Carbon Oligarchy

Timothy Mitchell wrote a well-known book called Carbon Democracy, [1], [2], in which he argued that the organisation of coal fired energy led to democracy, because workers could relatively easily disrupt the mining of coal, the distribution of coal, and the burning of coal. Many workers were present at all points of the process, leading to a potential power over the process. For example, in 1873 over 3% of the workforce in the UK, was in coal rising to nearly 6% in 1924.

This presence gave those workers a base for a power of disruption of an essential social supply, energy, which opened up the prospect of popular representation and forced the dominant groups to listen to the workers, and try and negotiate with them in general.

In turn, this social power of disruption, lead to democracy, and to the beginnings of a relatively protective and helpful State with worker participation.

In response, or perhaps as a ‘favourable accident’, the dominant groups turned to oil, and organised oil in completely different ways to suppress the worker power found in the coal industry: “politicians saw the control of oil overseas as a means of weakening democratic forces at home” and keeping control over energy supply and use.

Oil companies worked out ways to limit control points in oil distribution. Pipelines removed mass level of worker participation in oil distribution, so workers had less power, governments were involved in enforcing oil use, and oil companies have continued to attack attempts to deal with climate change or to transition to new forms of energy.

It can be suggested that representative democracy has now been replaced by Carbon Oligarchy, which seems to have transferred power back to coal, and forward to gas.

Fossil fuels and the companies and allies behind them have lead to the disciplining of workers by industrial machines, mass production, and an international form of trade and warfare. The growth of modern economy and the modern military State has depended on fossil fuels and their organisation.

Every sector is intimately reliant on energy derived from these resources. Transportation of humans and resources depends on them. Healthcare depends on them. Food and agriculture depends on them. Manufacturing, minerals, and lumber depend on them. Access to freshwater depends on them. Retailing and service sectors depend on them. Silicon Valley depends on them. Finance depends on them. Automotive and airline industries depend on them. The vast infrastructure of a developing global economy depends on them.

Samuel Miller McDonald Fall of the Oil Oligarchy. Activist Lab 12 August 2017

Fossil fuel companies are still amongst the most wealthy and powerful transnational corporations on Earth. They have destroyed and polluted ecologies, wrecked unions, destabilised governments and reputedly sponsored wars, in order to keep the fuels flowing. They have strong political and informational contacts, and contacts with each other, so the idea of a Carbon Oligarchy ruling over dependent fossil fuel economies, states, and militaries, is not implausible.

However, the members of the Carbon Oligopoly are not necessarily capitalist; ‘membership’ can be of many forms. The biggest polluting fossil fuel organisation in the world is often estimated to be China coal. Given some responses I’ve had recently, it may also be necessary that I’m not saying the people in the Carbon Oligarchy are all individually ‘evil’. I am saying that the system tends to have expectedly harmful effects, no matter how good the individuals participating in it may be.

Hording and power

Samuel Miller McDonald then makes the point, that provided the worker participation is small, that:

Oil, gas, and coal, as resources, are easily hoarded. They lend themselves to consolidation. This makes it easy to concentrate them in the hands of a few individuals and companies.

Samuel Miller McDonald Fall of the Oil Oligarchy. Activist Lab 12 August 2017

It is the concentration of an essential energy service (from food onwards) that makes the ability of a few people to control its access an issue. Just as coal flow and energy could be controlled by workers, nowadays they can be controlled by corporate or State bureaucrats, and managers.

This then allows the increase of social power for some few groups. This is a point made by the prevalence of Oligarchies in Fossil Fuel States, such as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, UAE. Supposed Democracies like Australia, Canada or the US, rarely have governments who are prepared to take on the Fossil Fuel oligarchy, because of the possible consequences, and because they offer tame ex-politicians good jobs.

In Australia, it is widely believed fossil fuel and mining companies were largely responsible for the overthrow of at least one prime minister. The current Prime Minister’s Chief Of Staff (John Kunkel) was Chief Adviser, Government Relations for Rio Tinto and Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Minerals Council of Australia. And the head of the National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board (Neville Power) was the CEO of Fortescue Metals and Deputy Chair at Strike Energy, a gas company. Power, was one of those who recommended, or cheered on, the government’s Gas led recovery from Covid.

‘Hegemony’ and Technology

The definition of hegemony is basically dominance by a small group over other groups in some social field or other – it is similar to ‘oligarchy’. The idea that dominant groups attempt ‘hegemony,’ [3], [4] economic, political, cultural and/or technological is not new and originates, in its modern form, with Gramsci [5]. The idea of Hegemony becomes even more plausible when the world has depended on a particular industry and technology for its success.

Hegemony can have technological consequences. Autonomists, for example, claim technological attempts to lower worker power is normal in capitalism. Tronti (1965) points to the “history of the successive attempts of the capitalist class to emancipate itself from the working class,” while some technologies, not only fossil fuels but supplements such as carbon capture and storage, could seem to be attempts to emancipate capitalists from the limits of ‘nature’ and the planet.

Panzieri (1981) suggests that technological innovation frequently aims to impose the dominant group’s own forms of objectivity and rationality on workers and workplaces. Mitchell also elaborates how carbon oligarchy, neoliberal theory and commercial power reinforce each other, creating modes of common sense and rationality (2013: 141ff. 197ff. 224). Walker suggests, neoliberalism, in part, has grown up to prevent environmental action from impinging on both corporate ‘liberty’ and the hegemony of fossil fuels, and therefore is incidentally a tool for Carbon Oligarchy, aiming to produce a common sense it which it seems logical to let corporations destroy the world for their profit as that is the beneficial result of the invisible and holy hand of The Market.

As implied, technology can often involve struggle between different groups of people, and different kinds of interests. The worker can try and escape the technology and organisation applied by the dominant groups, and use the technology for their own purposes, while the boss can try to use or modify the technology to suit their purposes (which are generally to discipline people, to gain power and wealth, to produce items cheaply and sell expensively, or become less dependent upon workers). As usual, we may have to be aware of unintended consequences which undermine these aims, as technologies link and alter the links between nodes in the complex system of work and society.

Think of the way the internet was initially seen as a force for rational democracy, and making work flexible for workers (it was initially largely controlled by nerds, programmers and academics) and has now become a force for ‘irrational’ authoritarianism, 24 hour availability, and commercial surveillance, as control shifted into the corporate sector.

While there are likewise features of renewable energy which open it to community control, such as cheapness, portability and modularity, there is no necessary reason to suppose that renewable energy cannot be organised to support corporate power.

Violence of the Oligarchy

The history of violence employed by the Carbon Oligarchy (corporate and State) to impose their will on oil supplying countries is well detailed by Mitchell and by other sources – although sometimes the Oligarchy may simply impose conditions in which violence against dissent against fossil fuel company action is likely [6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11], [12], [13]. However, as Rebecca Solnit argues, while we tend to be concerned with human violence in response to climate change, we may need to admit that:

climate change is itself violence. Extreme, horrific, longterm, widespread violence.

Climate change is anthropogenic – caused by human beings, some much more than others.

Solnit, Call climate change what it is: violence. The Guardian 7 April 2014

Climate change is produced by humans who consider themselves less likely to suffer from it, and imposed on those who find it harder to resist. Part of this violence arises because of the determination, of the Carbon Oligarchy to use reserves of fuel…

Exxon says:

“We are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become ‘stranded’. We believe producing these assets is essential to meeting growing energy demand worldwide….”

Exxon has decided to bet that we can’t make the corporation keep its reserves in the ground, and the company is reassuring its investors that it will continue to profit off the rapid, violent and intentional destruction of the Earth.

Solnit, Call climate change what it is: violence. The Guardian 7 April 2014

So the Oligarchy are happy to destroy the human world, or cause vast amounts of misery, to stop ‘assets’ from being stranded and profit being lost. While it is a form of violence against everyone, it is particularly a violence against the poor, who do not have the financial or informational or influencing resources to fight back, and who will suffer the most. Attempts by fossil fuel companies, and their allies, to stop the transition to new forms of energy and low emissions can also be perceived as forms of violence, against renewable businesses, as well as against those people who will suffer from climate change.

This is to a large extent invisible violence because, as Soron 2007 states, it is: “the normal, unexceptional, anonymous, and often unscrutinized violence woven into the routine workings of prevailing power structures.”

Informational Violence

Part of these prevailing power structures is the ability to control information. And thus the massive amounts of money spent lobbying and funding think-tanks that both deny and promote the violence of the Carbon Oligarchy against the world. This can be justified as free speech, when it is commandeering centres of power.

Every year, the world’s five largest publicly owned oil and gas companies spend approximately $200 million on lobbying designed to control, delay or block binding climate-motivated policy….

The most common tactics employed are drawing attention to low carbon, positioning the company as a climate expert and acknowledging climate concern while ignoring solutions. 

McCarthy. Oil And Gas Giants Spend Millions Lobbying To Block Climate Change Policies. Forbes 25 March 2019

Open Secrets claims that $112 million dollars were spent in the US alone on oil and gas lobbying in 2020.

This lobbying extended to lying about what the companies knew long ago.

In November 1965 a Report by the Environmental Pollution Panel of The President’s Science Advisory Committee described the likely impact of fossil fuel burning on the climate.

The [CO2] that remains in the atmosphere may have a significant effect on climate: carbon dioxide is nearly transparent to visible light, but it is a strong absorber and back radiator of infrared radiation, particularly in the wave lengths from 12 to 18 microns; consequently, an increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide could act, much like the glass in a greenhouse, to raise the temperature of the lower air.

The possibility of climatic change resulting from changes in the quantity of atmospheric carbon dioxide was proposed independently by the American geologist, T. C. Chamberlain (1899) and the Swedish chemist, S. Arrhenius (1903) , at the beginning of this century.

Restoring the Quality of our Environment: Report of The Environmental Pollution Panel President’s Science Advisory Committee p.113-14

They remark that some scientists have already suggested that heating is occurring (ibid: 122), and discuss the possibility of melting ice caps and rising sea levels.

By the year 2000 there will be about 25% more CO2 in our atmosphere than at present. This will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate, not controllable though local or even national efforts, could occur. Possibilities of bringing about countervailing changes by deliberately modifying other processes that affect climate may then be very important….

Restoring the Quality of our Environment: Report of The Environmental Pollution Panel President’s Science Advisory Committee p9

The will suggest some basic geo-engineering. Perhaps even then the idea humans might slow emissions was not really conceivable (p127).

Through his worldwide industrial civilization, Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment. Within a few generations he is burning the fossil fuels that slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years…

The climatic changes that may be produced by the increased CO2 content could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings.

Restoring the Quality of our Environment: Report of The Environmental Pollution Panel President’s Science Advisory Committee p.126-7

They hoped for better modelling to make the predictions firmer.

In July 1977 a senior Exxon scientist named James F. Black addressed an audience of company executives and told them that CO2 from fossil fuels would change the climate and might endanger humanity.

there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,

Banerjee et al Exxon’s Own Research Confirmed Fossil Fuels’ Role in Global Warming Decades Ago. Inside Climate News 16 September 2015

A year later he added

Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed…

Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.

Banerjee et al Exxon’s Own Research Confirmed Fossil Fuels’ Role in Global Warming Decades Ago. Inside Climate News 16 September 2015

In 1980, according to Barbara Freese “the science strongly suggested that either the oil industry was doomed or the world was.” This was science recognised by oil companies, and which suggested economic problems, as seven of the top 10 companies in the USA were oil companies, and two more were car manufacturers. The solution was to postpone climate action.

By the late 1980s, Exxon had begun to publicly dispute the climate consensus it once accepted, including through a highly influential business group it helped found and lead called the Global Climate Coalition (GCC)

Freese p242. See also Banerjee et al. Exxon: the Road Not Taken.

The US electrical utilities joined in with this campaign to downplay the dangers of CO2 emissions [14]. As the ‘Union of Concerned Scientists’ remarked:

For nearly three decades, many of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies have knowingly worked to deceive the public about the realities and risks of climate change.

Their deceptive tactics are now highlighted in this set of seven “deception dossiers”—collections of internal company and trade association documents that have either been leaked to the public, come to light through lawsuits, or been disclosed through Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests.

Each collection provides an illuminating inside look at this coordinated campaign of deception, an effort underwritten by ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, Peabody Energy, and other members of the fossil fuel industry.

The Climate Deception Dossiers Union of Concerned Scientists 29 June 2015

Those into conspiracy may wonder why the incredibly minor ‘Climategate’ emails got such huge publicity, and these ‘dossiers’ got so little exposure in the so-called MSM.

The fossil fuel companies formed networks, so that many different companies could co-ordinate their resistance to controls on carbon emissions, challenges to ‘assets’ and profit, and hence promote resistance to acknowledging the problems of climate change, and making that change much worse than it had to be. This action lead to the US and Australian rejection of the Kyoto treaty, “thanks to an industry coalition stressing the unfairness of exempting poor nations from emissions cuts” (Freese 245).

ExxonMobil has apparently little confidence in humanity’s ability to find ways to live without fossil fuels, but it has expressed in the past complete confidence in society’s ability to adapt to the irreversible harms associated with a destabilized climate.

Freese, p265

The violent usually think they can live with the consequences of the violence they promote.

The Oligarchy and Emissions

A Well known report by CDP states:

833 GtCO2e was emitted in just 28 years since 1988, compared with 820 GtCO2e in the 237 years between 1988 and the birth of the industrial revolution.

The Carbon Majors Database: CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017 p5

102 Organisations (41 public; 2 investor-owned companies; 16 private investor-owned companies; 36 state owned companies; and 7 state producers) have produced over half (52%) of global industrial GHG since the dawn of the industrial revolution (1751). A mere 224 companies, produced 72% of annual global industrial GHG emissions in 2015. and “Over half of global industrial emissions since human induced climate change was officially recognized [1988] can be traced to just 25 corporate and state producing entities” (ibid: p8).

The fossil fuel industry and its products accounted for 91% of global industrial GHGs in 2015, and about 70% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions

The Carbon Majors Database: CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017 p7

Likewise, a new study by Minderoo suggests that twenty large companies produce more than half of all the single-use plastic waste in the world. These plastics are made from fossil fuels.

Australia leads a list of countries for generating the most single-use plastic waste on a per capita basis…

ExxonMobil is the greatest single-use plastic waste polluter in the world, contributing 5.9m tonnes to the global waste mountain.

Laville Twenty firms produce 55% of world’s plastic waste, report reveals. The Guardian, 18 May 2021

There is a possibility that fossil fuel companies will move even more heavily into plastics if fossil fuel consumption goes down. So they are keeping profits up by moving into another ecologically polluting product.

While the products of emissions pollution are possibly mass consumed, the causers and profiteers from that pollution are very limited – profits are concentrated which gives the organisations more political force.

The next post continues the argument by looking at Dario Kenner’s idea of the ‘Polluter Elite.’