Fossil Fragility

February 14, 2023

For some years now, the principle job I’ve had at my university, aside from the teaching and research, has been triaging the attachments of fossil fuels apologists.

Of course, many scholars have proposed a shift from industrial civilization to ecological civilization, but often because the pre-framing of apologists hinges upon the industrial civilization-barbarism dichotomy, any alternative is perceived as an identity threat. Because of this trauma response, I have spent the last half decade as a hospice priest for the fossil fuel industry.

Going from the progressive spirit of California, where I  grew up and studied in the Bay Area, to the conservative if tolerating colonial power of the Netherlands has been jarring. Aside from the prevalent if well-meaning racism, unconscious sexism, and the general consensus that everyone’s so comfortable formidable barriers prevent discussing the country’s violent history and present extractivism, this is a country – like all under global capitalism – firmly addicted to fossil fuels. At least in California, with its progressive state and local governments, we pretend that we were prioritizing equity and the environment. But here, there is no conceit. Instead, in most places around the world – but especially in the Global North – at all levels of power we’re surrounded by those who defend the fossil fuel industry tooth and nail.

Do I resent the fact that I’ve had to pander to the insecurities and cowardice of too-comfortable and too-numbed bureaucrats? Of course I do. Only a saint would be able to administer such services without a trace of resentment. But is it worth it to create a slightly less horrible world, which might enable others to take further steps in an ecological direction easier? Absolutely.

The process I’ve had to undergo in the midst of working with soft climate-change denialists is a spiritual battle of looking at my own shit – my own frustrations, resentments, angers, and fears. It has really challenged my own behavioral patterns so that I become less reactive, in order to not trigger the reactiveness of armed-to-the-teeth defense and trigger mechanisms of others. It has been a spiritual practice to not react to the snowflake fossil fuel defenders.

Dialoging with those so attached to their fossil fuel masters has forced me to become even less attached to the outcomes I know are best, and to work with the broken reality as it is. Even though this glacial tempo of progress sucks for the world, dancing around their kryptonite has given me an evolutionary boost. I have been gifted with opportunities for spiritual fortification I would never have encountered in the work world, had my colleagues learned more about the science of climate change or had learned how to empathize with those most effected by pollution. Their lack of growth in this area has required me to grow double. Not just in terms of information, but in empathy. Empathizing for those believing falsely that they are benefiting from the current ecocidal system, even as they are deeply unhappy and know not where the lack of meaning in their lives comes from.

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

Observing these habits has been instructive. What are we defending when we make excuses for continued extractivism which flies in the face of all science, and our own lived experience?

I’ve come to believe that those defending fossil fuels are defending their families, friends, acquaintances who have worked in and benefited from fossil fuels, and most of all their lifestyles of comfort.

But beyond this, there is an emotional connection. After all, they tell us: “if we divested from fossil fuels, everything would stop working.” Commerce would grind to a standstill, and chaos would ensure. Plus, how ungrateful for us to dismiss all of the goods that fossil fuels have brought us! Cars are very convenient, after all, and would we prefer to freeze through the winter?

All of these common rejoinders – often recycling arguments posited by the fossil fuel industries themselves going back to the 1960s – boil down to a single logical fallacy: that the only way to get ‘the goods’ which are non-negotiable to continue according to our accustomed way of meeting our needs is through maintaining fossil fuels. Through coupling life as we know it with turning a blind eye to the details or consequences of fossil fuel extractivism, it is as if we are asking these good people to choose between industrial civilization and barbarism, and the fear of the latter drives the white-knuckling defenders to overlook the gratuitious harms of the former.

It’s Unfair that we Prioritize Appeasing Fragile Imperial Egos, but Absolutely Necessary

White fragility signals the reactiveness and defensiveness white people who have not contextualized their own privilege experience when confronted by their own racial entitlements in a racist system. It references the inordinate time and emotional labor involved in as one being oppressed by the power hierarchies of normalized groups to educate the oppressors in the ways that they are harming themselves but mostly others. And it deals with the unfairness in making the responsibility for restitution and movement towards justice by those same groups who are already definitionally the ‘have-nots’ of racialized caste systems

Let’s see how this works modulated to the environmental crisis. In a recent interview, Rose Abramoff, Earth Scientist and Climate Activist with Scientist Rebellion recently fired from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for demonstrating at the 2022 American Geophysical Union conference, said:

“That seems interesting to me, that we allow the fossil fuel industry, economists, politicians, celebrities, random people on the internet, the youth which are leading the climate movement – everyone has a stake, and a right to comment on these climate policies; except it seems those who have subject expertise in the area. That seems like an odd policy to me, and I take issue with it.”

We silence precisely those who are most intimate from the experiences of real climate change, whether it is censoring scientists or cropping out an African activist from a youth girl’s climate activist photoshoot.

We really should be focusing all our energy and resources and time on helping those who have borne the brunt of colonization and pollution historically. But, because of the current obstinate identification with the fossil fuel industry of those monopolizing power, we’re instead forced to prioritize scraping and bowing to convince dominating powers to do the right thing. I’m reminded of the scene in Schindler’s List, where Oskar Schindler tries to convince Nazi commander Amon Goeth to learn the power of pardoning rather than just shooting and asking questions later. In systems of violence, appealing to the humanity of oppressors seems to be a stock plot necessity. The fawning over philanthropists is but one instance of this.

Part of the problem is tone policing. When climate activists protest for a democratic and science-based government, they are derided as being too shrill, doomerist, or ‘snowflakes.’ Yet when fossil fuel industry apologists get their panties in a twist about converting from gas to electric stoves, they are seen as new traditionalists, defending the sacred values of industry-propagandized home cooking.

These structural asymmetries are often propagated by our main establishment media enterprises, who themselves often are taking massive fossil fuel advertising dollars or sponsorships. The framing of the debates, and the Overton window is tightly constrained to favor industry perspectives, rather than understanding what the earth requires as the baseline which must be followed. The inability for industries and their acolytes to change course is more emotional than material. It’s identifying oneself with a particular means of meeting needs, rather than seeing that those needs can be handled through a variety of solutions, some more damaging, and some less. And realizing that just because we are switching fuel sources doesn’t mean that we have to swear off all technology, or bite the hand that fed us. Things that worked for a long time can shift and no longer work.

While it’s natural to be attached to or nostalgic for the times when we didn’t know any better because of the smaller scale involved, even though it was still killing us, holding onto legacy technologies once it’s clear they don’t scale without destroying the entire basis of life may be counterproductive. Reminding us of the psychological work needed to accompany this shift towards climate realism, Director of the Multisolving Institute, Elizabeth Sawin, recently wrote:

Only a small percentage of the people you’ll meet who want a world of justice and ecology want to wade through the inner and outer devastation created by centuries of a worldview of domination and separation at centers of power.

The closer one happened to born to those centers of power the more invisible and psychically scary it is to look at. But what if I told you there is not any road to the beautiful possible future that avoids that dark shadowy part of the journey?

Learning to Let Go

We’re all worshippers of fossil fuels to some degree. It’s not as if all of us willfully have a choice in the matter, but in virtually every product we buy and service we use, somewhere or everywhere along the supply chain there are inputs born of suffering, ecological and human. It is this totalizing structure which makes it so difficult to opt-out.

And many of us are supremely grateful for the fossil fuel industry for providing all of this cheap energy, with an energetic return on investment originally much higher than any other energy source our species encountered. After all, if you enjoy fast cars, fast food, and the delights of Las Vegas, how could you not also admire the corporations that made all of this glorious excess possible?! There’s a strong loyalty to fossil fuel interests because they have fed us the supernormal stimuli we crave and depend on. Take away oil, coal, and gas, and that might mean that we would be confronted with the loss of our own vices, now turned into virtues through a manicured commercial culture. The fossil fuel industry and the culture industry are not only intertwined, they feed each other and rely on each other. Turn off the tap on one, and you might lose the wild success of the other.

These mutually reinforcing mechanisms lead us to the necessity to eulogize.

Even if we have a love affair with ecocidal industries, if we really love them, we need to set them free, and if they come back, then we know it’s meant to be. Since courting them, appeasing them, making excuses for them, and defending them hasn’t worked, we’ve got to try a new tack if we really love them. It’s no secret that we’re creating hell on earth – no religious person, nor scientist could plausibly deny this. Weather-related disasters in the US in 2022 alone displaced 3.4 million Americans – 1.4% of the adult population of the richest country on Earth. All the major fossil fuel companies are calling off even their tokenistic lower-carbon projects, with BP pivoting back to oil, and Exxon abandoning trying to cultivate algae as a fuel source. The signs they are giving us are clear: they are addicts in need of some tough love.

The enabling we’ve tried so far has not made their addiction better. No amount of ESGs or SDGs are doing the trick. We must break all relations with these poisoning groups, and if their actions change, at a later point, we may reconsider, and recommence a new relationship on new terms. But business as usual is killing them and us. Mercy means letting abusive relationships go, and undertaking the long and difficult emancipation process of sorting out whose items are whose, giving back presents, and beginning to meet our material and emotional needs with other, more sustainable options.

Teaser photo credit: Petroleum sample. Author: Nefronus. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Yogi Hendlin

Yogi Hendlin is an environmental philosopher and public health scientist mobilizing these 21th century frameworks for research, teaching, and human transformation. As our societies reprioritize ecology and biology as master sciences in the great transition upon us, I see science, public health, and philosophy working synergistically. I perform experiments, reflect on the history of culture and concepts, and piece together documentary evidence from the archives of the anthropocene to inform and assess policy, applying systems thinking to bio-ethical cases.

This engaged methodology maps multi-level patterns in the social and environmental determinants of health together with philosophical concerns about the utility of our utilities, aiming to provide direction for targeted interventions leveraging ethically- and science-based social and institutional harmonization. I currently am Assistant Professor in the Erasmus School of Philosophy, Core Faculty of the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity Initiative, and Sustainability Lead of the Design, Impact, and Transitions (DIT) platform, at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Also, I am a Research Associate in the Environmental Health Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco, working on the Chemical Industry Documents and Fossil Fuel Industry Documents. I have worked off and on at UCSF since 2006, both as a predoctoral and postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Medicine and Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education focusing on topics such as public health policy, corporate malfeasance, and conflicts of interest. I am currently Editor-in-Chief of the journal of Biosemiotics, the philosophy of science that approaches biological communication as an inherently meaningful process for the organisms involved, as they maneuver their species-specific Umwelt. My Ph.D. in Environmental Philosophy (magna cum laude) is from the University of Kiel, Germany, and I hold graduate degrees from the London School of Economics and UCLA, and bachelors degrees from UC Berkeley.

Tags: building resilient societies, fossil fuel addiction, powering down