Fossil Fuel Production, the Corporate Economy, and Consumer Culture

The necessity of rapidly reducing fossil fuel production and use is now a given in the constellation of societal actions necessary to achieve anything near the rather naïve institutional targets for global average temperatures not to exceed 2.0 or 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Some still hope that we can achieve these levels by gradually reducing carbon emissions to stave off the most extreme forms of climate chaos at some vague point in the future. The evidence makes clear that the time for gradualism is long past. Others already know that such ‘mainstream’ abstract targets (without mandates or specific methods for reaching them) are seriously too little too late. Events in the real world have already overrun the feeble ‘business-as-usual’ approaches to (not) dealing with (benignly termed) ‘climate change.’

Yet, the acceleration of both frequency and intensity of recent extreme weather events, as well as the added pollution and the environmental destruction of Putin’s war on Ukraine (among other ongoing regional wars such as the American-supported Saudi war on the people of Yemen) demonstrate the intensification of the human destruction of living Earth systems. The damage to economic systems and public health caused by the COVID pandemic have added to the global disruptions caused by anthropogenic carbon in the atmosphere and hydrosphere.

Projections by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) have repeatedly underestimated the extent and effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, the IPCC has asserted that we face inevitable ecological destruction of diverse ecosystems worldwide by the impact of industrial civilization as a whole unless we take extreme measures to mitigate the sources of climate chaos immediately.

Yet, politicians hold tightly to the illusions that they can address what has become a full-blown climate emergency by their feeble business-as-usual greenwashing of their part in fomenting the greatest predicament humankind has ever faced. Theirs is utter failure denied.

Stopping Fossil fuel Production

To complete the elimination of fossil-fuel production and use by 2030 is a realistic and necessary, though extremely difficult, seemingly impossible, and economically disruptive, target. That is only eight years ahead. It is deemed impossible only because the conventional vision of ‘climate action’ is to moderately adjust present practices to eventually reduce carbon emissions in the future, while not interfering with economic growth, as if the emergency were not NOW. The predicament of success would be that eliminating fossil fuels as an energy source would dramatically force severe reorganization of most institutional life

Even more difficult is the unspoken predicament of how to reduce carbon emissions, when doing so will inherently transform society itself. How? Just stop exploration, drilling, and extraction of oil and gas from the ground, that’s all. However, you will then see all manner of institutions grind to a halt. Well, capping the wells and stopping the distribution of oil and gas is really WHAT we must do, not HOW we can do it. But what of the consequences of eliminating the main source of energy almost every institution of industrial civilization?

The How must involve dealing with the impact of the loss of fossil fuels to every nook and cranny in the global corporate economy of perpetual economic growth. All the lives of the people who occupy the global economy of growth depend, directly and indirectly, on the supply of fossil-fueled energy. Eliminating fossil-fuel energy will require completely changing the ways we do business and the ways we live.

The End of the Global Corporate Economy of Growth

Think of any institutions, public or private, and imagine how they would function with very low energy inputs, coming from sources other than fossil fuels, compared to their current fossil-fueled operations. Vast reductions in total energy use are necessary to have a chance to stabilize climate and ecosystems. With severe reduction of energy use, however, massive re-organization will be necessary. Nobody wants to talk about that.

The fact that is so difficult to accept for so many is that consumption of not only energy but all those products must be severely reduced.  Equally important is that the extraction of the materials that compose all that superficial ‘stuff’ of the industrial-consumer economy must be severely curtailed. That implies that lots of existing jobs will disappear. On the other hand, transforming society to a low energy-consumption regime will create many new jobs. Many fields of production will become more labor intensive, although it will be possible to determine selectively deploy powered machinery where necessary.

Nearly nobody—and definitely nobody among the corporate or governmental power elites— is seriously talking about the implications for societal change, i.e., re-organizing economics around provisioning for human wellbeing instead of for capital formation, accumulation, and concentration. That means reorganizing societies themselves.

The New Beginnings that Almost Nobody will Talk About

Circular, low-energy input, human-centered ‘doughnut’ economies are the goal discussed by a growing group of ‘outlier’ economists, but the process of societal transformation to get there is not yet a key part of the professional, no less the public, conversation.

‘Mainstream’ economists, most of whom espouse the ‘neoliberal’ ideology, the best of whom keep seeking to reform the dominant corporate-capital dominated system, steadfastly ignore new visions of low energy-use human-need based economic systems. Yet such new visions are exactly what we need to shape a new world of compliance with the laws of Nature on planet Earth.

Illusions of the endless growth of ‘free markets’ (in which only corporations are vested with the power to act freely) still dominate most economic thought. Yet, the time for change—big change—has come. (The ideologues of corporate power always talk of ‘protecting small business,’ when they actually focus on protecting giant corporations from any social responsibility.)

I have read many insightful posts on LinkedIn and elsewhere about the present state of affairs, how we got here, and where we need to go. But what is missing is a full-blown global strategy for societal transformation based on degrowth of economies designed to perpetually grow, and the reallocation of wealth from corporate, criminal, and super-rich individual hoarding to economic processes that serve human needs instead.

One simple fact remains central to the overly complex political-economic world: Industrial Civilization has already severely overshot the carrying capacity of the living Earth Systems upon which we all depend for survival. Yet, its leaders still insist on focusing all their efforts on continued growth. The only logical, realistic conclusion is that we must transform our societies from the bottom up, to conform to the parameters that old’ Mother Nature set out for us long before we overstepped the bounds of life within the Earth System, which we have denied far too long.

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