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How to Break Up With Big Oil: A “Complex” Relationship

When it comes to Big Oil, how do we fight an enemy with whom we are so thoroughly intertwined?

In Bill McKibben’s recent article in Rolling Stone, Climate Change’s Terrifying New Math, he identifies “the enemy” as the oil industry. But like so many of today’s enemies, this one too is not well defined. Whether we like it or not, the architecture of the “developed” world has been meticulously structured around the entire population’s dependence on non-renewable resources. We don’t just support the industry when we unconsciously flick the switch, fly, or fill up at the pump; old-fashioned pensions are now shadowy “investment portfolios” (beware: even “green funds” support oil companies and war profiteers). Plastics, products shipped via plane and truck from faraway lands, crops grown with petrochemicals…fossil fuels are everywhere, hidden in plain sight. If we could trace our paychecks back to the source, many of us would have to admit that our livelihoods, in one way or another, depend on the fossil fuel industry.

So how do we fight an enemy with whom we are so thoroughly intertwined?

First, we must accept that the problem is a complex one, riddled with paradoxes and contradictions. YES, it is possible to be part of the problem and part of the solution at the same time. By cultivating awareness of all factors involved and learning to weigh the consequences of our actions, we can begin to make choices that contribute less to the problems and more to the solutions.

Next, we’ll need to see the fossil fuel industry for what it really is: not as an ordinary industry, but as an oppressive regime that has, by wielding massive power in the form of financial capital, taken control of our government and infiltrated every facet of our society.

Fortunately, oppressive regimes can and have been toppled, and we can draw on historical evidence to help us in the development of effective strategies to subvert them.

Dr. Gene Sharp, a political scientist who has dedicated his life to the study of non-violent resistance movements, states in his book From Dictatorship to Democracy that:

“When one wants to bring down a dictatorship most effectively and with the least cost then one has four immediate tasks:

  • Strengthen the oppressed population themselves in their determination, self-confidence, and resistance skills
  • Strengthen the independent social groups and institutions of the oppressed people
  • Create a powerful internal resistance force
  • Develop a wise grand strategic plan for liberation and implement it skillfully.”

Additionally, Dr. Sharp recommends that we discover the sources of the oppressors’ strengths and destabilize them. At the same time, we must identify weakness and concentrate our attacks on “Achilles heels”. Sharp suggests that, “Liberation from dictatorships ultimately depends on the people’s ability to liberate themselves.”

What would it mean to “liberate ourselves” in the context of bringing down the fossil fuel industry? Self-liberation will involve extricating ourselves from the corrupt system to the greatest extent possible. Personal, community, and national energy independence are not separate issues: they are one issue with many facets, all of which can and must be addressed simultaneously for maximum, immediate impact.

A “wise grand strategic plan for liberation” will provide the tools the oppressed peoples will need once they have been freed. In this case, we are going to need to develop new habits and skills that will be necessary in a post-fossil-fuel dominated society. Beginning to develop these skills as soon as possible will immediately begin to diminish the power of the oppressor and empower the ones who resist, while preparing us to thrive in the future.

There has been much ado about the roll of “personal action” – as opposed to political action – in averting ecological catastrophe. There is some concern amongst activists, expressed both in the McKibben article and by Annie Leonard in her new video The Story of Change, that the public will be apt to mistake token gestures (such as recycling and switching to high-efficiency light bulbs) for wholehearted dedication to holistic system change. Rather than proceeding to educate eager audiences about ways we can begin to implement more substantial kinds of changes in our own lives and communities in addition to concerted political action, these leaders have chosen to begin a fight against the system from the top down instead. Meanwhile, while we wait for authority figures to direct our efforts, our outrage and eagerness to become involved becomes diffused.

The urgency of this situation demands that each of us take the initiative to lead ourselves, to develop solutions that can be implemented immediately, and fit the scale of our own lives. Why not fight the system from the top down and the bottom up simultaneously?

The most abundant “green” technology is available to everyone right now at zero cost: it’s our collective ability to maximize efficiency and reduce waste. In light of the profoundly destructive effects of human activity on our planet’s ecology, we must reevaluate what we consider to be a necessity vs. that which we consider convenience. Reducing or eliminating consumption for convenience, multiplied by millions, will result in an immediate, quantifiable reduction in the demand for fossil fuels.

During WWII the U.S. and British governments initiated an intensive and wildly successful resources conservation campaign. The public was asked to voluntarily use less gasoline, fabric, metal, rubber, paper and other material goods, and to grow small backyard “Victory Gardens”. “Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do, or Do Without” was the motto of the day. By becoming more self-sufficient, the government could invest more of the country’s resources in the war effort.

Obviously, is not in the best interest of a government that is “for the corporations, by the corporations” to ask us to consume less, in spite of the fact that the health of the entire planet depends on it. A similar campaign today – only this time with the purpose of investing in the peace effort – if it is to happen at all, must come from the grassroots. It must come from ourselves.

Perhaps prominent environmental groups hesitate to include us because they are loath to lay even a modicum of blame for our predicament on the very people whose support they require. But until we acknowledge our complicity and admit that there is no one perfect solution – and most of all, that we are in this together – any strategy that we could devise would lack the enduring strength that could be derived from a truly inclusive movement, founded in honesty, transparency, and collective responsibility.

By inviting us to contribute personally and directly in the solution, our actions, however small, however symbolic, will provide us with a sense of unity around a common purpose that has been absent from our culture for far too long.

We can look to Dr. Sharp to help us dismantle an oppressive regime, but unless and until we learn how to live in harmonious relationship with one another and the earth, no solution will be permanent. For these kinds of skills, we’ll need to draw inspiration from the wisdom of other, more earth-centered societies, many of which are alive on this planet today.

If we’re going to lobby for better legislation, the Great Law of the Iroquois would be an excellent place to start. “The Law of the 7 Generations” requires that all decisions be made with consideration for how our actions would affect a person born seven generations into the future. We don’t need a government to pass this law – we can establish it for ourselves right now.

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