Act: Inspiration

I’m Sian, and I’m a fossil fuel addict: on paradox, disavowal and (im)possibility in changing climate change

August 6, 2020

Once upon a time in the wild west

Sometimes life brings experiences that give pause for thought.

In recent years I have returned to west Namibia to work with elders of families I’ve known for over almost 30 years – a legacy of a childhood split between Britain and southern Africa. We have been documenting histories of land connections prior to a series of clearances of people from large areas of the west Namibian landscape, that occurred some decades ago.1 Often now perceived as an untouched and pristine wilderness, our work instead draws into focus a landscape intimately known, named and remembered by people who once lived there. Oral histories recorded as we find and revisit places my companions knew as home, have increasingly struck a chord as a record of lives lived more-or-less untouched by fossil fuels.

In the contemporary terms defined by modernity, industrialisation and capital, theirs was an economically impoverished existence. But this is not how they define and describe their experience.

Beyond the nostalgia that people tend to have for times past, their prior existence is valued in some of the following ways:

2. Hoanib 60x60 020717 copy
Cousins Noag Mûgagara Ganaseb (L) and Franz |Haen ||Hoëb (R) revisit places in the westward reaches of the Hoanib River where they used to live. Here they are close to ||Oeb, now the site of an eco-tourism lodge called Hoanib Camp, located on the south side of the bend in the Hoanib River just to the right of centre in this image. When Franz, Noag and their families lived in this area they would alternate between harvesting !nara (Acanthosicyos horridus) from their !nara plants near the waterhole of Auses / !Ui||gams, and walking southwards to Kai-as and the !Uniab River where different foods as well as !nara could be found.In the 1950s the coastal dunes were opened for diamond mining. Then in 1971 the lower Hoanib was gazetted as part of the Skeleton Coast National Park. As these areas became opened for industry and conservation, they became closed to habitation by those who once lived there. Photo: Sian Sullivan, November 2015, composite made with Mike Hannis using three 10 x 10 km aerial images from Directorate of Survey and Mapping, Windhoek, July 2017, as part of a series of images for the exhibition Future Pasts: Landscape, Memory and Music in West Namibia.

As the complexity of these pasts has come further into focus, it has become impossible to avoid the gulf between this degree of attunement to environmental contexts and my own life. Like many in ‘the west’, I would describe myself as concerned with environmental and social justice. All my work has been energised by such concerns, as well as with an animist sense of the natures with which we live, which seems resonant with aspects of the lifeworlds of those ‘indigenous people’ with whom I have interacted and worked.

At the same time, the reality is that I am completely dependent on fossil fuels and the products they make possible. This dependence exists even as I simultaneously and publicly acknowledge the serious implications of pumping more climate-forcing gases into the atmosphere. There is almost nothing in the world around me or in my life as it is currently structured that exists independently of fossil fuels. The basic things with which I write and share these reflections – from the plastic refillable pencil I scribble notes with, to the laptop I write on and the wifi system I am now connected with – are shot through with fossil fuels.

Facing it

Under current structural circumstances, I am completely unable to unhook myself from fossil fuel production and consumption. Even consciously ‘low-impact’ and low-carbon lifestyles are bound with the fossil fuel industry and the apparent necessity of economic growth this supports. The solar panels on my roof at home installed to foster an ‘off-grid’ lifestyle are made and transported using fossil fuels – not to mention the host of other substances involved in their fabrication whose extraction and associated wastes are seriously environmentally-damaging.

Documenting the fossil-fuel-free pasts of people like Franz and Noag above means I fly to Namibia and then drive a diesel-fuelled 4×4 so as to go with small groups of people to the far-flung locations where they lived. Maybe I should simply give up this research so as to be more congruent with a stringently decarbonised lifestyle? But apart from personal love for this work – for the places it takes me to, the people I work alongside, and the diversity I am exposed to and learn from – I do this in a context of local desire for such pasts to be documented and made public, institutional support for contributions along these lines, and professional pressures to continue with work that consolidates and internationalises earlier research effort. Like others working to engage with and bear witness to justice issues in various global contexts – issues frequently associated with fossil fuel extraction and emissions management – all of my research and activist engagements are paradoxically fuelled by fossil fuels.

Of course, I can assuage my conscience by purchasing carbon offset credits – perhaps using a carbon credit card through which every dollar I spend will apparently reduce my carbon footprint – or by planting trees somewhere else. But I do not really accept a model that sees the earth in terms of aggregates (an aggregate carbon budget, an aggregate level of ‘natural capital’, etc.2), the composition of which can be traded, exchanged and substituted between times and places so as somehow to cancel out emissions. I am generating carbon emissions through my life and work, full-stop. There is no ‘elsewhere’ for these emissions.

As someone who cares about both planetary health and is very concerned about the perpetuation and deepening of grotesque economic inequity, I rationalise my activities by considering the documentation I am doing with others in Namibia to be worth it – in terms of making visible currently occluded pasts, experiences of displacement, and different possible ways of living with diverse natures-beyond-the-human. Such rationalisations, which are amongst those we engage in all the time so as to exist amidst unavoidable contradictions, go some way towards cognitively smoothing the dissonances described above.

In facing these contradictions and the dependencies they mask, I also find that it is harder to simultaneously maintain a stringently critical position towards fossil fuel extractors (I need the substances they produce, dammit!), states and negotiators in the worlds of climate change management.

Indeed, motivating this essay is a sense that I am not alone in deploying psychic compartmentalisations so as to act affirmatively in the world, whilst simultaneously damning the fuels, technologies, organisations and structures that make these actions possible – thus ultimately also damning myself. I am wondering if it is increasingly important to recognise the prevalence of such internal divisions, particularly the destructive paradox of not being able to live up to internalised but unreachable values.

I am influenced here by a provocative meditation on the natures of authoritarianism: The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad.3 In The Guru Papers, Kramer and Alstad speak of ‘the hypocrisy masking so much of social interaction where people pretend to be far more virtuous than they are’ (p. 228). They highlight the destructive authoritarianism that arises as internalised ‘good’ / ‘bad’ dualities pit aspects of the self against each other. And they connect this internalised conflict with social contexts in which assumptions and projections of superior morality maintain problematic authoritarianisms. They argue that such everyday authoritarianisms act to avert equality in social relationships, whilst also reducing possibilities for strengthening self-trust and for improving broader awareness of the structural dissonances preventing systemic change.

Acknowledging the implications of such internal and social conflicts and inconsistencies indeed seems critical right now, when so many ecological, psychological and social indicators suggest that we need systemic change in spades.

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What on earth is going on?

When re-emerging from periods of field research in west Namibia, where internet is very sparse, into more-or-less constant internet reality, I have often felt like I am viewing events unfolding in the world from a sort of bemused and horrified distance. An example comes from December 2015, at the time the 21st Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was taking place in Paris. As I sat in a small hotel in Windhoek readying myself to return to the UK just after journeying between Sesfontein / !Nani-|aus and the Skeleton Coast with Franz and Noag pictured above, I wrote about the following constellation of events.

So, the world’s government negotiators are meeting for the 21st time to attempt to agree to systemically adjust economic activities so as to decarbonise the global economy. For months now, climate justice activists have also been mobilising protests and actions. Of particular concern is the corporate agenda considered to be preventing the UNFCCC COP from reaching a binding international agreement that has real teeth in terms of emissions reductions. Corporate sponsors supporting the Paris COP include airlines, energy corporations and banks. Great effort by (h)activists has gone into designing possibilities for radical play to disrupt the ‘mesh’ of the formal summit and its associations with ‘austerity-dictating politicians, fossil fuel corporations, industry lobbyists, peddlers of false solutions and greenwashers’; as well as to deflect the policing ‘sidekicks’ of the COP (referred to as ‘Team Blue’). Protests in Paris on the eve of the COP were met by ‘team blue’ with tear gas and police baton charges.

Simultaneously, the chilling pre-Summit attacks in Paris by ISIL in mid-November have precipitated further fossil fuel intensive military strikes by the west against sites in the Middle East, as well as a potentially indefinite state of emergency in France under which public demonstrations are banned. The right of public assembly so as to contest the climate change negotiations of COP21 is curbed under these emergency powers.

Meanwhile, within hours of a yes vote in the UK parliament, RAF bombers joined allies who have been bombing Syrian oil fields since 2014, the speed by which the bombers were deplyed suggesting that it was farcical to think there could have been an alternative outcome to the parliamentary vote. Justified as striking at the source of oil finance for ‘the terrorist group Daesh’, it seems beyond irony that at this intense moment of global climate change negotiations in Paris, wells supplying the supposedly scarce and climate-forcing substance of oil are being bombed, entailing probably huge emissions into the atmosphere in situation that would not look out of place in a post-apocalyptic Mad Max film.

And here I’m nodding to another irony, in that the last Mad Max film – Fury Road (The Future Belongs to the Mad) of 2015 – was filmed in the sensitive desert landscapes of west Namibia, not far from where I started this essay, its destructive impacts causing fury amongst environmentalists and scientists there. The film uses the stark beauty of the Namib desert as the backdrop for a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland where the scarcest of commodities are petrol and water (and fertile women), and violence is the means whereby control of these precious items is maintained . . .

In any case, apart from the heart-breaking humanitarian disaster of military intervention in Middle East contexts over the last 20+ years of international climate negotiations, such tactics surely contradict ‘the west’s’ avowed allegiance to reduce climate change emissionsThe ferocity with which western corporations carved up Iraq’s oil fields within months of removing Saddam Hussein in 2003 should remind us that aggressive access to fossil fuels infuses international policy too. Indeed, current military adventure by the west in Syria appears a bloodsoaked strategy to beat Russia and Iran to the significant ‘hydrocarbon potential’ of Syria’s offshore resources. These geopolitical issues are not even close to the public negotiating table in Paris.

Consider as well a couple of announcements made as government climate negotiators were meeting in Paris. The environment minister(!) of the Australian government justified recent approval of the $16bn Carmichael coalmine in Queensland, to be operated by Indian company Adani, on the grounds that Australia is not a neo-colonialist power that tells poor countries what to do. Botswana announced the sale of fracking rights to a UK company covering half the Kgalagadi transfrontier park, an area also associated with indigenous San / Bushmen. Meanwhile, in the US, Oklahoma is experiencing an ‘earthquake boom’, which even the Oklahoma government now attributes to the injection of water into basement rock in the continuing process of extracting natural gas from bedrock – otherwise known as fracking.

Oklahoma fracking earthquakes 2015
Map of Oklahoma showing eathquakes linked with fracking wells. The orange dots represent earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 and high from January to December 2015. The blue dots represent the state’s wastewater disposal wells. Source: 5 December 2015.

Fast forwards to the present moment, as we build up to the 26th COP of the UNFCCC, to be held in November 2021 in Glasgow, UK. Postponed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic, COP26 is taking place in a world that has tilted on its political axis towards right-wing populism and consolidated plutonomy: viz. the elections of presidents Trump (US), Bolsonaro (Brazil), Erdoğan (Turkey), and the ascent of Johnson to Prime Minister in the UK. The green hopes stimulated by a COVID-19 induced pause in especially flying, and that is stranding fossil fuel assets everywhere, are being dashed as recovery packages for oil companies are announced. Clearly, the contradictions continue.

Disavowal and doublethink

In trying to generate a coherent picture from these fragments, I feel acutely sensitive to the difficulty of maintaining hope for binding international climate agreements that have teeth, whilst being aware of the fossil fuel extracting and emissions-spewing juggernaut that permeates all our lives.

Humans are adept at deploying the layers of our consciousness to simultaneously maintain sometimes diametrically opposed realities. The pioneer of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, in a nifty essay published in 1938, identified this human ‘talent’ as Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence. He asserted that in order to accommodate traumatic and dangerous reality the ego may behave in remarkable ways. In short, a defensive splitting can be deployed such that the threat associated with particular behaviours is both acknowledged and systematically turned away from. Attention is instead transferred to fetishised solutions that facilitate continuation of the dangerous but satisfying behavior, at the same time as constituting symptoms of the acknowledged reality of this danger.

Freud used the term ‘disavowal’ to describe this simultaneous defence against and displaced acknowledgement of dangerous reality.

In carbon management, offsetting mechanisms designed to mitigate emissions production can be seen as paradigmatic of such a fetishised ‘solution’. They signal simultaneous acknowledgement and sustenance of harms caused. As a fetishised solution to anthropogenic climage change, offsets are directing oceans of creative energy and resources towards the production of metrics to calculate carbon produced and stored at different sites, and away from achieving reductions in emissions production.4 This is why critics of such exchange and market-based approaches to emissions management cry ‘false solutions‘.

‘Doublethink’ was the term that George Orwell, in his dystopian novel 1984, used for such practices of structural disavowal. He defined doublethink as ‘the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them’ (p. 244), identifying this enforced practice as at the heart of maintaining a systemically unequal totalitarian regime. Orwell wrote further that the prevailing mental condition associated with doublethink was ‘controlled insanity’, a state necessary to forever avert human equality (p. 226).

Disavowal and doublethink enable hope for emissions-reducing agreements to succeed, even as oil fields are being bombed by the powers making those same promises. They enable acceptance of Western governments as liberal democracies, even as freedom of assembly is severely constrained under arrangements which in France in 2015 were precipitating rushed changes to the constitution. They perhaps also run through the internal psychological divisions enabling impassioned pleas for the cessation of fossil fuel emissions production, to be made using technologies, gadgets and transports fuelled by fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel(led) culture

All of us contesting climate change and railing against the activities of fossil fuel companies are doing this using technologies, infrastructures and materials that are fossil fuelled. Every single one of our online posts working to organise social movements for climate justice and create beautiful digital installations to display our love and care for the world are made possible by fossil fuels. They are embedded in our computers, in our mobile phones, in all our mechanised transport systems, in our bikes, in the transport of our foods, however organic and fairly traded they are.

Fossil fuel corporations might be blamed for their hunger to capture oil under the land of indigenous peoples in Ecuador or their rudeness in grabbing fracking licenses in conserved and indigenous lands of developing countries. And cynicism may be justified regarding the will and/or ability of government negotiators to agree a Summit text that is binding in terms of national emissions reductions and fossil fuel investments. But given the systemic nature of our dependence on fossil fuel products and infrastructure – even in the technologies and power supporting fundraising and campaigns against extraction of these fuels, and despite how aware and environmentally conscious we might be – it is starting to seem uncomfortable and inaccurate to engage in divisive communications around the issue of fossil fuel dependence. Just about everything around us and with which we are entangled – much of which we might appreciate and even love – is fuelled by and/or made with fossil fuel.

Addiction and taking steps

Recently, and quite frequently, our fossil fuelled culture has been framed in terms of substance addiction. US acknowledgement of climate change culpability since the 1960s has been considered in terms of alternating actions and relapses in relation to this addiction. It is argued that we need an energy revolution to unhook us from fossil fuel addiction.

Fossil Fuel Addiction (FFA) and associated denials, dismissals, disassociations and rationalisations has been identified as a key aspect of climate change negotiations, requiring intervention which climate justice activists, with their perhaps clearer grasp of the desperate reality approaching us, are considered well-placed to offer. Thus, ‘the climate justice movement must perform a planned intervention with a professional who helps the addict to see the truth in their polluting’.

In the famous 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and associated programmes, the first step is to recognise that you are indeed addicted. That you are bound to a substance over which you do not have control, such that this substance has become your ‘higher power’, its material qualities and structures of access determining one’s activities and choices in the world.

Subsequent steps include acknowledging that external help is needed so as to disrupt patterns of habit and addiction. Referring again to Kramer and Alstad in The Guru Papers, however, such solutions may also sustain perhaps destructive divisions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviours, promoting powerlessness and internal warring in ways that may prevent psychological integration and self-trust regarding choices.

To take this back to fossil fuels – in integrating some realities about my own structural dependence on fossil fuels I am starting to feel something a little unfamiliar – something more akin to empathy for the challenge facing government negotiators in the various COPs, all of whom are as wrapped up in a system of intractable dependencies as myself.

Even less familiar, is something approaching appreciation for the power of fossil fuels and their provision by those organisations I tend intuitively to view with intense suspicion and dislike.

A wishlist

I come from a background of street protests, counter-summit meetingsSocial Forum participation, and direct action interventionsI stand firmly with protests urging radical measures to reduce the further extraction of fossil fuels and the production of atmosphere-changing emissions, and the amplification of justice in all meanings of the term.

In thinking through how to understand and support the seemingly (im)possible systemic shift now needed, the following probably naïve orientations and interventions would be on my wishlist.

DSEI 2003
In anarchist mode with the ‘pink & silver bloc’ at direct action street protests to disrupt the DSEI (Defence & Security Equipment International) arms trade fair, London 2003.
  • A re-oriented perception of the nature of fossil fuels. Land-entwined indigenous people have known oil as the blood of a feminised nurturing earth and as saturated with spirit beings considered to nourish the spirits infusing all plant and animal life. Such worldviews tend to limit the possibility of extraction since such activities are perceived as fundamentally damaging to the systemic and nourishing health of life, and thus as morally wrong. Knowing oil and other potent minerals as precious energisers of the earth, as opposed to disembedded materials whose value exists only in their burning to fuel industrial processes and economic growth, may be part of a toolkit that foundationally shifts relationship with these substances.
  • Support for government negotiators as they work to juggle multiple pressures and interests in agreeing policy choices that affect us all. In particular, support for governments to govern well – to strengthen regulation, devise appropriate rather than perverse subsidies, and generate resources through taxing rather than trading pollution. The scale and complexity of the issues emerging from ‘advanced’ modern circumstances of course mean that solutions need to be worked towards at this macro scale as well as through individual and local choices. In this regard, the ‘United Nations’ – an international governance arrangement that is the outcome of immense and valuable work – seems essential and it is a tragedy that its coherence is currently being threatened through the withdrawal from UN conventions by, for example, the United States.
  • * A complete reconfiguring of the fossil fuel industry. Currently dominated by rapacious profit-driven and destructive corporate entities supporting and protected by military adventure, fossil fuel producers surely need to be taken into public ownership and regulated to invest income in the production of renewables as well as for the public good more broadly. Of course, strong governments are needed for this and often it seems the strength is with the corporate side of the equation. A possibility here though is for fossil fuels and other minerals to be extracted only under structures akin to a Norway-style sovereign wealth fund, established, to ensure responsible and long-term management of revenue from Norway’s oil and gas resources in the North Sea so that this wealth benefits both current and future generations. In establishing this fund since off-shore oil was found in the North Sea in 1969, Norway has built public rather than private wealth from its exploitation of non-renewable resources, a model which could/should be followed for the use non-renewable resources globally.
  • Learn to love fossil fuel producers. I admit that I find this one difficult, but I cannot escape the fact that they have made both the delights and the difficulties of our current lives possible. They too need non-violent communications and support in order to divest and/or to fuel transformation to renewables. At the same time, clearly they need to be radically transformed so as to work for people and planet rather than profit (see above).
  • Acknowledge the grip of fossil fuels, and inventory harms caused by this grip. Make whatever choices are possible to reduce consumption and decarbonise one’s own life, without losing sight of the systemic and infrastructural nature of one’s dependence. Be honest about one’s own substance (ab)use, with compassion for the (im)possibility of unhooking from an addiction that is societal and structural as much as individual.
  • Ask for, and provide support to, fellow addicts. This is not a competition. We are all in this together. Clearly, we need to work with each other now in order to unhook ourselves, our groupings and our societies from fossil fuels. Blaming and entering into conflict with those who one might think would be allies hinders the possibility of systemic and supportive reimagining and reconstitution.
  • Maintain a practice and logic of nonviolence (recognising that this too can produce its own disciplining containments). The spectacle of attacking COP negotiations and of being attacked can become an unhelpful and ritualised performance that may deflect from the societal fossil fuel dependence that is of concern.
  • Contest and dismantle capitalist social-ecological relations. A world system oriented around, and thus amplifying, values of individual self-interest framed in terms of financial profit, the accumulation of private property, and the pursuit of a narrowly measured economic growth, cannot generate equitable societies adjusted better to ecological possibilities.

Connected peer reviewed publications

Sullivan, S. and Ganuses, W.S. in press. Densities of meaning in west Namibian landscapes: genealogies, ancestral agencies, and healing, in Dieckmann, U. (ed.) Mapping the Unmappable? Cartographic Explorations with Indigenous Peoples in Africa. Bielefeld: Transcript.

Sullivan, S. and Ganuses, W.S. 2020 Understanding Damara / ≠Nūkhoen and ǁUbun indigeneity and marginalisation in Namibia, pp. 283-324 in Odendaal, W. and Werner, W. (eds.) ‘Neither Here Nor There’: Indigeneity, Marginalisation and Land Rights in Post-independence Namibia. Windhoek: Land, Environment and Development Project, Legal Assistance Centre. ISBN 978-99945-61-58-2

Sullivan, S. 2019 Maps and memory, rights and relationships: articulations of global modernity and local dwelling in delineating land for a communal-area conservancy in north-west Namibia. Future Pasts Working Paper Series 10.

Sullivan, S. 2019 Towards a metaphysics of the soul and a participatory aesthetics of life: mobilising Foucault, affect and animism for caring practices of existence. New Formations: A Journal of Culture, Theory & Politics 95(3): 5-21.

Sullivan, S. 2017 Natural capital, fairytales and ideology. Invited Review Essay, Development and Change 48(2): 397-423.

Sullivan, S. 2017 What’s ontology got to do with it? On nature and knowledge in a political ecology of ‘the green economy’. Journal of Political Ecology 24: 217-242, Special section entitled ‘Political Ecology, the Green Economy, and Alternative Sustainabilities’, edited by Cavanagh, C.J. and Benjaminsen, T.A.

Sullivan, S. 2013 Nature on the Move III: (Re)countenancing an animate nature. New Proposals: Journal of Marxism and Interdisciplinary Enquiry.

Sullivan, S., Spicer, A. and Böhm, S. 2011 Becoming global (un)civil society: struggles in the global Indymedia network, Globalizations 8(4) (with ).

Sullivan, S. 2008 ‘Viva nihilism!’ On militancy and machismo in (anti-)globalisation protest, in Devetak, R. and Hughes, C. (eds.) Globalization of Political Violence: Globalization’s Shadow, Warwick Studies in Globalisation, Routledge, London. This is an edited version of a working paper published in 2005 here.

Böhm, S., Sullivan, S. and Reyes, O. (eds.) 2005 The organisation and politics of Social Forums, Special Issue ephemera: theory and practice in organization, 5(2), pp. 98-442.

Sullivan, S. 2005 ‘We are heartbroken and furious!’ Rethinking violence and the (anti-)globalisation movements’, pp. 175-194 in Maiguashca, B. and Eschle, C. (eds.) Critical Theories, World Politics and ‘the Anti-globalisation Movement’, London, Routledge. Based on a working paper published in 2004 here.

Sullivan, S. 1999 Folk and formal, local and national: Damara cultural knowledge and community-based conservation in southern Kunene, Namibia. Cimbebasia 15: 1-28.


Also see the exhibition Future Pasts: Landscape, Memory and Music in West Namibia.

Sian Sullivan

Sian Sullivan, environmental anthropologist, cultural geographer and political ecologist, is Professor of Environment and Culture at Bath Spa University (England). She is particularly interested in intersections and frictions between cultural, natural history and economic values as these relate to beyond-human natures. She has explored these concerns in the volumes Political Ecology: Science, Myth and Power (2000), Contributions to Law, Philosophy and Ecology: Exploring Re-Embodiments (2016), and Valuing Development, Environment and Conservation: Creating Values that Matter (2018). Her recent articles appear in the Journal of Political Ecology, Science and Technology Studies, Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, Conservation Biology, Development and Change, Antipode and Ecosystem Services. Contact her via her website The Natural Capital Myth.

Tags: building resilient societies, climate justice movements, fossil fuel addiction, fossil fuel industry