Environmental crotch-kicking is the latest thing, and it will not end where we think it will

“There’s no more complex, messy, community-wide argument…political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying…how can any of this possibly help me, the average citizen, how even to conceive for myself what the policy’s outlines should be? …it’s childish, and totally unconducive to hard thought, give and take, compromise, and the ability of grown-ups to function in any kind of community.”

- The unfortunately dead David Foster Wallace

The above commentary was penned after Wallace accompanied a US presidential candidate on tour during a campaign. Sadly, it is irrelevant to identify which party the candidate represented, because as Wallace notes, it doesn’t matter.

In attempting to pursue some sort of energy dialogue I wrote a book, and publicizing the book requires, well, interfacing with the public. Some forms of this have been fantastic and gratifying, such as a book launch event (thanks attendees), while others have left me feeling like I’ve been projectile-vomited on.

Twitter would be a prime example of the latter. Holy hell. That platform is some sort of inverted-quality pyramid; in many arenas, the ablest become spokespeople, but on Twitter, the nastiest and foulest seem to rise to the top. “Scientists” shout insults at challengers, their smugly-wielded academic pedigrees utterly devoid of any of the genuine humility that true scientists exude, and “my-peer-review-is-better-than-your-peer-review” child-like condescension abounds. Thoughtful questions or comments that even hint at opposition to special interest groups invites an instant onslaught of juvenile and horrifyingly brainless counterattacks. Originally possibly sensible raisons d’ etre are abandoned in mudslinging contests; for example, “Greenpeace” is neither green nor peaceful, nor are any of their anarchic and irresponsible and once-principled counterparts. But of course, in response to their calculated disinformation, many take the bait and rise up to slag any green developments, mocking and amplifying any shortcoming of wind turbines or solar panels, or blocking EV charging spots with big sooty trucks. The whole thing is obscene. And we’re all guilty by degrees; I’ve found my fingers flying across the keyboard in response to something so profoundly stupid that it can’t be left alone, and then I’m just another pitchfork in the crowd.

But that’s where we are. Those are the arenas where the war is played out by thugs who use modern communication platforms as weapons, as bludgeoning instruments. In politics, a weary resignation defines the general public. Only a demented few occupy the fringes of either spectrum, and most people have a variety of positions on a variety of topics that defy classification on purely ideological lines. Sometimes policies appear to be bastards, with leftish-leaning programs coming from right-wing administrations, and vice-versa. And of course Donald Trump transcends all classification.

That’s all well and good for the endless back and forth of politics, where nothing is ever resolved. But that cerebral black hole has now engulfed energy, and that’s not funny. Energy is life or death. Cheap energy has allowed 7 billion people to coexist at the same time, definitely with a heavy environmental footprint, but that is the price we pay as we rush around the world saving lives in any way we can. And now the tidal wave of social commentary has lasered in on up-ending the existing energy system, right now.

We are playing with fire like we can’t imagine in trying to rush through an energy transition without understanding the consequences. And even uttering that simple sentence in social media circles earns one the title of “fossil fuel apologist”, and a corresponding avalanche of derision from an army of well-rehearsed troglodytes.

Said army can’t hear anything with their fingers in their ears, but it’s worth saying anyway. Here’s what’s going to happen with the current attempts to demolish the petroleum industry in a short time frame: The global initiative to starve the hydrocarbon industry of capital is working, but consumption refuses to go down (in fact it continues to increase). The lack of capital will lead to a shortage of supply (the US shale basins are having their day in the sun, but won’t forever and are still a fraction of the global market). A shortage of supply will lead to price spikes and a rush of production, from the very places that any environmentalist should not want it to come from – those that are immune to public environmental pressure.

But before petroleum production can rise enough to meet demand, those higher oil prices will have a devastating impact on world economies, because high oil prices are like a tax on virtually everything.

So what, you might think, the world has survived such before. One crucial difference this time around though: the world is now in debt to the tune of $240 trillion. Yes, trillion. Central banks have been trying for a decade to kickstart economic growth with extremely low interest rates, which has sort of worked, but has also generated this mountain of ever growing debt, and with it a startlingly fragile global economy.

A new breed of economist has brought forward the concept of MMT, Modern Monetary Theory, which postulates that debt levels really don’t matter as long as countries can keep printing more money. This tactic rescued the world from the financial meltdown of 2008, and, as shell-shocked economists realized that it actually seems to have worked, some now think we can do it forever. Are they right? I have no idea, but I do know that it is one hell of a gamble to think that governments can perpetuate ever-higher borrowing and simply print their way out. 

As an energy industry then, we have to weather this onslaught of negativity, and think like grownups about the day when fossil fuels no longer dominate. The forces of madness in the world are huge and accelerating, and appear overwhelming, but maybe they’re not. If they succeed in hamstringing the global petroleum business, the second and third order consequences may make western Canadian petroleum an asset like we can scarcely believe. A world dying for reliable, safe petroleum supplies might at some point see the value in what Canada offers.

Ah, that’s it! That’s how I’ll split those unsplittable skulls on Twitter. Scuse me, while I kiss the sky…

About the Author

Terry Etam is an independent senior consultant for small and midsize oil and gas companies. His website Public Energy Number One is dedicated to energy education and he is the author of The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity.