December 2012

The Big Gorilla

Why slowing climate change is a much greater challenge than we’ve been willing to acknowledge

Charles Bensinger


Recently I experienced a revelation, but it was a really unwanted revelation, one that I wish I had never had. Yet it was strangely liberating because it explained everything about why it will be so challenging to prevent climate change from overwhelming the Earth’s present biosphere.

Here’s what happened. I thought to myself: What if certain devices actually exist that are, in fact, able to generate non-polluting energy using universally available non-toxic substances and non-traditional physical properties of matter? Let’s propose that such devices might be relatively inexpensive to build and could render centralized coal- and gas-burning power plants and liquid and gaseous fossil fuels unnecessary. On one hand, this would be wonderful news. It would offer a bright ray of hope that we and our children might escape the worst agonies of catastrophic climate change. On the other hand, these devices would likely never become commercially deployed on a global scale, given the deeply entrenched and embedded nature of the fossil energy industry in our present global financial and political matrix. This is the potential showstopper that I don’t think we’ve been willing to seriously address.

Let’s just consider why the switch to a non-fossil energy future will be so difficult. Let’s mentally map the vast network of men, machines, materials and money that comprise the global empire that is the fossil fuel industry. Consider some of the parts: hundreds of thousands of gas stations and gas station vendors, fleets of tanker trucks, thousands of miles of transcontinental pipelines, hundreds of refineries and ocean-going tanker ships, tens of thousands of oil rigs and huge global companies such as Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell, Chevron and all their workers. Then there are coal miners, trucks, equipment and railroads that haul the coal, power plants that burn coal, and the electrical transmission systems.

And consider the natural gas drilling rigs, pipes and equipment, fracking liquids, trucks, tanks, workers, meter readers, utilities, etc. That’s the industry side. Then there are the state governments, which make 12 cents to 15 cents on every gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel while the federal government gets another 15 to 18 cents per gallon. These excise taxes generate hundreds of billions of dollars annually, which go to pay for roads. Do we think the state and federal governments want to lose that money? No way. And at the top are the investors and banks that finance the industry. Do we think they would be willing to forgo the potential profits from selling the $7 trillion worth of fossil fuel resources not yet extracted from the ground? This business is so big and so lucrative to all those involved that nobody would dare try to challenge or change it. Yet, and this is the really tragic part, our reliance on the combustion of fossil energy and the environmental impacts of its carbon dioxide emissions, if continued much longer, will take us all down. Without a global transformation in the way we make and use energy—soon—we will create a well-done, toasted planet within the next 80 years…or less. Indeed, according to the meteorologists, 2012 is on track to become labeled as the warmest year since record-keeping began.

We can talk all we want about mass transit, riding bikes to work and changing light bulbs, but until we start addressing the big gorilla in the room, by name, we aren’t going to avoid going over the cliff. The Titanic didn’t sink because it had a communication problem; it sank because it had an iceberg problem. In this case the iceberg we’re not fully acknowledging is how the vast fossil energy empire comprises the economic and political bedrock of global civilization. It underlies all foreign policy, determines the viability and economic survival of nations, and fuels not only our lives but the global financial system as well.

So what, if anything, can we do about this? Is there any historical precedent to transforming such a vast and firmly entrenched human reality? Two hundred years ago slavery was an accepted form of economic development and commercial activity. Indeed, much of the economy of the southern part of our new nation would not have been viable without the free labor provided by millions of kidnapped Africans. But moral men and women found this notion of human slavery unacceptable, regardless of the economic value of the economic institution. Consequently, courageous men and women fought doggedly and determinedly for a century to rid the nation and the world of this appalling human practice. And very unfortunately, part of the cost of this transformation in the United States was the Civil War.

Will similar struggle and human sacrifice be required to free humanity and other planetary life forms we enjoy and depend on from slavery to the fossil energy paradigm? Will the cost of fossil fuel freedom someday be compared to the long, hard fight for human emancipation? I believe that to have a chance to slow climate change and its potent disastrous impacts we need to confront the full reality of the economic, social, financial and political dependency that our Faustian bargain with fossil fuels has created. We need to begin a serious global dialog on the ramifications of an intentional and phased disassembly of what is a vast, interwoven global network of infrastructure and economic/social/political dependency. It will not be easy and it will not likely be pretty. However, humans are a resourceful lot, and evolution favors those who learn to make the necessary changes and reinvent themselves in a timely manner. We can lose ourselves in succumbing to our perceived limitations, or we can strive to envision a fossil-fuel-free future. But the latter will require a prodigious effort rarely demonstrated in the course of human history. Perhaps we can draw strength from the fact that good men and women were able to fundamentally change the social, economic and political course of history once before. The challenge this time is not just winning the freedom of one class of humans, but ensuring the future viability of Earth’s great multitude of life forms.


Charles Bensinger is Biofuels Program Director at Santa Fe Community College.



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