Challenging ‘Fossil Fuels Forever’

There is a disconnect between ever more alarming scientific projections of anthropogenic climate disruption and the contrasting conservatism of mainstream ‘business as usual’ political discourse. This wholly irrational future is the focus of our new book Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction (Cambridge University Press, 2015). It is a disjuncture that makes imagining economic, let alone social or environmental futures a somewhat bizarre enterprise. Nevertheless, let’s consider the conventional view of our future world as presented by mainstream business and political commentators.

Perhaps the dominant view of our imagined future is the optimistic techno-utopia popularised in twentieth century culture and the media. This is an image of the future founded in optimism for human ingenuity and civilizational progress. In this view, capitalism’s innovative genius will craft solutions to environmental and social problems as and when they arise. Technology and markets will avert risks and crises (like climate change, terrorism, geopolitical instability etc) and more and more of the world’s population will enjoy a more prosperous and sustainable existence.

This is the imagined future we’ve grown up to expect and it is one that even finds favour amongst those who acknowledge the environmental limits we now face. So for instance, ‘ecological modernists’ emphasise the possibilities of a ‘Good Anthropocene’ in which humans manipulate the environment to suit an ever-distending population. As one proponent asserts: ‘The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems. In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.’

However, such a view stands in marked contrast to the environmental crisis we now face, which suggests a very different future. Worst-case scenarios paint an ‘unimaginable’ vision of large tracts of the Earth rendered uninhabitable, the collapse of global food production, the acidification of the oceans, substantial sea-level rises and storms and droughts of growing intensity – a literal hell on Earth.

Despite the growing realisation that we now face an existential threat of unimaginable scale, political and corporate elites have doubled down on our fossil fuel bet. In our book we term this phenomenon ‘creative self-destruction’; a process in which businesses are devouring the very life-support systems of a habitable environment. So, companies are inventing ever more imaginative ways to extract fossil fuels; from the Canadian tar sands, to the “fracking” of shale and coal-seam gas in the US, Europe and Australia, to the drilling of oil in previously inaccessible ocean depths or the rapidly melting Arctic – there seems no limit to our inventiveness in maintaining the imaginary that we can exploit ‘fossil fuels forever’.

Political myths

We argue that the maintenance of ‘business as usual’ in the face of environmental breakdown involves corporations and governments promoting political myths which provide justifications for the continuation of ‘creative self-destruction’.

These include the myth of corporate environmentalism which promotes the idea that improving shareholder value is also good for the environment; that we can ‘do well by doing good’. So, in relation to climate change, corporate environmentalism argues that business corporations are the actors best placed to respond through innovation and new technologies. This includes developing new sources of energy, ‘cleaner coal’, improved energy efficiency, or promoting new ‘green’ products and services.

Corporate environmentalism also provides significance to our experiences and activities in the expansion of consumer capitalism. At an extreme such actions simply degenerate into ‘greenwashing’ – Don’t worry about global warming, so long as you have the right clothes!

A related theme here is the myth of corporate citizenship. Here, companies present themselves as role-models embodying innovative capabilities which will ensure the well-being of present and future generations. So for instance, oil giant Chevron proclaims: ‘Yes, we are an oil company, but right now we’re also providing natural gas, solar, hydrogen, geothermal, because we live on this planet too.’ Corporate citizenship thus personifies the corporation as a concerned and responsible citizen – worried about future generations and eagerly finding solutions. This enables corporations to play an increasingly central role in political campaigns through which they can shape legislative outcomes. Witness for instance Peabody Energy’s marketing of coal as a response to “energy poverty” in the developing world and the tagline now promoted by our politicians that ‘coal is good for humanity’.

Finally, there is the political myth of corporate omnipotence. In this view, climate change as a problem can only be solved through corporate and market expertise. Corporate solutions thereby become the only possible solutions and regulatory actions are directed towards privatization and marketisation. For example, the pricing of so-called ‘externalities’ like greenhouse gas emissions allows climate change to be commodified into measureable and tradable ‘carbons’.

Alternative narratives

One obvious response in times of past crisis has been dramatic government intervention via mandatory regulation. Of course in the age of neoliberalism, state intervention and government regulation are seen as unthinkable. But it is also clear that as the climate crisis worsens, governments will respond – as was evident this year when US President Barack Obama outlined new regulations on emissions reduction for coal-fired power plants. These regulations don’t go nearly far enough but they are a start and perhaps a sign of things to come.

Secondly, despite the limits of voluntary corporate responses to the climate crisis, innovation in renewable energy technology linked to government regulation could help wean us off our fossil fuel addiction. So the example of Tesla and battery storage is a sign of this potential energy transformation, where the cost of renewable energy technologies are now challenging established (and highly subsidised) fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas.

Of course most of the progressive social changes we have seen over the last two hundred years were underpinned by strong social movements for change. This is probably the most uplifting aspect of the climate crisis we are now witnessing. Examples include massive protest marches for climate action as was evident in New York City last year when 400,000 people came out onto the streets of Manhattan. It is evident in the environmental battles against the new mega-coal mines in Queensland’s Galilee Basin which threaten the future of the Great Barrier Reef, and the fight against CSG fracking and deepwater and Arctic oil drilling.

Beyond protests it is also finding voice in the rapidly growing fossil fuel divestment movement which is gaining the backing of universities, churches, and local governments. As a result of these action, financial analysts are asking increasingly pointed questions of oil majors like ExxonMobil, Shell and BP about the potential for their fossil fuel reserves to become ‘stranded assets’! However, there also exists the real possibility of coercive state/corporate reactions as the battles over fossil fuels grow. Indeed, we are seeing this in the growing securitization of the state around information technology, refugee flows and civil disobedience over fossil fuel extraction.

Assumptions of unending growth, prosperity and mastery over the natural world underpin our fossil fuels forever imaginary. Unfortunately, until this changes, the dominance of corporate capitalism will ensure the continued decline of our once-bountiful and habitable planet. As we conclude in our book, changing this world-view is perhaps the most profound challenge we face in responding to the climate crisis and building a more viable future.

This is based on a presentation to the NSW Greens Reboot Future 2015 Conference, published in the Summer 2015 edition of GreenMail.

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