Elites in both corporations and government are often quite good at running systems they create, and bad at looking beyond these systems at larger social effects. This doubleness was on display at the Worcester Polytechnic commencement.

For its main speaker, the college invited Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon. A group of students and faculty, disturbed that fossil fuel purveyors are causing great harm, exercised the right of protest. One student said “we will not give the Exxon CEO the honor of imparting his well-wishes for our futures when he is largely responsible for undermining [our futures].”

This group invited their own speaker, Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute and author of Powerdown, The End of Growth, and eight other books.

Tillerson gave an unexceptional address (Worcester “embraces the cutting edge of technology,” let colleges train more scientist and engineers, let graduates have personal integrity, take time off from your Blackberry every day). While he did allude to “creative financial schemes” that “destroy billions of value in pensions and other investments,” he had nothing to say about the peak of oil production or the environmental costs of burning fossil fuel.

Those who ducked out to hear Heinberg got an earful. In less than 3,000 words, Heinberg told about challenges that will require much more than personal integrity. He began by reminding his audience that U.S. oil production has been declining since 1970 (nearly a couple of generations ago) and according to the International Energy Agency in Paris, global crude oil production peaked in 2006, leaving oil, as Heinberg explained, that is lower in quality or located in places harder to access.

Saying that he had not flown across the country to “demonize” Exxon, Heinberg nonetheless accused the company of “adopting the tobacco industry’s disinformation tactics and funding some of the same organizations that led campaigns against tobacco regulation in the 1980s,” organizations that are now busy denying scientific evidence of climate change.

In his address, Tillerson told the graduates to respect “the integrity of the scientific process,” but his company, said Heinberg, has funded organizations that cast doubt on that process. Exxon, he said, “raised doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence” and “attempted to portray its opposition to action [in response to climate change] as a positive quest for ‘sound science’ rather than business self-interest.”

Heinberg called the success of this disinformation campaign “a disaster for democracy, for the Earth, and for your generation.,” the generation born around 1990.

Saying that commencement speaker Tillerson knows as well as anyone that “the world will have to transition off fossil fuels during this century,” Heinberg argued that delay is “extremely dangerous.” Delay means not only more entrapment of solar energy by greenhouse gases but also a loss of the time needed to build a renewable energy economy. In that case, he sees a prospect of “a trap of skyrocketing fuel prices and a collapsing economy.”

Heinberg pointed to a gap between the interests of firms such as Exxon and the interests of society. “When the price of oil goes up, we feel the pain while Exxon reaps the profits.” In addition to funding climate [change] denial, fossil fuel companies like Exxon have contributed to politicians’ election campaigns in order to gain perks for their industry and to put off higher efficiency standards [for vehicles] and environmental protections”:

According to Heinberg, the amount that Exxon invested last year in a so-called Global Climate and Energy Project is no more than it paid in personal compensation to its CEO.

Pointing out that renewable sources of energy each have “limits and drawbacks,” Heinberg said for this reason “we will probably have less energy in the future.” Speaking to new graduates, he predicted that “during your lifetime you will see world changes more significant in scope than human beings have ever witnessed before.”

While the Exxon CEO was telling graduates to act with integrity, Heinberg named some enormous challenges their generation will have to face, including these:

  • growing food sustainably for 7 billion people or more; and
  • reorganizing our financial system so it can “perform its essential functions — reinvesting savings into socially beneficial programs — in the context of an economy that is stable or maybe even shrinking due to declining energy supplies, rather than continually growing.”

To the extent Heinberg is right, people identified with fossil fuel energy are an elite that illustrates a double truth: at what they are accustomed to do, the oil elite is resourceful at finding, extracting, transporting, refining, and distributing their products, and at maximizing the profits of their firms while extracting subsidies from governments and engaging in international manipulations to reduce taxes. With regard to the social cost, this same clever and hard-working elite is a failure, in part because it doesn’t define social costs as its business. Pressed, it may claim that an “invisible hand” reliably converts private greed into social good.

Thus, we have built systems so complex that, with few exceptions, only the relevant elite understands them, and yet that elite is devoted not to public good, but to “shareholder value” or some ideology.

Another illustration is the national security elite, admirably well educated, shrewd, and tough-minded. Yet when the Cold War ended after the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989, members of this elite assured everybody that nobody could possibly have predicted an end to a struggle that had persisted for more than four decades. Actually, some people on both sides didn’t waste time predicting, but devoted their energy to trying to find an alternative to the cold war.

I know, because I had the honor of giving grants to some of the groups in the U.S. that were working hard to establish ties with the Soviets and to develop and explain a vision of another kind of relationship. These groups included the Esalen Soviet-American Exchange program, Beyond War, and Sharon Tennison’s Center for Citizen Initiatives (which ran “Soviets, Meet Middle America” and many subsequent programs).

The national security elites on both sides managed to avoid nuclear war, though several times it was barely averted. They operated the system called the Cold War quite well. The point is, they were not equipped to find a way out of it.

Whether it’s the fossil fuel energy managers, or the masters of national security, an elite may successfully run the system that it has created, while never trying to find an alternative. That is the task, as Heinberg made clear, that now falls in part upon the generation born around 1990, with the prospect of being only 60 in the middle of this century.