Perhaps it’s the recent death of a parent, which has made me feel like I’ve suddenly been catapulted into “for reals, you’re now an adult” territory. Or perhaps it is the planning for my son’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah, which has got me reflecting on the type of world he and my daughters will be growing up in. But whatever the reason, I have found myself lately thinking a lot about the environment. And how screwed up the situation really is.
Now, I know that some of you who know me will immediately respond: “That’s a bit rich coming from a bloke who makes a living working for oil companies”. But you’re wrong. On the contrary, I think precisely because of what I do for work, and also maybe because I travel so often and so widely, I have a perspective worth sharing. So, bear with me. I might even surprise you.
First, let’s deal with the professional part (perhaps long overdue, given that almost every week I receive an email or two from readers of this blog questioning my involvement in the international oil industry; it seems that for some people my day job doesn’t sit comfortably alongside my alter ego as global traveler / writer / “renaissance man”).
So yes, I work for oil companies. Yes, over the years I have arranged the money needed to drill a good number of oil and gas wells. But no, I don’t feel the slightest bit bad or conflicted about this, and here is why.
First, in the past 25 years of doing what I do, I have met literally thousands of men and women, all over the world, who work in the energy and resources industries – from rig floor workers to miners, from engineers to executives. And, contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of these people are honest, hardworking and well-meaning. Just like you, they have dreams, ambitions, kids and mortgages. Just like you, they care about the environment and the world we all live in. And because of this, most folks I’ve met who work in oil and resources are diligent and extremely mindful of the responsibility that rests on their shoulders (leaving aside the extreme regulatory oversight to which these industries are rightly subjected – more so that just about any other industries on the planet).
Secondly, whether we like it or not, extracting resources from the earth is the lifeblood on which our modern world operates. It is a world we have all chosen to build and live in – you included. So getting mad at me or energy companies and the people who work in them is, to be perfectly honest, passing the buck, not to mention slightly hypocritical. Quite simply, you cannot enjoy the benefits of cheap flights to wherever you want, and limitless new things, and access to a huge variety of foods that are always plentiful, and life prolonging healthcare technologies, and cell phones and the internet and everything else that defines our modern way of life, without also accepting that a massive amount of energy and raw material is required to make it all happen.
Yes, there are alternatives (solar, wind power and so on), and yes, there are also daily individual practices (recycling, using less straws, etc.) that can partially mitigate things. But these, at present, are fig leaves. Alternative energy technologies are not nearly mature or reliable enough to make a meaningful dent in the collective demand. And daily “reduction” practices, whilst being things we should all be doing, don’t do much in the face of the massive (and growing) global desire for energy, and all the other “stuff” we all want that depends on energy for its production and distribution.
No, like it or lump it, for at least the next 30 or 40 years while technology plays catch up, fossil fuels and resource extraction will be inevitable features of the world you live in. Unless, that is, you’re willing to start paying 20 times more for your basic foods, and willing to start living without air-conditioning and refrigeration and lights and private cars and travel and everything else you expect to be readily available, and affordable. Which, all bullshit aside, you aren’t really willing to do. I know it, and so do you. That makes you as much a part of the problem as me.
Back to my point, I am at peace with what I do for a living. My job only exists because we have all – you, me, human society as a whole – deemed the stuff I peddle to be absolutely essential to the life we all choose to live. It’s an unfortunate reality perhaps, but our modern world would collapse into chaos without plentiful and cheap energy and resources.
That is not to say I don’t want things to change. On the contrary, and despite the fact that my present livelihood depends on the status quo, I really do hope things change. More than that, I believe that things will change, and that over time humankind will evolve to a more sustainable, less environmentally impacting way of life. But there will be a transitional phase, during which period we are all going to be stuck with having to rely, to some extent, on mining and fossil fuels. Plus having to accept that the act of pulling these resources out of the earth necessarily involves risk.
And for so long as this remains the case, I also feel our world will be infinitely better off if responsible, decent, honest people – folks who genuinely do care – are the ones tasked with delivering the energy we all depend on, and managing the risks inherent in doing that. I hope I am one of those kinds of people.
This past week I was in London and flew to Calgary in Canada for a meeting. 24 hours later I headed to the airport and flew right back. Two long-haul flights in the space of three days, in the course of which I spent a lot of time glued to the window, staring out.
Watching the world pass slowly beneath me, it occurred to me how amazing, but also utterly bizarre it is, to live in an age where I have the ability to hop on a plane and fly half way round the world and back again, like it is no big deal. By contrast, both my grandfathers, who were my current age only sixty or so years ago, each made but one long-haul journey in their lives, by boat: one grandfather migrating from Lithuania to South Africa in the 1930s, the other from Morocco to Israel in the 1950s. Whereas in just the last two weeks I have probably done more travel than both of them managed in their lifetimes combined.
Think about it: the first commercial air flight was in 1914, so only 105 years ago. Cars basically didn’t exist 150 year ago. Similarly electricity and modern power usage first appeared only about 175 years ago. Yet in the blink of an eye (in planetary terms at least) humanity has now manufactured and put into service more than 1 billion passenger cars (that figure does not include trucks, buses and so on). Every day now we collectively make about 105,000 (!!) airplane flights. Worldwide daily consumption of energy is estimated at about 120,000 terrawatt hours. Trust me – that is an absolute fuck-load of energy. Especially when you consider that in 1972 (when I was born) it was around one-third of this. And in 1820 (so a mere 200 years ago), it was more or less precisely nil.
Flying over the back of beyond in far north Alberta, Canada, there were still roads crisscrossing the flat plains, and power lines, and railroad tracks, and organized fields for agriculture. Central Calgary, just like central London (and almost every other major city on earth these days) was a construction site, with endless rows of cranes and new buildings going up, reaching for the sky. Every inch of which requires vast amounts of steel and glass, energy and resource, to create.
Look around you right now. With little exception, whatever you can see and touch and use – every road, every building, every t-shirt, every light bulb, every cup and saucer – did not exist 75 years ago. It is staggering to think how much we humans have scoured, modified or changed almost every corner of this planet, all in a very, very short time. And it is blindingly obvious to anyone who travels around and uses their eyes that this is not sustainable. A five-year old knows enough to figure out that there will have to be some reckoning if all this activity continues unchecked.
It’s simple: environmental change as a result of human activity is real. I have seen it personally, wherever I have traveled, from Chile to China and everywhere in between. So how anyone intelligent can deny what is so self-evidently undeniable baffles me. And when some of our leaders refuse to even acknowledge the problem, I find myself shaking my head in wonder. At best, it is a case of them being ostriches in the sand; at worst, they are guilty of perpetrating an intellectually bankrupt, dangerous con.
So, where do we go from here?
Well, on the one hand, I worry that it might already be too late. It’s hard to sit in traffic in downtown Jakarta, or on the jammed 405 freeway in Los Angeles at rush hour, breathing in the accumulated exhaust of a million cars while watching millions of people trying to eke out a living, and at the same time believe that anything can ever change in a meaningful way. Much less in a time-frame measured on the “it’s frikking urgent” scale. Oftentimes, it seems to me like we are rushing toward an abyss and are too far gone – not to mention too individually selfish and collectively stupid – to do anything about it.
But I suppose I am also an optimistic person in heart. And I like to believe that when we want to, we humans do have the capacity to pull together in a way that allows us to achieve extraordinary things. Even sometimes things that may, at the outset, seem nigh-on impossible.
And by way of inspiration for this optimism, I have been thinking about something else a lot lately, too: the Apollo 11 moon landing, which occurred exactly 50 years ago this past month, on 20 July 1969.
Now, I wasn’t born then, so I have no personal idea of what the event was like, or what the mood of the world was in the decade leading up to that momentous achievement. But I have just finished listening to a fabulous BBC Podcast – 13 Minutes to the Moon – through which I got some inkling. And apart from learning a bunch of new factoids about the whole “getting to the moon” enterprise that I previously didn’t know, my main takeaway from the podcast was this: in the early 1960s, John F Kennedy set an unambiguous course for the USA, and humankind, to reach the moon. Thank to this, the brightest and best minds were put on the job, and a huge amount of money and resource was allocated to the task (for most of the 1960s, apparently 4% of the United States’ GDP was devoted to the moon project). As a direct result, the desired outcome was achieved, and in less than 10 years the USA did something that until then had been considered science fiction.
Imagine what would happen if the combined might of the USA, China and Europe was brought to bear on fixing the environment? If everyone contributed 4% of GDP to the job of finding a sustainable, non-destructive way to maintain our energy-intensive way of life? That would equate to about $2 trillion a year. I’m no scientist but I’m pretty sure that with that sort of focus and dough, a lot would suddenly become possible, and all within 10 or 20 years.
Of course, this might seem a bit of a foolish pipe-dream right now, and bizarrely enough, democracy might even be the enemy here. Because honestly, I have much more confidence in China, rather than the free-wheeling US of A, being able to mobilize nationally in order to address an impending environmental catastrophe. Especially when environmental naysayers like the Orange Man are at the helm of the supposedly “free world”.
But as things continue to get worse – as air quality continues to decline, as summers get hotter and storms and wildfires get ever more ferocious – the will to act will inevitably spread. As younger people grow up and assume positions of power, the ability to act will increase, too. And oddly, I think some of our salvation may even eventually come from the multinational energy companies and emerging corporate giants that environmentalists love to hate (gasp!).
Because I have seen first-hand, from the inside, how a lot of the big energy companies are making sizable and genuine commitments to alternatives and energy transition – perhaps out of self-interest, but activity that is nonetheless real and game-changing.
Or consider the new arrivals on the global corporate scene – the world’s now most valuable companies like Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook – which often seem to have been founded by younger people intent on crafting a new form of corporate reality. One based on both free market capitalism and an underlying concern to see the world become a better place. It is easy to be cynical, but don’t be surprised if it turns out to be these companies who act faster, and thus have greater positive impact, than our lumbering democracies ever will.
So there you have them: some random environmental ramblings, from a travelling international oil executive who likes to write.
I worry about the state of the world we live in. I think we are in a car speeding towards the edge of a cliff, with dolts at the wheel and no-one willing to hit the brakes. Yet perhaps because of the work I do, I am close enough to the coal face (as it were) to know that wishing for a wholesale change away from current energy sources, at least in the next little while, is not realistic.
And I am committed to doing my bit. Both by reducing my personal environmental foot print as much as I can, and also through my professional activities, by working to ensure that the energy we all (for now) depend on is delivered as safely and responsibly as possible. All while waiting for the emergence of new technologies that, like most new technologies, will eventually put the old ones out of business.
Above all, I remain optimistic that the human collective will eventually win out. That we will find a way to put aside our selfish individual instincts, and come together to tackle what is without question the greatest threat to long-term human existence.
I guess this all makes me an environmentalist, oil guy or not. Who knew?