The biggest crime that has ever been committed

This post is a shorter version of an article from December 2016 published here on Medium. It is relevant as climate-denying Boris Johnson becomes our Prime Minister, and tackles Brexit on behalf of this network of interests that want relaxed regulations and increased subsidies for their planet-plundering. It explains how fossil fuel companies and oil-dependent countries are at the heart of an industrial-military complex that has:

  • knowingly expanded a system that is rapidly destroying the life-sustaining capacities of the planet, such that civilisation is liable to collapse this century,
  • has fought and fanned flames of wars over oil, and seems willing to continue stirring conflict as a means to exert control and frustrate efforts to build a sustainable peace,
  • has fed a misinformation machine in order to spread denial of this science, to weaken collaboration on climate action, to deflect blame from these wrongs, and to sow confusion and division.

Fossil fuel revolution

The background to this story is the formation of nation states, and international competition to establish empires, based on the plundering natural resources and the genocide and slavery of indigenous people. Lines of division between exploiter and exploited were more clearly drawn, on a larger global scale than ever before.

The industrial revolution, the growth of cities and rapidity of transport were all powered by fossil fuels (coal and then oil and gas) enabling steel engineering, roads, shipping of goods, and a globalised consumer culture. Oil-fuelled transportation and chemicals derived from oil massively increased agricultural yields, leading to a global population increase. In turn, this growing population ramped up the demand for food and goods.

Fossil fuel wars

Big shifts in imperial power led to WW1 and WW2, both of which expanded their fields of action due to battles over supply of oil and other resources. Hitler was obsessed with oil, as well as Aryan purity. Japan’s involvement in WW2 was triggered by its need to protect oil supplies to support their imperial ambitions. Oil fed the war machines and helped feed and grow populations to fight for empires. A vicious circle of war for oil (and other resources) by oil, so in turn, for more oil. Wars over oil in the Middle East are not a recent phenomenon and Britain has played a key role in the long history of oil conflicts.

Global division and also co-operation

Communism transmuted from a theory based on an ethos of social distribution to a phenomenon of vast totalitarian states, leading to global division between these states and the ‘free world’, culminating in the Cold War. To a certain extent, there has been a benign legacy, of the World Wars and the Cold War in terms of international collaboration in the creation of the United Nations, NATO, the European Union, anti-nuclear proliferation treaties, international co-operation to tackle climate change, action on poverty and on human rights abuses. The neo-liberals blame international institutions for imposing too many limits on free trade and profit, and the left wing blames them for fuelling and protecting neo-liberalism. Their international scope makes them vulnerable to being used as straw men, as the EU has been in the Brexit campaign.

The more malign legacies of this co-operativism included a conflation of socialism with totalitarianism, and a repression of movements to protect the commons and to distribute resources.

Companies vs the living planet

Although many accuse these benign international initiatives, such as the EU and UN, of being too pro-environment, in fact they have been inadequately so. Environmental policies are characterised as a nuisance, seen only as a minimal check on necessary production in order to provide for the needy masses. In fact, they are popular with citizens, but these laws have been consistently hobbled by corporate interests. Companies, their lawyers and their bribed political advocates have wrangled to avoid taxes, water down regulations, and lobbied and sued for rights, subsidies and protections that allow them to extract and profit from natural resources without replenishing them or compensating local people. Large companies operate only within national parameters when it is for their benefit, but increasingly exist as supranational organisations, some more powerful than any governments, and are driving globalisation.

Freedom to profit spreads east

Neo-liberalism spread in the 1980s, leading Russia, China and other states to open up to free trade and to profit from their extraction of fossil fuels. Russia is now powered by the interests of the oil industry. China has burnt coal and vastly deforested and mined its land, as well as lands in Africa, and although it is making a show of transitioning to renewable energy it remains a significant global polluter.

Free trade does not ultimately mean freedom to express your views, it only means freedom to exploit and profit. The more that people start to suffer from that exploitation and accumulation of profit, the more that freedom of expression is repressed.

Development vs stewarded wilderness and indigenous people

The emergence of international development for the ‘Third World’, although with benign intentions, led to great losses of stewarded wilderness and biodiverse farmland, which also harmed traditional knowledge and languages. Many people became dependent on employment in order to buy food/goods, and when war or natural disaster struck (as it increasingly does now) are also dependent on the provision of aid. People moved to cities. Their land was grabbed and deforested by large corporations and countries for agribusiness (biofuels, drug crops, high calorie crops, plantation forests etc.), oil and mining. More people moved to cities (or slums and refugee camps) and civil wars erupted.

Engineered inequality

The neo-liberal economic system that has spread around the world is rigged through governance, taxes, patents and trade deals to accumulate wealth in the hands of the 1% and to continually squeeze it from the 99%. After the crash of 2008, more people in the Global North lost their insulating cushions of jobs and just-about affordable debt, and became aware of the vast scam of the system. Bankers were seen as the very devil, and as even worse devils when the governments rescued banks with quantitative easing. Only Iceland imprisoned their most crooked bankers.

The status quo of ‘the global race’ resumed

The financial system was exposed as a ‘house of cards’, but the assumption was that this system rested on nothing, that money was conjured out of nothing. In fact, it rests on the unsustainable exploitation of natural commodities and human labour. Some companies have become more powerful than many countries, and in turn, many countries are now seeking to operate exactly like companies. In these countries, the Government now see it as their job to accumulate wealth in competition with other nations, to feed a nationalistic talent pipeline, to defend borders and to seek new resources that they can exploit without having to pay too much heed to the environmental externalities or the human collateral damage.

The global race also involves the accumulation of wealth by a few who waste resources, and in turn ‘the many’ are encouraged to earn and consume in aspiration of the wealthy. People, more and more across the world, are caught in a system designed by industrialists that forces them to work, consume and waste. And to move to find paid work rather than to regenerate their own ecosystems.

Meanwhile, eyes were off the ball games of the oligarchs

The problem is that this planet isn’t big enough to sustain this rapacious and violent growth.

Some countries consume oil unsustainably and have intervened increasingly in civil wars of countries with oil supplies, seeding uncertainty and blaming sectarian divides, as a tactic to exert control. These interventions were extremely expensive, devastating to millions of lives, and exacerbated the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIL/Daesh who have unleashed terrorism across the Middle East and in Western cities.

In a particularly toxic trap, refugees from Middle Eastern and African wars that have arisen from oil conflict, the funding of insurgents and the pressures of climate change, are being characterised as leeches, rapists and terrorists. They are being used as a scapegoat in a rising tide of Neo-Nazism. An investigation by Nafeez Ahmed for Tell Mama, shows how the fascism which motivated Jo Cox’s killer has been “incubated by a global neo-Nazi network with significant access to the corridors of power in the West”.

5 of the 9 planetary boundaries are related to fossil fuels

Meanwhile, due to emissions of fossil fuels, climate change has accelerated so much that we have now passed at least one key tipping point, so that catastrophic effects are happening now, including drought affecting food supplies, massive forest fires, more severe earthquakes and rising sea levels. There are several tipping point thresholds, poised to strike, some of them potentially adding the equivalent of 25% of all our CO2 emissions over the past 25 years. As Jonathan Porritt sums up Peter Wadham’s book about this: “The sea ice Death Spiral, plus the diminution in the albedo effect, plus the melting Greenland ice cap, plus five further feedback loops, plus a mega-methane-pulse; when exactly did Apocalypse Tomorrow become Apocalypse Now?”

And, it’s not just climate change: The knock-on effects of an oil-based industrial system also cause major issues of pollution of air, water and soil, damaging human health, and destroying habitats. For just one of many possible examples, exploring new drilling sites for oil involves seismic blasting that is damaging to marine mammals and triggers earthquakes.

The fossil fuel industries knew in 1981 or earlier that they would cause these catastrophic effects

The global climate began to warm in the 19th century and science proved that this was due to human burning of fossil fuels in 1885. This science was further confirmed when carbon monitoring stations were established and by 1980 the consensus was building. The fossil fuel industries could have turned their profits towards a transition towards a regenerative economy based on renewable energy. The knowledge of some of these technologies existed at this time but people calling for change to a more ecological system were belittled and silenced. The fossil fuel industries (and their fellows) poured billions of dollars into an international misinformation machine, gaining control of mainstream media and recruiting armies of social media commenters, who aim to deny the consensus on climate change, promote billionaires as philanthropists and derail any movements for eco-social justice. As George Monbiot explains, the social and environmental justice campaigners beating themselves up about what went wrong should recognise that “we have simply been outspent. Not by a little, but by orders of magnitude”.

The internet is a key tool in the tactics of this octopus-like lobby. It enables thousands of agents to be employed to spread misinformation, to distract attention from vital news, to deflect blame and to turn arguments off logical courses. Any news article about climate change has, dangling from it, hundreds of comments that say, apart from basic denial of climate science, points such as ‘we are all to blame, everyone of us, for consuming oil products so you, environmentalist, are a hypocrite’.

As the tipping points of climate change start to kick in, the machine of denial is ramping up ever more forcefully

Trump has appointed climate deniers to his team who have been harrassing climate scientists, and have stated they will cancel NASA’s internationally vital climate change research. Trump plans to run America like a company, but not just any company, his own company, and enriching his own family, and by extension his extended family of Americans just like him. The melting of the Arctic means that new sources of oil are opening up, but most of that access is held by Russia negotiated in a 500 billion dollar deal with Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon, albeit hampered by sanctions imposed by the US over Ukraine. Perhaps this explains why Trump has been helped to his election by Putin, and why Trump has picked the ex-Exxon CEO to be his secretary of state.

Part of this misinformation machine has been through cultural sponsorship

The oil industry has also made strategic use of sponsorship of culture, education and sport, washing their brands clean and gaining a ‘social licence to operate’.

Some other industries also make use of cultural sponsorship for the same desire to gain acceptability. They are not separate from the fossil fuel industries. The financial, chemical, transport and arms industries all benefit from the fossil-fuel dependent status quo, they fund and defend their activities, and they are part of the lobby machine that is led by the fossil fuel industries.

So, what is the biggest crime that has ever been committed?

I argue that it is causing, denying and continuing to exacerbate global climate disruption that is poised to raise the temperature within this century to an unliveable rate, while at the same time seeding conflicts and political division in order to continue to secure supplies of the evil stuff. As Kurt Vonnegut said “Dear future generations, please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum”. But the pushers must take the blame, not the addicts.

Published by: bridgetmck

Director of Flow Associates, cultural consultants, since 2006. See www.flowassociates.com Before this I was head of learning at the British Library, Education Officer at Tate and similar roles. I'm interested in cultural strategy, arts interpretation, digital futures, environmental sustainability and creative education.

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