By Michael Hoexter
350.org’s “Do the Math” educational campaign and documentary film points out a crucial fact for our time: that most of the known reserves, the assets of the fossil fuel industry, must remain in the ground untapped, for the climate to remain something remotely like what we have known throughout the history of civilization. Civilization requires agriculture, which is dependent on a few sensitive species to produce a surplus of food for masses of people with comparatively lower levels of labor or mechanical work. If we make the climate inhospitable to these species, as well as to ourselves, via fossil fuel use and degradation of the carbon buffering capacity of the environment, we will make it vanishingly likely that our own success as a species will continue.
Another 350.org initiative for summer 2013 in the US, one of the centers of the worldwide fossil fuel industry, “Summer Heat”, is attempting to build a movement that draws the connection between climate change and keeping fossil fuels in the ground and pushing this connection into public awareness and onto the political agenda of ruling elites. “Summer Heat” will attempt to build a framework of common meaning around a series of movements against the more desperate, “unconventional” fossil fuel extraction practices that exact a more obvious toll on their points of extraction than the “easy” fossil fuel extraction of the days of oil gushers and natural gas driven upwards through vertical boreholes by underground pressure. These movements are for the most part geographically distributed and sometimes have different points of entry into their opposition to the new and more violent extraction methods of the fossil fuel industry.
The growing fight against the Keystone XL pipeline points out the much higher chances of damage to local environments from the more corrosive tar sands-derived heavy oil/bitumen in transit in the pipeline as well as the obvious open sore of the tar sands mining efforts in Alberta, Canada. The refining of tar sands is a process that is dirtier and has a higher chance of corrosion damage to facilities than conventional oil and leaves behind petroleum coke, a dirty form of coal.
Hydraulic fracturing or fracking does not leave such large open scars as tar sands extraction but instead creates a more widely dispersed patchwork of drilling sites and laces toxic chemicals and methane/natural gas into the water table in densely populated and highly productive agricultural lands. Fracking is a technique that can be used to extract “tight” and heavy oils trapped in rock formations, as well as the now more common fracking for shale gas.
In West Virginia, mountaintop removal mining, radically alters the Appalachian landscape to extract coal and has stirred some resistance. Other techniques, considered less controversial perhaps simply because they are older or occur in remote locations, are strip mining of coal in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, which also leaves large open sores in the land, or deep water drilling, which with Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 showed how damaging it can be to an entire ecosystem. These unconventional fuels and techniques have for the most part higher carbon emissions per unit usable energy both from the more energy intensive process of their extraction and refining as well as accidental emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas in fracking for gas.
Those fossil fuel extraction processes that have attracted opposition by social movements have gained energy because of the dramatic destruction or poisoning of various landscapes that have taken place because of these newer, more invasive, more energy-intensive “unconventional” fossil fuel extraction techniques. If we were truly rational beings, we might, at this point in history, be almost as upset about the conventional “easy” forms of fossil fuel extraction and combustion as we are about the fossil fuel industry physically altering the landscape or its viability to get at fossil fuels. It has been difficult to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis via the abstraction of carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, so the visual aids as well as immediate dangers of local toxins from fossil fuel extraction and refining help add urgency.
A Perception Problem
While the destruction of landscapes and the injection of known toxins into drinking water and the ground provide an additional spur to action, there are dangers that the public by observing this movement from afar and through the lens of the mass media will not quite get the problem of the invisible, insensible injection of more carbon into the atmosphere and oceans. These “local” pollutants can easily get filed by the public into a couple of familiar mental categories that will allow people to evade further thinking on this matter:
1) conventional pollution: poisons and impurities which provoke fear and avoidance
2) a mental category “environmentalist”, meaning someone who is perceived as hypersensitive to and exaggerating the dangers of poisons and impurities or can afford to do so because of relative wealth and privilege. Alternatively an environmentalist can sometimes be thought to harbor an unrealistically high standard or vision of a how society should function in relationship to nature, which may in fact be the case with some environmentalists.
3) the focus on the local effects of unconventional fossil fuels can lead to a political focus on “cleaning up” the extraction of fossil fuels rather than stopping their extraction. The call for “best practices” will appeal to “serious” people and obscure the call to end the practices of relying on fossil fuels altogether.
I contend that even members of the climate movement can get caught up in political positions that are indistinguishable from conventional environmental positions when it comes to the toxics produced by the fossil fuel industry that have primarily local effects.
There is then a critical “and” that must be present in the messaging and appeals of the climate movement when confronted with a demand, for instance, for clean up of oil spills or reducing methane leaks from fracking wells, otherwise the message of transitioning off fossil fuels gets lost. The movement may, perhaps gleefully, in accumulating the list of “bads” associated with the target of their protests and actions, not realize that they can be shunted into a narrowed role that doesn’t address the climate change that affects everyone. I am active in a group in the Bay Area that is affiliated with 350.org that has among others different groups that are opposed to hydro-fracking as well as to tar sands development and the Keystone XL pipeline. We are currently hammering out a coherent message out of a diverse list of demands for an August 3rd event at the largest Bay Area oil refinery in Richmond, CA Just the complexity of each of these issues and the variety of possible demands that can be raised against them, all of them in some way worthy, may lead to the movement’s energy being temporarily sidelined into one or the other “reforms” of fossil fuel extraction techniques.
The “and” is critically important also because it also implicates everybody who uses or enjoys products made with the help of fossil fuels in the massive project of transforming our societies and economies before it is too late. By dwelling on local pollution, the full moral impact of the climate crisis is dampened and directed away from personal engagement in political and economic action.
Furthermore, the technical complexity of some of these issues also presents the possibility that the movement itself becomes too “technical” in its language and approach to the politics to appeal the broad swaths of the population that know somewhere that we need to change our energy system. I have a proposition that this movement should adopt as a conceptual and rhetorical option a still more emotive and simplified language to describe the overall direction of climate activism as regards the rise of unconventional fossil fuel extraction and the opportunity it represents to educate the public.
Desperate Destruction to Feed a Brief “Party”
I am proposing that the climate movement, which will only grow in the future, is in a stage right now where we are a movement “against ripping the face off the earth for a brief fossil fueled party”. The metaphor of “ripping his face off” is most current in our language because of the language of Wall Street traders. In the frat-boy language of securities traders, “ripping his face off” is a boast that they had taken advantage of counterparties in various trades, sometimes in the case of trading divisions attached to investment banks, these counterparties would be clients of the bank that employed these traders. The glee bordering upon psychopathy at humiliating others expressed in this language is worth commenting on in itself but the metaphor seems to resonate in a different way and context to the current strategy of the fossil fuel industry.
Unconventional fossil fuel extraction techniques are almost literally “ripping the face off” the earth to get at the fossil fuel resources that we supposedly “need” for our society to function but that fossil fuel industry wants to ensure that we “need”. Tar sands excavation, more conventional open pit coal mining and unconventional mountain top removal coal mining all fit the “ripping the face off” metaphor perfectly. Fracking is not quite a literal match for this metaphor but the damages to densely populated landscapes used for among other things agriculture of fracking fluid and methane leaks are as damaging as the open sores that various surface mining techniques create. Deep sea oil drilling has very high risks as we have seen with Deepwater Horizon, which poisoned the ecosystems of the gulf
Then what is being expressed by the “ripping the face off” metaphor is a desperate or calculating disregard for the consequences of extracting these oil, gas or coal deposits, something that should be made obvious by the climate movement but isn’t..yet. The question that the climate movement should be asking the greater society is the following:
“Are we the kind of society that defiles the earth and almost certainly jeopardizes our future in search of a temporary patch to our energy problems”
Or more emotively:
“Are we the type of people who rip off the face of our mother/father Earth to have a brief fossil-fueled party?”
I don’t see the point of soft pedaling the emotional component of what is also a rational, scientific argument for a sustainable energy and land-use policy. Disgust, self-disgust and anger need to lead people to act. The public needs to recognize the mounting desperation of our fossil fueled society and the fossil fuel industry that is leading it down the road to perdition. A simple accounting of tons of carbon or of methane leakage percentages does not entirely capture the stakes involved.
I believe that a unified movement, a concept that should be used to explain why fracking, tar sands development, mountain top removal, and open strip coal mining are of one piece is that it turns us into a species that is driven by temporary wants as opposed to long term objectives and principles. We are all implicated in the techniques that the fossil fuel industry uses.
The question remains: Who wouldn’t want to join the Movement Against Ripping of the Face of the Earth?
Coda: Fleeting vs. Semi-Permanent Benefits from Tearing At the Earth
I am not one of those who believe that we will next transition to a primitive or tribal society or that we would want to. There may be some in the climate movement who treasure that thought. They are strict and dogmatic preservationists or Earth Firsters, who are, whether they know it or not, neo primitivists. Many of these people haven’t quite thought through their insistence that all of the damages or changes in the land left by humanity should be or could be erased.
I am of the opinion that the next, better economy and civilization we will have will use a fair amount of the earth’s resources and will still have substantial impacts on the earth’s surface. We will still live in the “Anthropocene” era, where humans profoundly shape though do not necessarily consciously control the earth. To build an economy that uses renewable energy converted to electric energy to do useful work (by far the most likely route), we are going to need copper, iron, rare earth metals, and lithium among other elements to build that economy and civilization. This civilization, however, will of necessity need to work to undo at least some of the worst excesses of our current civilization, including reversing deforestation and of course radically reducing our fossil fuel use as soon as possible.
But the foolishness of our civilization is made obvious by ripping up, using up, and poisoning the productive, protective, and sustaining capacity of the earth to “enjoy” only a brief injection of energy. We need to throttle the forces that push elements in our societies to spur on this quest with only a brief benefit to a very few people within the long chain of human existence. I will in the next essay address the only tools that we have to achieve these goals, tools that have been for the most part overlooked in the brief history of climate change and alternative energy policy.