In the early 1990s, I was invited to give a talk at a conference on “ecological design” at Cooper Union College in New York City. There, in the main auditorium, the assembled conferees listened to an address by a representative of the British Petroleum Company, which had recently rebranded itself as “BP…Beyond Petroleum.”
The spokesperson, paraphrased, said, “At BP, we no longer consider ourselves a petroleum company. We are an energy company.” He went on to say that BP was committed to transitioning to alternative energy as its main product as quickly as possible. I was cautiously optimistic. That was certainly the time to begin the energy transition — before the “greenhouse gas effect,” as we called it then, got out of hand.
Indeed, BP brashly promoted itself as an alternative energy developer for the next 30 years — until 2009 when, in a move derisively labeled “Back to Petroleum” (B2P) by environmental groups, it closed its London alternative energy headquarters, cut the division’s budget by more than 50% and fired its chief so it could focus on its core profit center, hydrocarbons.
In 2020, BP once again proclaimed its sincere intention to replace its fossil-fuel revenue with alternative energy sources. We’ll see.
George W. Bush’s famous 2006 decrying of America’s addiction to oil pretty much summed up the global dependence on fossil fuels. And like other addictions, fossil-fuel habits, pushed mostly by the superficial hedonism, self-indulgence and conceit of wealthy elites, are very hard to kick and extremely destructive.
This is perhaps most clearly discerned in the behavior of petrostates, countries with economies that are mostly, or almost entirely, dependent on fossil-fuel exports. Of the 20 such nations, the big, most familiar names are Saudi Arabia and the UAR, Iraq and Iran, Venezuela and, of course, Russia.
The “monocultural” economics of fossil-fuel dominance has turned most petrostates into oligarchies with autocratic leaders. Rather than having a diversity of industries, occupations and exports, which tends to spread wealth around, their single, or predominant source of revenue is subject to monopolization by those with the power to control it. Once in control, these elites take measures to perpetuate their power, both in the near term through repression of their mostly poor and disgruntled populace, and in the long term by parking their wealth abroad while passing a portion of it to their families and friends.
They also tend to fabricate self-serving ideologies to rationalize their privileged status and perceived superiority to their country’s general populace. Part of this self-aggrandizement is the denial of contravening inconvenient truths. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, for example, consistently asserts that climate change is a small matter and, in fact, is beneficial. He welcomes the melting of Arctic ice and the thawing of Siberia’s permafrost, though both are major threats to the biosphere’s stability. So, Russia’s no help when it comes to international climate regulations or green development. Putin and his cohorts will stick with their comfortable fossil-fuel addiction.
But top-heavy economies are unstable — they tend to topple as the people below the elites become increasingly dissatisfied. A frequent answer to that problem is to foment a war, hoping to get your populace to forget its troubles and buy into your trumped-up patriotic fervor —as Putin has done in Ukraine, to the detriment of the whole planet, and ultimately, especially to Russia.
These autocratic patterns, except for the recent addition of petro-economics, are as old as civilization. Fruitless wars have come and gone, and the world has moved on following their conclusion.
But Russia’s latest folly is serving as a distraction from the urgent task of preventing unstoppable global temperature rise, now, in this decade, before it’s too late at our ecological house.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.