IIt helps to think of capitalism as a robotic scientist, spectacularly good at doing one thing and cripplingly blind to everything else. Global capitalism is an incredible machine for extracting fossil fuels from our planet, refining them, shipping them to the four corners of the Earth and thus earning huge sums of money. The hum of this machine, the fuel and money it spits out, has fueled a century of unprecedented production and consumption by Earth’s first nations. Unfortunately, the machine also poisons us all. But one of its extremely evolved functions is to make its extinction almost impossible.
Oil and gas earnings over the past quarter have been staggering. Exxon Mobil has made $18 billion in profits over the past three months. Shell and Chevron each earned nearly $12 billion. These are all record numbers. Other big companies will be announcing their numbers this week, and they should all be plentiful. The war in Ukraine, which has devastated a region of the world and displaced millions of people, has helped energy companies by driving up oil and gas prices. In this we see another key feature of the machine: the fortunes of nations may rise and fall, but the oil companies will always survive and prosper, floating above the chaos of the world like passengers on a private jet, shaking the performatively head to all the problems below.
The price of oil fluctuates, but this short-term volatility masks the certainty of the industry’s long-term success. A recent study showed that over the past 50 years, the oil industry has made profits of over $1 billion a year, or nearly $3 billion a day. These profits are driven not by a fantasy of free enterprise and perfect competition, but by the exact opposite – cartels, mega-corporations and government regulatory capture, conspiring to create a free market of both competition and at a price that reflects the actual price. cost to the world of the product that is sold.
Fossil fuels make enough money to corrupt politicians, cause wars, and bend public opinion with the brute force of a propaganda firehose. The machine doesn’t just extract and sell fossil fuels; it is also concerned with ensuring that the whole world is organized in such a way as to maintain the demand for these fossil fuels. The growth of oil profits even as the reality of climate change burns before our eyes is proof that no crisis, no matter how existential, will be enough to stop this machine naturally. The machine must either be broken by us or it will break us all.
Capitalism is not designed to look at several generations later. He is not designed to sacrifice himself for the greater good. It is designed to maximize profits. Pumping every last barrel of oil on Earth, selling it, taking the money, and building a luxurious spaceship to leave the planet that was destroyed by burning all that gas is a perfectly rational course of action according to the logic of capitalism. As long as there is a trillion dollars a year to be made, the fossil fuel industry will take the money. That’s enough money to build a beautiful villa far, far away from wars, droughts, floods and forest fires caused by fossil fuels.
These benefits are illusory. They are plagued by an externality large enough to exceed a trillion dollars a year – the costs that the climate crisis will impose on billions of people who are alive today and on many generations to come. The fact that capitalism is unable to properly price a barrel of oil to account for all the pain it will cause your grandchildren whose home is being wiped out by rising seas is proof that all he idea of an unbiased system of costs and rewards for work and risk is a great sham.
The fossil fuel industry as a whole is not just another business, providing a service to meet a demand; he is a predatory drug dealer who works every day to keep the world hooked on his toxic product, knowing full well that it will eventually prove fatal. It fights to keep the population duped by its costs, to keep the political power structure unable to protect the public from its harms, and to keep the supply flowing at full speed despite any human or environmental cost. It’s not something to applaud. It is a problem to be solved.
It’s no great mystery how to change this toxic dynamic. Simply putting a price on fossil fuels that accurately reflects their costs – for example, through a carbon tax – would do the trick, over time, as it has quickly become economically impossible to mortgage the health of the future of the planet on a carbon credit card. Better and faster would be simple regulations coupled with huge public investments to shift to cleaner energy sources, Green New Deal style. The barrier here is not ideas, but rather politics, backed up by a wall of money. Until America fails to regulate the influence of money in politics, we will by extension fail to properly regulate fossil fuels.
It is foolish to assume that a system that was built in part by the corporate power of the energy industry will find a way to rein in that same industry against its will. It is willfully stupid to imagine that electoral politics will be up to the task. This is a question that, more than most, calls for radicalism. It will take more than installing a solar panel on your roof. For seniors of means, it will take agitation within every institution you are a part of to disengage from the fossil fuel industry; for the youngest enthusiasts, it will be necessary to move in the streets. For all of us, the enormous but slow-moving threat of climate change will have to be treated with the deadly seriousness it deserves.
So the next time you see young people sitting in a senator’s office or blocking the streets or yelling at Joe Manchin’s yacht, don’t laugh at them. Join them. They will face a bleak future long after all that sweet oil money has been spent.