Crime of the 21st Century: Perpetrators of Apocalypse, or, The Seven Circles of Hell

August 3, 2018

Time to have a talk / it will not be fun / buckle up. Feel free to skip to the end at any point for pleasant pictures of adorable animals.

You and I are witnessing the twenty-first century’s great crime: a global holocaust whose first victims have already perished. And I mean holocaust, from Greek holókaustos, translated as “whole” and “burnt” – the whole enormity of life daily sacrificed to flames. That is not hyperbole. Driving this crime is the collapse of the world’s stable climatic and atmospheric systems. Fossil energy economies are doing this. They transform the world into a deathly, suffocating hothouse sabotaging the climate and atmosphere. That’s what they do.

Carbon energy kills 3.5 to 6 million people per year through air pollution alone. Beyond that, this crime is also killing people via extreme hurricanes, wildfires, floods, droughts, and heat waves, expanding the range of deadly diseases like malaria and Lyme, famines, and conflicts like the Syrian civil war. There is good reason to believe these disasters will destabilize geopolitical relationships and lead to world war. Every one of these types of disasters will continue to intensify—that is inevitable at this point.

What is not inevitable is degree of intensity. Quantity of death can still be curtailed; we can prevent billions of deaths, even forestall human extinction. But the tragic fact is that some immense minimum of murder is certain. The body count will exceed those of any crimes that have come before. Monarchs and dictators designed the twentieth century’s vast death; this new crime is perpetrated by a global oligarchy – a hereditary aristocracy – a network of governments ruled by a super-wealthy elite. The most culpable among this elite are members of the oil, gas, and coal industries. Whereas the events of mass destruction wrought in the last century ceased, this new crime will endure for generations, maybe centuries.

And so we must begin the long work of ascribing moral responsibility* for this great crime. The practice of determining moral culpability is not about smug self-gratification or panicked finger pointing. It’s about 1) calculating who is most and least responsible for this crime because justice does not exist in the world separate from this moral reckoning—if we want justice we must do that analysis; and 2) if we can agree on who is most responsible for the problem, we can justify targeting those actors and take their power from them so that we might thwart human extinction. But determining moral responsibility for such a monumental crime is not simple.

Looking at the past may not help much. But let’s do it anyway. Real quick, don your most dismal thinking cap: what is the greatest crime of the twentieth century? Maybe the Holocaust: eleven million murdered plus a world war that killed tens of millions. Imperial Japan: three to fourteen million civilians and prisoners slaughtered. Or Stalin’s modernization: thirty million souls erased. Mao’s industrialization: forty-five million human beings dead. We could squeeze these atrocities together under the very somber umbrella of totalitarian industrialization, a brutal segue from agrarian to industrial economies that butchered close to 100 million people in cold blood. This calamity rests atop the last gasps of European colonial atrocities that killed millions more. Every century bears great crimes; history boasts many such terrors and moral catastrophes, replete with villains to single out. The Mongol Empire, for instance, may have killed around five percent of the world’s population. Who can say how many souls were stolen by the British Empire (29m Indians alone), the Roman Empire (maybe 13m), the Persian Empires, Imperial China, or the Mauryan Empire of India? To the reign of agrarian civilizations, war, genocide, slavery, and torture provide the banal backdrop. The moral culpability for these atrocities is fairly straightforward. Monstrous, psychopathic men compelled swarms of mundanely evil middle managers and cowardly, bloodthirsty citizens to carry out these crimes.

Miraculously in the twenty-first century, mainstream international institutions exist to uphold values that reject such savagery. Even if these institutions are ill-equipped to prevent human trafficking and sporadic outbursts of genocidal strife, and even if wage slavery still haunts large swaths of the economy, it is an ethical step in the right direction that genocide, chattel slavery, and torture no longer enjoy such mainstream acceptance as cats or muffins. People today are generally pretty nice: our tribal in-group/out-group boundaries are more expansive than ever, death by violence is probably the lowest ever, we really care about other species, and we care about future generations. Simultaneously, we live a grotesque paradox in which we are also killing more animals than ever in history, we are risking the futures of every person on the planet, and we are gambling with the lives of posterity more than we ever have.

This century’s great crime will be the worst ever committed. In the entirety of this crime, far, far more souls will be discarded than were lost last century. We cannot know the number exactly yet – we can’t even precisely quantify past tragedy – but we can guess with some confidence that death tolls will crack the hundreds of millions. Under worst-case scenarios, maybe we’ll even stumble on total species suicide; all of humanity, all of our futures, all of our history, all of our daily beauty and flaws, snuffed. Many, maybe most, of those killed will die violently at the hands of other people, by war and conquest. Others will die less dramatically of famine and pestilence. The Horsemen ride.

Not only people will die en masse. Uncounted and uncountable other lives will be lost, thousands of other species, of trees, of butterflies, of flowers, of frogs, of big cats, of birds, of whales, their only kind breathing in the whole vast dominion and long history of existence, will be wiped out for maybe all the rest of spacetime, until the heat and energy of the universe dissipate totally leaving an utterly cold and empty vacuum (or, you know, whatever happens). This ultimate holocaust is well under way.

Our twenty-first century crime is more complex than those of the past. When determining moral responsibility, we can’t point to a handful of garish villains and their heinous henchmen and call it a day. We have to do more work. One way of conceptualizing this moral analysis is to use a radiating series of circles of moral responsibility with the inner circle most responsible and the outer boundaries least responsible.

First, here is a handy chart:

Figure 1 – A handy chart

Circle 7

The outermost circle contains individuals who have been mostly left out of the global economy or have benefited little from it, and possess weak enfranchisement in their governments. This includes people residing in pockets of Sub-Saharan Africa and rural Asia and South America, hunter-gatherers in their few remaining homelands scattered around the tropics and taigas, and the disenfranchised poor residing throughout the developed world. If historians employ any moral judgment and impose just analysis on our current crime, they should largely exempt these populations from practical and moral responsibility. Let’s stick with the Holocaust analogy to illuminate responsibility in these doom circles: these are the people who were not involved in the crime at all or who were victims of the crime, Jews, gypsies, etc.; many of these most impoverished and disenfranchised individuals will be the most harmed victims of this twenty-first century crime.

Circle 6

The next circle of responsible individuals includes those who are participating in the global economy but also working – in some way or another – to stem the crime on a structural scale. The crime is global, industrial, and systemic; individual practical contributions should be considered in this moral analysis, but the important thing to consider is the extent to which an individual is attempting to impact larger, structural forces. This group is fairly straightforward from a moral standpoint; they are investing their time, energy, expertise, money, and well-being into trying to stop this crime. In the Holocaust example, these are the fighters in resistance movements and soldiers in foreign militaries who sought to stop the crime.

Circle 5

The next circle contains most of us in the developed world. This includes citizens who are benefiting from the global economy and have some political representation, but are generally apathetic or ignorant of the crime. This group is made up of men, women, Republicans, Democrats, Labour, Tories, Social Democrats, Nationalists, Caucasians, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latino/as, hipsters, yuppies, rednecks, hippies, bros, hoes, socialites, hermits, heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bi, trans Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Wiccans, blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, college graduates, high school graduates, pre-school graduates, Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers, Millennials, et-fucking-cetera, cutting across basically every demographic divide, income bracket, ethnicity, job description, sexual orientation, zip code, favorite pizza topping, geographic location, and background.

Just over a third of Americans care “a great deal” about this crime – so, two-thirds do not care a great deal about it – but far fewer than a third are actively involved in trying to address it. And many, probably most, have perfectly understandable, legitimate reasons for not participating in stopping it: they are stressed about their lives, they don’t have extra time or income beyond their jobs and paying rent/debt, they don’t know what to do about the problem, they feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of it, they don’t know much about it. Of course, not everyone should stop what they’re doing to fight this crime. We need people to pick up the trash and farm food and care for the sick and keep the trains running. We need people to put all their energy into making beautiful art because otherwise what’s the point of saving humanity anyways? But, ya know, a little witnessing, a little conversation, a little acknowledgement of this crime can go a long way. This group generally looks the other way, ignores or gently denies the problem, and is mostly checked out. These citizens can be said to correlate in the Holocaust example with those European citizens who had a sense the crime was being committed, but ignored it or avoided it or hid from it for fear or horror or ignorance or utter incredulity.

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Circle 4

The next circle includes those average citizens who have actively impeded efforts to stop the crime. This is your uncle who loudly proclaims that the crime is a hoax and votes for politicians who bring snowballs into the Halls of Congress, who shares propaganda put out by True American Patriot Eagle Force on Facebook that blames the UN for fabricating the crime, and who donates money to organizations that perpetuate the problem. Your uncle probably does not have a lot of structural power and individually has little control over whether policies get passed or regulation gets curtailed. But these folks do have some influence as voters and consumers and they bear some moral responsibility for the crime. These citizens are kin to the European citizens who were generally supportive of the Nazi party and helped, in small ways, to carry out the Holocaust.

Circle 2 & 3

The next two circles of responsibility include large companies and industry representative groups in one and, in the other, political leaders who actively impede stopping the crime: Inhofe, McConnell, basically any Republican, but some Democrats, too. These two groups blend together like an evil Neapolitan ice cream—except they’re all vanilla. The question is, which group’s members possess more power to stop the crime? The question is difficult to answer given the very intimate, intertwined, and sometimes perversely physical relationship between corporate policy writers and elected policymakers. On one hand, industry trade groups that have impeded action to stop the crime, like ALEC and the Heritage Foundation, have tremendous influence over policy decisions. On the other hand, political leaders are the ones actually casting a vote on policy or enforcing regulations that could have structural impacts on preventing this crime. So political leaders just barely edge out corporate interest groups in their culpability. If politicians were to show courage and fortitude, they could pass policies that could stop the crime. If corporate leaders, in contrast, were to show the same courage and fortitude – an equally fantastical scenario – they couldn’t necessarily pass the same policies if met with a wall of cowardly politicians. In the Holocaust example, these are the prominent members of government and the military who defended and upheld the Nazi regime, as well as the managers running death camps.

Circle 1

In the inner and by far most important circle rests oil, gas, and utility companies – private or state-owned – and the executives, management teams, heads of state, and boards of directors who control their actions, people like Rex Tillerson, Lawrence Rawl, Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Tony Hayward. Alongside these actors are the trade groups that represent them, like the American Petroleum Institute and Koch-funded lobbyist groups. These individuals and groups have been the most dedicated in building the propagandist-ultra-lie-fest campaigns convincing large swaths of the public that this great crime is a mass conspiracy orchestrated by greedy scientists. The oil, gas, and utility industries have all known for decades that their businesses were committing this crime and they continued to actively perpetuate it. In the Holocaust example, they are the Führer himself, Himmler, Goebbels, Göring, Bormann, Speer, and the rest of the inner circle. They are the chief engineers of this crime. They are the greatest advocates for the continuation of this crime. We can put a number on the guilty: just ninety companies are driving the crime.

This is the most important circle for ascribing blame, for seeking justice, and for addressing the problem. This is the snake’s head that must be severed. The residents of this circle are the enemy to all who wish to stop this crime. This industry and their representatives have been very explicit about their intention to stifle transition. They intend to continue extracting oil and gas as long as these executives, managers, and board members continue to personally make yacht-loads of cash from it. They will continue to undermine transition away from their product by corrupting the government, misleading the public, and harassing activists.

Just as the Nazi regime, Stalin’s apparat, and Mao’s party exercised tight control over their nations and their economies, oil oligarchs in Circle 1 exert power over the governments and economies dependent on their products (that is, all of them). The only hope for halting this crime depends on defeating the oil oligarchy and severing the connections between energy companies and governments.

As long as oil oligarchy continues to dominate the global economy, this great crime will continue unimpeded; millions of people and other living beings will die, many violently. The most immediate challenge to oil oligarchy currently underway is coming from the myriad small, local community energy programs sprouting up around the world. These programs generally involve distributed energy sources governed by neighborhood-scale or municipal entities. This democratic ownership of energy can both reduce the need for carbon energy and make possible the more democratic political economy that oil oligarchs are deliberately obstructing. Perhaps the best mode of resistance we can exercise now is to organize more community renewable energy groups capable of replacing carbon-based utilities, participate in existing ones, invest in the push toward electric vehicles, and compel governments and utilities – by whatever means available – to support these kinds of distributed ownership energy groups through funding, clearing bureaucratic hurdles, and severing collusive ties with incumbent industries like oil, coal, and gas. Protest movements that prevent the construction of new carbon infrastructure, like oil pipelines, are also important vanguards in the fight to stop this great crime.

We are living in the midst of a long, slow Holocaust. This atrocity is immediately less dramatic but far more destructive than Nazi Germany’s. Now is the time to decide whether we will fight to stop this crime or allow it to continue, and to bear the infinite stain of it. Will history see us as one meager people shrinking back, tainted by complicity in this mass destruction of life, or as the heroic generation that fought to stop humanity’s greatest crime?

*It may be helpful to distinguish between individual practical and moral responsibility. Two people could have different practical impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, but could have the same or opposite moral responsibility for the issue. For instance, take an average middle-class American living in the Midwest and an average middle-class American living in New York City. The Midwestern American probably contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere: if they live in a single-family home, drive to work and the grocery store everyday, and have a more meat-heavy diet, there’s a good chance their greenhouse gas emissions would be a bit higher than an urban-dweller who commutes by public transit, lives in an apartment, and eats more tofu than meat; backyard BBQ vs. boozy brunch.

Their practical contributions to this great crime are slightly different. But their moral responsibility is no different. The Midwestern American needs to drive to the grocery store to physically survive; many don’t have the luxury of cheap, efficient public transit. The New Yorker and Midwesterner are equally morally culpable if we only measure their carbon footprints, which itself is a dubious and really incalculable quantification of responsibility. The Midwesterner is living at the whim of the only infrastructure to which she has access, like the New Yorker. The Midwesterner cannot be said on this basis alone to be considered more morally responsible for the crime than the New Yorker. Further, there’s good reason to consider that making small shifts in one’s lifestyle like taking a bus instead of a car would not largely change the practical (or moral) responsibility for the problem given all the myriad other ways – electricity consumption and supporting structures of power that maintain a carbon energy economy, for instance – in which both the Midwesterner and New Yorker participate. So the way we can legitimately hierarchize moral responsibility ought to be according to how much relative power one has in forcing a carbon-economy status quo rather than the amount of greenhouse gasses one personally emits.

As promised…

Figure 2 – A sweet little dog with soap on her head


Figure 3 – An innocent baby sheep in pajamas


Figure 4 – A delicate kitten resting in a lovely bowl


Figure 5 – Two small hedgehogs nestled among beautiful fall foliage


Figure 6 – A squirrel and his acorn, going about their business


Figure 7 – A baby bunny sitting in a meadow of flowers

Teaser photo credit: Gustave Doré

Samuel Miller McDonald

Prior to beginning his DPhil research, Sam obtained a Master of Environmental Management at Yale University studying energy politics and grassroots innovations in the US. He also holds a BA in Human Ecology from College of the Atlantic. In addition to his academic work, Sam serves as Managing Editor at, an online publication dedicated to cultivating research and conversation on social change innovation.
Sam's research examines the relationship between distributed electricity generation and political-economic egalitarianism in the United States. Focusing on community renewable energy groups in the US, Sam is investigating ways in which distributed, democratic control of energy resources impacts discourses and attitudes around economic inequality and political empowerment.

Tags: building resilient societies, climate change, climate justice, environmental effects of fossil fuel extraction