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Sunday, October 28, 2012

My Own Personal Boycott

After having written the last couple of entries here at Kyoto Motors, you may have guessed that I am not about to instigate or otherwise attempt to orchestrate a global boycott of the fossil fuel industry. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly endorse the idea, but I know a Quixotic challenge when I see one. And so, I stay away from the fight on the grounds that it would be untenable in its scale, and ineffectual in its inability to charm and woo – boycotting Big Oil just ain’t sexy.  In this culture of abundance and entitlement, people want to tackle climate change without sacrifice, so a boycott is essentially a losing proposition. Instead, I prefer to focus my attention on local projects of ecological merit in their own right. In turn, the more I get involved in these, I find myself adhering to my own personal boycott of big oil all the same.
As it turns out, the boycott may not be sexy but it certainly has its benefits. Not owning a car, for example, is nothing but pleasure, and a sheer economic boon, to boot. I do not have to live in a cabin in the woods, and while most everything in my life has been touched in some way by fossil fuels, but I do not directly pay for gasoline on a typical day, and there is frankly, a great sense of satisfaction in that.
But this personal boycott is not intended as self gratification. It is rather just a by-product of abiding by convictions that stem from taking a serious look at the challenges of climate change and peak oil. While the global industrial debacle plays itself out, I have made a conscious attempt at attaining a more-than average degree of self-sufficiency, and resilience. The less complex the systems and technology I engage with, the more readily accessible the solutions when those systems and technologies fail, which they invariably do. This principle, which is my understanding of “appropriate technology” (by no means an exhaustive one, but…), often tends to be interpreted as an anticipation of an apocalyptic down-turn. To the contrary, it is rather, simply an understanding that downturns and failures can happen, big or small, at any time. It is the realisation that self-empowerment and community as opposed to dependence on faceless corporate global systems (such as supply chains), and deliberately overly-complex technologies, represents a refreshing kind of freedom. 
Mind you, that’s about as sexy as the boycott gets. Unfortunately, as easy as it is to get to the boycott, from there (as you might have guessed) it usually involves a lot of work. Indeed, the boycott leads you away from the lifestyle fantasies that you see in television commercials and magazine adverts. The boycott will take you off the conveyor belt aisle of Big Box Stores. The boycott will lift you out of the Parking Lot Freeway. The boycott will steer you away from the Tropical Airport get-away. And the Boycott it will plop you down in the middle of a crowded bus, hanging on to a strap sometimes for dear life; or onto a bicycle in the rain, at times pedalling uphill against the wind; or into a back-yard garden, hands covered in earth, with wafts of compost filling your nose. No sir, the boycott is definitely lacking in sex appeal, and so it’s a tough sell to the masses hopped up on instant this and throw-away that. People would rather believe that there must be another way. Perhaps we could keep our beautifully decorated cake, and stuff our little faces with it at the same time?
The popular justification for doing nothing on a personal level (apart from simply not wanting to sacrifice anything) is that there are solutions (there must be!) waiting in the wings in the form of alternatives to the internal combustion engine. Hydrogen fuel cells, electric plug-in hybrid cars, high-speed rail, carbon capture and storage, wind power, and solar, etc. etc. These possibilities, promises, and fantasies are varied both in their practical applications and more importantly, in their “sex” appeal.  I personally have been excited about all of the above and more, to varying degrees at one time or another. Some of them like wind power are clearly proven, effective pieces of the puzzle we have to put into practice (but of course the NIMBY effect proves that not even the “best” alternatives are free of drawbacks). Nonetheless, the reasoning continues, there will come a time when the invisible hand of the market will usher in these alternatives seamlessly and painlessly. Perhaps all we need to do is elect the right government into power, perhaps it is just a matter of time…
But of course the real world chugs along quite differently, and we change our narratives as we go, for them to match reality. Does anyone remember to what extent, for example, that the hydrogen economy was touted in the first years of G.W. Bush’s presidency? Projections, predictions and promises were made: the future was bright, and the horizon was but ten years away…And, well, not much of it came to pass at all – we’re not even a tenth of the way there. I don’t know a single person who owns a fuel cell car, and it is highly curious (to say the least) that more than a decade later there is less and less talk about this technological dream. The same thing can, should, or will soon be said for a host of other technological fantasies, and it is high time that we connect the dots. Such fantasies, from cold fusion to algae-derived bio-diesel to shale-oil and gas to perpetual motion machines, are all fantasies that we use to project our narrative of progress onto, because (the assumptions dictate) we have to come up with something, because we always believed we would. But what if it just isn’t in the bag? Is it not possible that the discovery and leveraging of fossil fuels was a one-time-only historical anomaly? …An exceptional period in the history of human endeavour?
If so (which, obviously I believe to be the case), there is good reason to expect little from a change in government. In the face of eventual energy shortages, policy can only do so much, if your promise is to sustain the unsustainable arrangements based on the fossil-fuel economy (the only economy politicians seem to know). Coming to terms with the economic implications of a pending energy predicament would be a start, but (returning to the theme of sex appeal) it’s hard to find a politician this side of Andromeda that would broach the subject in public.
Politics has almost by definition, become joined at the hip of the industrial global economy. As I have pointed out before, so many facets, aspects and habits in the modern world are shaped by petroleum that we can’t really conceive of altering that reality until it somehow needs to change itself. And so, despite the dual predicament of climate change and peak oil and all the associated problems, we have inherited a political system itself a product of the petroleum age, and therefore at the service of the petroleum economy.
Having said that, it is not impossible (using history as a guide) to imagine a political figure emerging from the current stagnating waters of the status quo, who manages to conjure up the moral imperative to proceed differently as a society. The likelihood of this being a future United States presidential candidate may be slim, but these personalities may already be active on a number of more local political arenas, serving local communities (as would be appropriate).
I happen to feel that climate change represents such an urgent challenge that I feel I must adjust my behaviour in response to it, particularly because it appears that waiting for governments to take decisive action is never going to be enough to avert the crisis. Similarly, it seems probable that no measure of political or popular organisation (like a boycott) is going to be up to the task, sad as this may be.
If it sounds to you that I’m resigned to the fact that quite probably catastrophe is already mixed into the batter, and the cake is in the oven, well I am. But it is precisely because we have collectively backed ourselves into the cul-de-sac of climate change and peak oil that my own reduced dependence on petroleum, complex technology and the systems that support it, may well translate into competitive advantage in the years ahead.  And so a measured, albeit partial, personal boycott strikes me as the best personal response to the present moment in history.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Boycotting Big Oil

Attention, well-informed citizens!
Coming to grips with climate change may well be a question of putting the oil industry in its proper place by curtailing the rate at which we consume their main product. Who better to do that than the daily users of the stuff?

It has become almost fashionable to note just how dependent we are on petroleum. It only takes a few seconds pause to come to realise how every last element of one’s immediate surroundings is or was in some way shaped by the stuff. Such is the nature of the modern, global-industrial experience.
If this is a point we can all agree on, it’s the conclusions that we draw from this observation that vary wildly. To some, petroleum is nothing but a good to be revered and celebrated. To others, it represents a source of misery, and further misery to come. To a great many in the middle it is perhaps at best, a necessary evil, or worse an evil necessity.
Until climate change became an issue, the problems posed by petroleum tended to be on the “easily solved” end of the spectrum (eliminating lead in fuel, and otherwise improving emissions based on California standards, for example). Now, global warming casts a whole new light on the situation, to such an extent that, so long as you are not in complete denial, our relationship to fossil fuels is profoundly problematic. So much so that so-called solutions from carbon taxes and off-setting payment schemes to fuel-rationing have been proposed, and in some cases implemented with varying success and a mixed-bag of intentions. Opponents to such measures usually point to the economic cost of added layers of complexity, and limitations. These detractors consistently must ignore the well-researched evidence that suggests the cost of doing nothing to curtail global warming will be far greater, but when it comes to feeling the immediate pinch, they have a point. Doing business as usual requires, well, the usual arrangements, which are the ones that got us where we are – in a pickle.
As far as I know, almost no-one is seriously considering a boycott of Big Oil across the board. Some perennially suggest a boycott of Shell, because for some reason they are more evil that the rest (?); then again, British Petroleum did a pretty good job at vying for that title with their bungled response to the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Meanwhile, oil from the tar sands of Alberta has rightfully been targeted as particularly “dirty” and worthy of trade restrictions. I would go further. Oil is oil. Once on the market, it matters little where it came from, since it is a fungible commodity, so arguably, every litre or gallon of gasoline pumped has a certain percentage of less desirable oil in it. As it happens dirty oil not bought in one jurisdiction will be bought by another to meet daily global demand. So, if we are going to do more than pretend to be serious about tackling climate change, we’re going to have to reduce that global demand. One effective strategy may well be a concerted global boycott of oil. It probably sounds impossible to your average pair of ears, but it’s an idea I would like to toss around here at Kyoto Motors for now, to see if it might have legs.
As mentioned in my previous post, a boycott cannot work if the objective is merely to achieve lower prices at the pump and a resumption of mindless economic expansion in the form of sprawl and other forms of economic overshoot. So what can a boycott achieve?  The objective would have to be to never return to a car-oriented economy again. This would reduce overall demand and free-up the resource (oil is the most energy-dense resource we’ve ever stumbled upon, after all) for more essential services that serve society at large (such as emergency vehicles, infrastructure & maintenance, construction, public transit, commercial transport and car-share programs, etc.). The effect of reduced consumption on the price of oil would be consumer-friendly, and could well stabilize the rising cost of living. The challenge would be to “stay the course” and not to rush back to indiscriminate use of the car once prices are low and the freeways run freely. Just think of how efficiently the transport sector might work if there were no commuters (single drivers in single vehicles) clogging up the system…
But before we get ahead of ourselves, we should consider first, to what extent a boycott is even possible? And what then, would it look like in practice?
As mentioned at the outset here, petroleum really has insinuated itself into practically every facet of our daily lives. Unless you’re a forager living in a cabin in the woods, you and your lifestyle are, to an overwhelming extent, a function of our principle source of energy on this planet: oil*. The food we eat generally represents a caloric investment from fossil fuels ten times the caloric value of the food itself (an equation that in a normal ecosystem would be a losing proposition). Of course the transportation of food, as well as all other consumer products requires huge and constant flows of the stuff. Meanwhile, mega-systems such as hydro-electric grids and the internet require support from machinery that runs on petroleum, not to mention the plastics that come from petroleum products that go into nearly every machine we make. A true boycott of Big Oil would amount to living in that cabin in the woods, foraging, hunting and gardening… it’s not a lifestyle I wish to put down by any stretch, after all there are tribal societies that still know how to flourish within these kinds of “limitations”. But I’m guessing that, most people reading this would only begin to consider a boycott of Big Oil if they knew it didn’t translate into a radical change of address and job description.
So a boycott would have to be a question of degrees; it could be as extreme as adhering to a hundred-mile or low-carbon diet, thereby minimizing drastically the transportation that goes into ones diet. It could amount to divorcing your car as advocated by author Katie Alvord, which translates into using a recipe of active transport, public transit and car-sharing services. Or you could be more radical and refuse ever to step into a car again. Similarly, one might consider never again boarding a jet plane. This radical measure, if taken up en masse could deal a death-blow to an industry that is responsible for one of the worst ways in which we inject GHG into the atmosphere.
Whatever the measures, by what degree, to boycott would be relative and subjective. One would presumably try to avoid supporting the oil industry whenever possible, and whenever realistic. It would depend entirely on what degree of sacrifice we are willing to make, and how well the alternatives make up for that sacrifice. In some cases, where physical exertion and healthier eating are involved, the benefits will surely outweigh the downside of so many old habits…
I would suggest as a start, that a boycott be defined by relinquishing one’s car, and replacing it with every possible necessity in its place, including car-sharing as a last resort. As a step in that direction, one could do some back of the envelope calculations to determine their current level of use, and set a target of cutting that amount by 50% within a year, and by another 50% the year after… But cold-turkey may be less painful!
The second main element would be to cut out air-travel. As far as the atmosphere is concerned, traveling by jet a couple of times a year can quickly outpace a commuter’s GHG emissions due to daily car use over the course of the same year. Here, a 50% reduction strategy as outlined above might be relatively easy. It’s quite likely that the pleasures of local vacationing will make up for the sense of sacrifice.
Still, I know this is a tall order for a great many. The pervasive sense of entitlement that is wrapped up in our mythologies about freedom tends to involve access to all modes of transportation whenever the fancy stikes. It’s not popular at all to consider that (so-called) freedom, cherished and celebrated as it is, might have a downside. Seeing the world is for sure a great and enriching experience, but at what point does meaningful travel deteriorate into another meaningless form of consumerism? But in order to steer clear of a very subjective analysis of the situation, let me simply suggest that when weighed against the reality of climate change, rampant freedom by jet plane may need a drastic re-think.
 If the two strategies I am suggesting were combined as a boycott on a large scale is a hopeful and promising thought in theory, there is at least one remaining, significant problem facing such a plan.
As we learned with high gasoline prices in 2007 – which had a cold blanket effect on the economy referred to as “demand destruction” – a relatively sudden curtailment in gasoline consumption has a recessionary effect on the economy which in turn reduces consumption. So long as economic activity and energy consumption are bound at the hip, a boycott of oil will always represent a threat to economic growth. And so a boycott would almost certainly prove to be an extremely contentious issue economically and politically speaking. Anyone who is heavily invested in the status quo, from the political class (on the left and the right) to the corporate class and the financial elite, would have the incentive and the means to counter such a strategy with marketing and other propaganda so thick, that the average citizen might begin to think that climate change has been solved by other means – I sometimes think this describes the daze we are in at present, but I digress. This may prove to be the tragic flaw that dooms the civilisation in the long run: just when the ruling bodies in society are needed to take charge and change direction, all leadership vanishes into thin air. People in power protect their power base, and nothing more.
I mention this because this strikes me as the most likely outcome in the years ahead (whether or not a boycott is ever attempted), based on the recent past. However, trying times have been known to inspire exceptional people to rise to the occasion, so the window of opportunity must be considered open by at least a crack.
So what might people in leadership roles do to help tackle climate change? Hypothetically speaking, in the event that a boycott of big oil took root, the political class (read: governments) could help make the boycott easier, and its economic effects less jarring by implementing various social reforms, meaningful public works projects and fostering improved community resilience. Obviously alternative modes of transportation (trains! buses! bikes!) for individuals, would have to be treated as paramount.
Just as important would be the message coming from the top, be it Parliament Hill or the Oval Office. As we are beginning to see with climate change as well as with peak oil, some degree of economic cost and hard limits to perpetual economic expansion await us no matter which way we choose to move forward – particularly if we hold on to the business-as-usual approach. This is a political hot-potato issue that an uninformed public does not want to hear. But since we’re well into the territory of the hypothetical, let’s entertain the thought – after all, if ever we got to the point of a widespread boycott of Big Oil, it would be because the electorate was finally prepared to receive such a message.
So while a concerted boycott of Big Oil might cause some economic hardship, particularly in carbon-intensive sectors, it will be important to remind ourselves that the economic contractions of peak oil and the consequences of rampant carbon emissions are and were already underway. Since this pain would likely be felt by a wide segment of the population, it would be important to remind ourselves of the big picture when dealing with the initial effects of “demand destruction.”
Back to reality
Sadly, a global boycott is the kind of “plan” contingent upon some pretty significant presumptions and downright wishful hopes. It’s hard to imagine getting from where we are today to a place where the truth about energy and the economy is aired out in public discourse (for a decent start, visit the Energy Bulletin!). It’s hard to imagine just how that discourse would inspire enough people for a boycott to get underway in the first place. And it’s hard to imagine a real-world perception of a boycott as being positive, even though the immediate drop in carbon emissions would only be good for the planet.
It’s equally hard to imagine replacing the current petroleum-based way of doing things with some magic, technological alternative overnight. But somehow this is precisely the fantasy that gets so much of the air time. And this is where I plan to pick up the discussion in my next post.
* Okay, arguably it’s the sun: as it has been pointed out by a great many that even crude oil is ultimately just concentrated solar power. Similarly, wind and hydro rely on the sun, which is responsible for the movements of air and water on the planet, but I digress…