Oct 4, 2012

Fossil Fuel Companies, "You Win!"

I'm writing this as an environmentalist who’s trying to reckon with our having lost on climate change. Something I know a lot about. I’ve spent most of the last decade studying and working in earnest on issues related to the Green Revolution and to winning the climate challenge. Recently I’ve had to give up my torchbearer status as an eco-preneur / activist / educator / etc. and return to playing music for a living. (Not a bad thing. Cover photo shows us in Santa Barbara, last month.*) All along the way, I’ve endeavored to work outside the enviro-bubble, spending a lot of time in churches, schools, retail, non-profits, and local politics. With SXSW ECO and Bill McKibben in Austin this week -- which is truly great, I feel it’s important to share a few ideas.

'nother day at the office.

From what i gather we've built ourselves an economy that can’t possibly stop burning fossil fuels. 
Congratulations fossil fuel companies. It’s official. You win. We cannot live without you. Take my money (and my planet), please. From my uncompromisingly environmentalist perspective, this means:

We cannot possibly
stop burning fossil fuels fast enough
to stop global warming. 

OK. We lost. Worse, we can't stop global warming. Extreme weather year round then, right? How extreme most of us would like to know. For reference sake, look no further than earlier this year. By August of 2012 weather professionals were declaring 2012 an extreme weather year "for the record books." It's our second such year in a row. Hmmm. Before 2011, there weren’t any years like the last two. Hmmm, that's really odd isn't it? ... Here's a short list of crazy-ass 2012 summer weather events.

The widespreadness of whacky weather lately pretty much confirms the whole global warming "thing" (theory). Those pesky climate scientists with their pesky computers and nerdy futuristic computer models have been saying for at least the last  22 years that human-forced global warming would bring more frequent extreme weather events. Noting the recent frequentness of "frequent extreme weather events" it’s pretty easy to infer that not only is global warming "on,” but that continuous extreme weather events of varying types will soon destabilize what we and (sorry for the drama) every other being on Earth know of as daily life.

Scientists say (in muted tones) and environmentalists like me say (in alarmed, tea-reading-tones) that the regular occurrence of destabilizing/radical weather events will soon crash our planet’s biological systemz. If you've ever had your phone or anything or anyone you count on crash, you know how much system crashes can suck, even when they only last a few minutes. Think about a system crash for a whole planet. (Our planet.)

Here’s an EyeWitness News Series i’d like to see: Since if we keep burning fossil fuels we will destabilize a significant portion of what is natural and normal about everyday life, and since we’re gonna keep burning fossil fuels, how do we keep burning fossil fuels AND maintain everyday, natural, normal life? How do we keep going with a fossil fuel focused economy and maintain normal life another 40 to 50 years as the green energy revolution slowly comes online?

That's the question for SXSW ECO conferencers, 2012. At last year's conference i meekly asked a number of presenters, "Shouldn't we be working together, as a greater environmental community, to put 'Ecologizing Jobs Growth' on the Obama reelection agenda?" I got nearly no response. I tried reaching out far and wide, too. Was my idea that there is no rebuilding of the American economy without a clear public eye on the future of our nation’s ecological sustainability, too big?

Surely my fellow greenies would agree that if we’re gonna put people back to work in the USA -- the #1 issue of the 2012 campaign, we’re gonna have to put 'em back to work via a jobs program that’s economically and environmentally sustainable, no matter what industry we're talking about. In fact, America needs regular assessment of the environmental impact of its industries. The Western World needs to be constantly questioning the impact of business as usual on its future.

We environmentalists need to rally around something bigger than the calls for "green jobs!" or green investments or environmental protection. We need to rally around defining our systemic view of a "sustainable, thriving American economy" and we need to do so in ways that non environmentalists will respect and understand. That’s what time it is. Americans can’t be funneling billions of $$$ into environmentally unsustainable growth. Those days are O-VER. We need to green our jobs, all jobs, in addition to the eco work we have already begun.

Anyway, I think we missed a huge opportunity last year and I hope this year’s ECO conference is more about  “what needs to be done” than “check out the latest cool new ideas and success stories / meet an eco celebrity / get a job!” Disclaimer: I thought 2011's SXSW ECO was very well put together as a conference, and full of great people. It's just that the American Natural Gas Association was having their conference in the ballroom next door, and they looked like they were going to get a lot more done.

Are we headed for Eco reboot?

For the uninitiated, let me emphasize -- experts say the only way to reboot our planet's biology is, to, you know, "give it a while." To Wait. Wait while the environment's little wheel spins and spins and spins. Nobody knows how long that'll take. Nobody has any idea how long it'll be before daily and seasonal weather stabilizes, much less how long it'll take for life as we knew it in the 20th century to return.
Global Warming? 
Yes it'll be hotter.
But the bigger problem is the
more & more whacked out weather thing. 

In that regard, Americans actually have the most to lose. As the seasons change, or stop changing, as it were, and start acting out, the world’s wealthiest middle class will carry the heaviest burden of existential moral conflict as eco disasters become more prevalent ("what do we Americans do to help the world’s poorest who suffer eco-hardship first?"). It's us Americans, the world's wealthiest middle class, who will feel the fall the hardest, too. From more expensive groceries and gasoline to the end of the notion that there's gonna be a secure retirement somewhere in your future. Most of us aren't used to being poor but we will probably learn what that feels like before long.(1) If the climate scientists' climate science projections are correct it's us vs. the weather from here on out. Crazy, right? Who will prevail? We shall see, but listen up--

Tomorrow's "biological losses" will be extinctions. Throw in warming oceans and it gets bizarre. You got the food chain breaking apart over here, the monthly weather cycle freaking out over there, global warming effects colliding and interacting and mingling and mutating and all hell breaking loose over there. Professional research scientists, whether academic- or government- or private enterprise-employed, who have run the data, double-checked their work, and double-checked their double-checked work, and studied each other's studies, and run the studies again seem by consensus to believe our planet will lose as much as HALF its biodiversity to extinctions over the next 90 years.(2) This global warming thing is bigger than you or your kid's college or whether or not the government raises taxes.


So what can YOU DO? I think we should be talking, en masse, to the fossil fuel companies, the government, and the big investors  plain and simple about "global warming's terrifying new math" and asking what level of obligation these entities feel they should provide to cover the costs of a rapidly unraveling biosphere. Let’s enviros and greenies get together and start promoting cost benefit assessments of the "corporate profit vs. ecological destruction" dichotomy, that chestnut of an arguement we all care so much about.(3) Let's start assessing the ecological impact of today's jobs and economic choices and discussing those numbers with people who aren't environmentalists. Let's do ecological impact assessments on every job or at least every industry in America.

Rather than rally around the loser demand that fossil fuel companies stop being so evil (and that they go out of business), let’s admit to ourselves that's not gonna happen. Fossil fuel companies will be what they are. And honestly, those companies are full of great people, too. Let's focus on creating new entities that will manage the ecological impacts of fossil fuels and climate change. Let's use Big Fossil Profits to solve Big Eco Problems. Let's call an Eco Congress. SXSW ECO is the perfect place to issue this call. Let’s assume that those the people who benefit the most from fossil fuel profits (this includes ourselves at a small scale) will clean up their messes and factor the costs of environmental damage into their thinking from here on out. Let's assume it and let's explain it.

Click to enlarge.

The fossil fuel companies have won
, no matter how you slice it. They'll be doing business long into the future. Time to give up believing we can move them from being the 1st or 2nd most profitable business sector in the world to total nonexistence, quickly, while simultaneously winning the day on climate change. Time to get realistic. Greenhouse Gas Emissions will keep pouring out past the point of safety, for years to come. (See my summary on that if you like). You already know why: the fossil fuel industry is 2nd only to the banking industry in global private sector wealth according to the Financial Times Global 500, 2006 thru 2011. Globally speaking the fossil fuel industry has gobs of political power, too. More effectively, they've got a big chunk of the world's future investments. Here's one example.

Since the world's investors are still signing on to profit from the future growth of the oil, gas, and coal industries, and since big, successful investors really don't like to lose, and since we’re already behind the eight ball on climate change, among other reasons, it’s time to rethink the environmental movement. SXSW ECO is a great place to start. I hope some of the conversation at least goes there. I hope our biggest challenges are properly addressed.

Your comments appreciated.


Do any environmentalists still believe their 401k is going to matter in 25 years? Will my generation ever retire?
(2) Here's one summary of the view point that we have already begun our descent into "the 6th Great Extinction" from National Geographic. Mind-bending isn't it?

(3) It's not right for corporations (or the rich) to profit from the destruction of Creation or our Biosphere. It's not right. That costs money. Certainly someone(s) should pay if it's not just a coincidence that the climate scientists' worse case scenarios are suddenly being reflected in extreme weather events all over the world.

*I play drums with Alejandro Escovedo. See a recent video of us opening for John Prine. Currently, we're on the road with Heart. 

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1 comment:

christopher searles said...

Some good discussion related to this article, via my LinkedIn posting -- http://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=67451&type=member&item=172347383&commentID=99118088&goback=.gde_67451_member_172347383&report.success=8ULbKyXO6NDvmoK7o030UNOYGZKrvdhBhypZ_w8EpQrrQI-BBjkmxwkEOwBjLE28YyDIxcyEO7_TA_giuRN#commentID_99118088

As well as on AustinEcoNetwork -- http://www.austineconetwork.com/blog/fossil-fuel-companies-you-win