Why demonising fossil fuel companies is wrong

02 July 2015

Demon oil company executive

The single biggest aspect of the environmental movement is the tendency it has to turn its campaigns into "us vs them" conflicts. The latest expression of this is the movement to divest from fossil fuel companies - along with other commentary that takes the demonisation of such companies for granted; for instance, a recent article (typical of many similar pieces) questioning the value of ethical indices if they allow in bad companies" like Shell or BP.

I get why I'm on the losing side of this argument. "Us vs them" is one of the most powerful rallying cries in history. Whether it's national or religious identity. Whether it's a cause or crusade. Whether it's what football team's colours you wear. It motivates people onto the streets like nothing else. But it also happens to be monumentally stupid in the context of environmental sustainability.

It matters because if you're to have a successful movement for change, it must be clear about what is the core that needs to change. It mustn't get distracted by objectives that may seem attractively simple, can be justified in a woolly non-specific way as being part of what we need to do, but are ultimately false targets.

Any company - wherever it starts - can choose to be part of the solution, not part of the problem

I have seen this before. Back in the 1980s, the overwhelming sense that we were on the brink of nuclear war propelled me - young and idealistic as I was, perhaps - into the peace movement. For me, the fundamental question was whether it could ever be right to use weapons of mass destruction against the civilian population of another country. In this modern age, where we get outraged headlines if a 'smart' bomb deviates from its course and accidentally hits a school, one might argue the principle has been won even though the weapons still exist. But in those days, first use of nuclear weapons was not only policy, it felt like an imminent reality.

But the peace movement was poor at strategy, as all such movements tend to be, run as they are by popular sentiment. When American nuclear cruise missiles were proposed, the campaign focused on them specifically because it seemed like a more immediate target. The arguments focused on all sorts of technical questions - the fact the missiles had to be driven around the countryside, the fact they were stationed so close to Russia that response times were cut and therefore the chance of an accident starting an all-out war was greater. And so on.

And then cruise missiles, one day were cancelled. Target achieved. Except, of course, the real target had not been achieved at all. The movement never quite recovered from the fact that - having moved on from the core arguments to focus on short-term tactical - it was never able to recapture the moral force that it should have had. The movement began its rapid decline from that point.

Fossil fuel divestment is exactly such an issue. It is dumb to demonise oil companies for providing the fossil fuels that society currently needs to function, and then blaming them for the fact those fuels get burnt as though all the pollution it causes is their fault, not the fault of those of us who use the energy for heating, lighting, technology and transport. 

Moving society away from fossil fuel energy is a priority, but punishing companies that provide such fuel in the mean time - as though what they do is morally reprehensible - is blatant hypocrisy. If the fossil fuel industry shut up shop tomorrow, we would be in big trouble, and the poorest in society would be in the biggest trouble first.

It's not down to the fact that fossil fuel companies exist - and in the short term they need to exist - that is the issue. It is how they play the hand they've been dealt. Any company - wherever it starts - can choose to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And in the case of fossil fuel companies, that doesn't necessarily mean that they have to diversify out of fossil fuels within a couple of years, which is neither possible nor even desirable. A declining sector can still be a profitable one, and what we will need ultimately is responsible companies - perhaps ones that diversify their portfolio - who can manage the declining consumption of oil in a responsible way.

The truth is that the big brand oil companies - Exxon, Shell, BP - own only a fraction of the oil reserves in the world. The vast majority now is owned by national oil companies which are impervious to divestment campaigns. That fact alone makes the divestment campaigns a self-indulgence on the part of the campaigners. A distraction.

Bill Gates nailed this when he said that what was needed was more disruptive innovation in renewable energy generation. The focus should be innovation to make renewable energy cheaper and scalable, and as these alternatives get pushed to scale by governments and individual companies (some of the tech giants have made huge strides in generating their own power needs from renewables) the dynamic will go the right way.

Of course, that robs the movement of its bogey men. If corporate giants can become collaborators, rather than the enemy, then who do you focus on to get the troops fired up? Who cares? The simple fact is that climate change is a problem common to us all. The solution will either be a common solution, or it won't be a solution. Campaigns that rely on us ignoring the fact that top executives also have families and children and a stake of the future, and assumes that they want knowingly to destroy the planet so they can drive a Porche today are campaigns that have more to do with the prejudices and short-sightedness of the campaigners than they do a realistic and actionable plan to achieve sustainability.

And if you demonise companies because of the sector they're in, rather than the choices that they make, then you close off avenues that could lead them to become allies and collaborators. Which if you're trying to achieve real, lasting change is just the most bizarre thing to want to do.