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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…

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