in converting sunlight to electricity. A new material was recently invented that raises that number to 29% without becoming too expensive. But 29% is a very long way from 100%, so there is an enormous opportunity to improve, and every improvement replaces fossil fuel generation.
An ongoing argument supporting fossil fuels is that other than geothermal, most renewable energy is intermittent, and that requires storing the electricity generated in some way. The better our storage technologies, especially batteries, the more fossil fuels are displaced in society.
Better than revolution, count on human nature
This brings me back to Klein, Genco, Katz, and other advocates who keep pushing against the current capitalist structures, and especially against the corruption and control of fossil fuel companies. An economic-political revolution would certainly hasten the downfall of capitalism, and depending on who came out on top, it might even improve our chances against climate change. But no revolution can guarantee its own outcome, and way too many revolutionaries have found over the centuries that their revolutions get hijacked. That’s just a fact of history. I might favor such a revolution, but I certainly would not count on it — not, at least, as a solution to the urgent problem of climate change.
On the other hand, we can count on human nature. People will obtain the necessities of life in the least expensive, most effective, most secure way possible from their point of view. Give people a less expensive way to meet their basic needs without using fossil fuels, and they will use it. And they won’t buy fossil fuels they don’t need.
Hence, the strategy to beat big oil is the development of technologies that meet these needs. Participating in that strategy through one’s employed work is the single biggest contribution anyone can make. After that, it is adopting all of the anti-fossil fuel technologies and methods in our homes, businesses, or organizations that we can.
In other words, we can beat fossil fuel companies by taking away their market. We can beat them by enabling everyone to improve their own lives with better products and better solutions that don’t use fossil fuels. We can beat them by enabling businesses and organizations to do the same. And we can beat them by adopting these technologies in our own lives.
Political work to change the economy and political structures of society to disempower big oil may help, but given their economic and financial horsepower, there is no guarantee that a revolution would, in fact, disempower big oil. But eliminate the market for their product, and big oil has no power at all — guaranteed.
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Speculations on Postcapitalism: How Digitalization Is Disrupting Everything We Know About Modern Civilization
The Great Mechanism: The Power Behind the Relentless Juggernaut of Western Capitalism
Consent Is Not Enough: What Men Need to Know in a #Metoo World
Call to Liberty: Bridging the Divide Between Liberals and Conservatives
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Thank you for this. Just to be clear, although I am active on my particular approach, I favor a multiplicity of approaches—including yours. That is because we don’t know in advance what will work...or what will work fastest. Personally, I do not own a car. I am getting a heat pump for my home and I’m planning to move into a new place—half the size of my current one—in the next two years. But reducing my personal carbon footprint is, I believe, still just a token effort. That said, let’s go for it and try everything!