It is useful to think of capitalism as a robotic savant, spectacularly gifted 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 every corner of the Earth and making staggering amounts of money doing so. The humming of this machine, the fuel and the money that it spits out, has powered a century of unprecedented production and consumption by the Earth’s first-world nations. Unfortunately the machine is also poisoning us all. But one of its exquisitely evolved functions is to make it almost impossible to turn it off.
Oil and gas profits in the most recent quarter were astounding. Exxon Mobil made $18bn in profits in the past three months. Shell and Chevron each made nearly $12bn. Those are all record numbers. More major companies will announce their figures this week, and they are all expected to be bountiful. The war in Ukraine, which has devastated a region of the world and displaced millions, has helped energy companies by driving oil and gas prices higher. In this, we see another key characteristic of the machine: the fortunes of nations may rise and fall, but the oil companies will always survive and thrive, floating above the chaos of the world like passengers on a private jet, shaking their heads performatively at all the problems below.
The price of oil fluctuates, but that short-term volatility masks the industry’s long-term certainty of success. A recent study showed that for the past 50 years, the oil industry has made profits of more than $1tn a year, close to $3bn a day. These profits are driven not by some fantasy of free enterprise and perfect competition, but by the exact opposite – cartels, mega-corporations and the regulatory capture of governments, conspiring to create a market free of both competition and of a price that reflects the actual cost to the world of the product that is being sold.
Fossil fuels make enough money to corrupt politicians, cause wars and bend public opinion through the brute force of a firehose of propaganda. The machine does not just extract and sell fossil fuels; it also concerns itself with ensuring that the entire world is arranged in a way conducive to maintaining the demand for those fossil fuels. The growth of oil profits even as the reality of climate change is burning before our eyes is proof that no single crisis, no matter how existential, will be enough to shut this machine down naturally. The machine must either be broken by us, or it will break us all.
Capitalism is not designed to look several generations down the road. It is not designed to sacrifice for the greater good. It is designed to maximize profits. To pump every last barrel of oil on Earth, sell it, take the money and build a luxurious space ship to leave the planet that has been destroyed by burning all of 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. It is enough money to build a nice villa far, far away from the wars and droughts and floods and wildfires that fossil fuels are causing.
These profits are illusory. They are plagued by an externality large enough to outweigh a trillion dollars a year – the costs that the climate crisis will impose on billions of people who are alive now and 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 to your grandchildren whose home is wiped out by rising seas is proof that the whole idea of an impartial system of costs and rewards for labor and risks is a big sham.
The fossil fuel industry as a whole is not just another business, providing a service to meet a demand; it is a predatory drug dealer that works every day to keep the world addicted to its poisonous product, knowing full well that it will eventually prove fatal. It fights to keep the population fooled about its costs, to keep the political power structure incapable of keeping the public safe from its damages, and to keep the flow of supply coming at full blast despite any human or environmental toll. It is not something to be applauded. It is a problem to be solved.
It’s no big mystery how to change this toxic dynamic. Merely putting a price on fossil fuel that accurately reflects its costs – for example, through a carbon tax – would do the trick, with time, as it rapidly became economically unfeasible to mortgage the health of the planet’s future on a carbon credit card. Better, and faster, would be straightforward regulations paired with enormous public investments to transition to cleaner energy sources, a la the Green New Deal. The barrier here is not ideas, but rather politics, backstopped with a wall of money. So long as America fails to regulate the influence of money in politics, we will by extension fail to adequately regulate fossil fuels.
It is folly to assume that a system that has been constructed in part by the corporate power of the energy industry will find a way to rein in that same industry against its wishes. It’s willfully stupid to imagine that electoral politics will be up to this task. This is an issue that is, more than most, begging for radicalism. It will take more than installing a solar panel on your roof. For older people with means, it will take agitating within each and every institution you are a part of to divest from the fossil fuel industry; for younger people with passion, it will take agitating in the streets. For all of us, it will take treating the tremendous but slow-moving threat of climate change with the deadly seriousness it deserves.
So next time you see young people sitting in at a senator’s office or blocking the streets or hollering at Joe Manchin’s yacht, don’t mock them. Join them. They will be living through a grim future long after all that sweet oil money has been spent.
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