THE ONLY THING CERTAIN
Decades of greed, deception, and corruption have led us to this crisis. It's time to face the fact that fossil fuels and the companies and men who peddle them will destroy us if we don't change course
The tragedy in Ukraine is intensifying with every passing day and the narrative is rapidly shifting. While institutionalists were quick to declare victory as countries and companies sanctioned Vladimir Putin and Russia, the reverberations are now being felt domestically. The “genius” of a global economic system, long heralded as a fool-proof prevention method against war and aggression, is now turning war into a battle of economic attrition.
As gas prices spike in the United States, focus has turned to the mad dash to replace Russian oil. For decades, Putin’s petroleum and blood money has coursed through the international system, infecting everything it touched, and now, after building up the dictator and his oligarchs and making them integral components of the world system, the shock is staggering. Meanwhile, even when faced with a stark, black and white moral situation like Ukraine, the question remains whether higher prices will undermine the sanctions as consumer frustration builds.
This system, after all, is built on consumer sovereignty. Neoliberalism has capitalized on aggressively pandering to “the individual,” or, rather, the individual consumer, and so many of our problems and conflicts, including the COVID pandemic, have revolved around whether the individual consumer should ever, at any given moment, sacrifice their convenience or desires for the betterment of others. In fact, neoliberalism actively and aggressively tells people never to give up their wants or needs for others. Paying more at the pump, this system tells us, is not worth standing in solidarity with another people we have never met.
And so, the search for oil is intensifying. The United States is already scrambling to find sources, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela, all regimes that engage in rampant human rights violations and have, at different turns and to differing extents, been on the wrong-side of political condemnations.
Meanwhile, instead of working to find a way of escaping the death-grip of fossil fuels, something we should have done years and years ago, we are now doubling-down. Oil companies are using this crisis to eradicate any remaining restrictions on their operations while raking in the profits. Undoubtedly, this means global climate change will worsen, territory will disappear as the oceans rise, conditions will become more extreme and resources more scarce, and clashes like the one we are watching in Ukraine now will only become more commonplace.
We are in a death spiral as the leaders and the powerful, all of whom have brought us to this place through moral and ethical compromises and outright failures, attempt to keep this crumbling system lurching forward. Once more, this is an opportunity to face these utterly destructive failures. But there is so much money to be made and so much power to be had in pretending otherwise.
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Shell announced on Tuesday its intention to “phase out” Russian oil after backlash fomented regarding its ongoing relationship. Once more, those looking to defend the system lauded the decision and held it up as proof the free-market would reject war and aggression. It remains to be seen how quickly this phasing out takes place or whether it will remain in place in the long-term, but what gets lost in the telling of this bit of news is the responsibility energy companies play in this entire debacle.
Though some like to portray climate change as a relatively new phenomenon, the destruction of our planet has been taking place since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, which relied on fossil fuel to industrialize society. Our modern energy corporations have known since at least the 1960’s they were responsible for “serious world-wide environmental changes,” melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and a whole host of apocalyptic scenarios. Rather than address the problem, they spent unbelievable amounts of money and political capital obscuring these facts.
The world should be different. Had greed not won out, there’s no telling what life might look like now. Certainly we wouldn’t be facing looming climate catastrophe. Alternative energy, had it been invested in rather than prioritizing destructive fossil fuel, would likely be well-established. Experts, including scientists and public health officials, might still enjoy a semblance of trust as these behemoths systematically spent billions of dollars on explicitly undermining them in order to hide facts they knew very well to be true.
These possibilities are part of a larger reality we were denied. Reliance on fossil fuel has wreaked so much havoc, ruined so many lives, and led to so much unnecessary suffering that, to even begin fathoming something beyond its corrosive grip, is almost utopian. Inhuman pursuit of profit over the fates of people, by companies, by states, and by dictators trafficking in fossil fuels, has brought us here.
Nicolas Maduro is a murderer and a dictator. In consolidating power in Venezuela, he has used lethal force and indescribable cruelty in oppressing his people. Continually the United States has decried his abuses, but now, it turns to him. This past weekend, U.S. officials traveled to Venezuela to attempt to repair relations and possibly counter the oil shock.
Similar advances were made toward Saudi Arabia, where crown prince Mohammed bin Salman routinely jails and kills his opponents, including journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Though Donald Trump was overwhelmingly criticized for his willingness to continue doing business with the Saudis following Khashoggi’s torture, murder, and dismemberment, what Trump made clear was something that often hides behind flourishing rhetoric: America is fine with tyrants as long as their checks clear.
Oil makes this possible. Fossil fuels routinely lead to authoritarianism that is generally accepted by the Western world as long as the pipelines keep producing. It is, after all, necessary to keep populations in line and prevent any interruption of the resource necessary to keep the world running. That is the ugly secret of neoliberalism. There is a thin veneer of liberal civilization that hides the bloodletting behind closed doors that keeps everything going.
Vladimir Putin benefited from this necessity. As long as he kept supplying the world with oil, as long as he and his criminal oligarchs pumped their money into the western markets, everything was fine. This allowed him to build his war machine and reach a point of wealth and power, not to mention spread enough corruption and authoritarian fifth columns, in which he felt confident to undertake this aggression.
These hypocritical actions by Western powers and leaders will only make more war, more authoritarianism, more aggression, more cruelty, and more suffering inevitable. And in rushing forward to repair the moment instead of planning for the future, those same leaders are mortgaging our fates as they’re jumping in bed with dictators and murderers. Simply painting Putin as an outlier or this entire situation as something that “can’t be explained” or understood, is only going to make it worse and more likely to happen again.
Despite what fossil fuel companies want you to believe, climate change is very real. The reports executives read in 1968 were correct. Their scientists had it dead to rights. The seas will rise. Catastrophic conditions will lead to depleting resources. Land will disappear. And the capitalist system will make sure that more wars and cruelties will emerge. The companies these leaders enrich will continue to use their accumulated wealth to destroy democracy. The dictators we embolden will, like Putin, act aggressively to capitalize on worsening conditions. In a time of unthinkable and unpredictable suffering, this remains the only thing certain.