We live today in a world that is teetering on the brink of the kind of fascism seen in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s. (Before the predictable outrage at the comparison, consider that I am Jewish and my great grandparents and much of my family were murdered by Nazis.)
Fascism is not an on or off thing, and it is not exclusive to abuses against Jews. It is a spectrum of state behavior ranging from a peaceful democratic state to an abusive, oppressive one that seeks to maintain a monopoly on violence, force and power and crush all dissent.
The descent into fascism is gradual and incremental. People are slowly “conditioned” to accept things that were previously unacceptable, like extreme violence. This process takes time, as explained by multiple scholars and survivors of the Holocaust.
As an example of marching “too quickly” towards fascism, President Trump recently threatened to order the US Military to suppress Black Lives Matter protestors, but was met with a backlash from his own military and some Republican politicians. Clearly, people are not fully conditioned to the state of affairs where we would accept the actual military in our streets, even though the police in many areas have become hyper-militarized and already perform the same function.
Even in Canada, we have cops (armed with handguns) harassing Indigenous children who have not properly socially distanced on public walks. We don’t have access to guns like Americans do, but our cops do.
We are not just focusing on North American issues and not just Donald Trump. We are seeing today, in many North American and European countries, and some South American and Asian countries:
widespread and massive abuse of minorities (this is the “canary in the coal mine” showing that we live in a fascist country)
ever-increasing spending on police, military and security/intelligence services with almost no oversight
increased extremism in the media – radicalization and pushing people to ideological extremes rather than seeking a middle ground
increased ever-present surveillance, sold to us in the name of “convenience” and “keeping us safe”
Other authors have written extensively about these factors, but I want to focus on “environmental fascism” or how state forces use environmental abuse to keep power and control.
What is environmental abuse?
Environmental abuse is taking away the rights of people to clean air, water, and land on which to live as an intentional strategy to “cut off the hand that feeds them”. It forces the affected population to rely on outside support from the fascist state. This cements the state power as the only thing that affected communities can turn to for support, since their land is poisoned and/or degraded and they cannot pursue subsistence based lifestyles.
A good example of environmental abuse is bottled water. Instead of making the water clean enough for everyone to drink, through appropriate regulation and enforcement of environmental laws, we allow the water to become poisoned and then sell people bottled, plastic versions of the original thing, which (in turn) contributes to more pollution, and so on. The thing is, not everyone can equally afford bottled water (unlike the free version), so this is an injustice.
Many of us think that, for example, oil and gas companies pollute as an unfortunate necessity of making energy. In other words, we think that the toxic, polluting harms of oil and gas extraction and refining (which fall disproportionately on Indigenous minorities in Canada and Black minorities in places like the US Gulf Coast) are just an unfortunate by-product of our human need for energy that happens to fall on the most vulnerable.
But there is another, darker side to this environmental injustice – that it is purposeful and intentional, although never openly acknowledged that this is the case. From slaughtering the North American buffalo to destroy Native subsistence ways of life, to now poisoning Indigenous minorities’ water with fossil fuel extraction when we have ample renewable energy options, the state actively works to restrict them from living a land-based subsistence lifestyle.
Instead of a healthy Earth to rely on, they will be offered a “way out” by accepting European aid and financial assistance, which comes with many strings attached.
You may think this idea is outlandish, just another rant from a left wing liberal, shame based white person. But it is the truth of how abuse by the state works.
Canada (as a political entity, representing mostly white Canada) doesn’t want a solution to oil and gas because oil and gas extraction and refining activities provides an effective way to destroy subsistence ways of life that Native people lead, and to force those same people to become dependent on the state for things like access to clean water, land to hunt, and clean air.
Canada, and especially Conservative Canada, doesn’t want to amend racist laws to allow Native people to be truly self sufficient, so that they could earn enough to stop receiving payments from the colonial government. They like the fact that they can make these payments and then complain about how well off Native people are for receiving them.
This is typical Abuse 101. Cut off a person’s leg, and hand them a crutch. And then, make them constantly, painfully aware of how great you are for providing that crutch, and how you don’t have to provide it, and how you can take it away at any moment.
The US government under Trump has scaled back almost all environmental regulations, and has gutted the EPA, meaning that companies are now free to pollute waterways, streams and the air around disproportionately Black and Indigenous communities. Like most fascists, the people in charge do not do the dirty work of poisoning these rivers, they have others (in this case, companies) do it for them. The end goal is to suppress and oppress poor people in America even further and then simultaneously blame them for being poor.
Canada’s energy system, as we discuss all over this website, is riddled with state abuse of power. If the northern BC fracking wells and Alberta tar sands operations were moved to a rich, affluent Toronto neighborhood populated mostly by whites, the fossil fuel era would end tomorrow. But as we already said, the placement of these facilities, and the lack of consideration of cleaner ways to get energy is intentional, just not openly talked about. It is not an accident that extraction and refining operations happen to be in or near Native communities.
How to stop environmental abuse
Realize the importance of having clean air, water, and land rights on which to hunt or grow food and stop taking this for granted
Stop pretending it isn’t affecting you because the environmental degradation is happening “elsewhere” (denialism)
Understand that our current economic system is just a tool that some (mostly white European) humans invented, and financial value does not represent the sum total of human and natural value
Appreciate that disproportionately poorer and minority communities are more affected by environmental degradation than wealthier people who can afford to buy “protections against nature” like bottled water, air conditioning, and a house in the hills above the smog
Be in nature more often and appreciate the sights, smells, and sounds
Human society and nature are linked, a fact that fascists know all too well, which is why they make targeting that human-natural connection a key goal (although it is never openly acknowledged). By isolating vulnerable land-based and Indigenous communities from their real assets of clean air, water, and land, they can more easily torture and abuse them.
Environmental degradation is not just a “cost of doing business” in the energy sector. There are cheaper and more effective ways to get our energy from renewable sources. This has been known since the earliest days of the fossil fuel age, back in the 1800s. Climate change has been known since 1977. But people in power will not change precisely because renewable energy does not have the same potential to control and suppress people that oil and gas does by degrading their land and at the same time keeping them paying high prices for a monopoly fuel that has to be dug out again, and again.
Forcing people to pay taxes on their own solar panels’ electricity may not seem deserving of the Hitler comparison at the start of this blog post. But Hitler did not start by gassing 6 million Jews, he started incrementally on the slow march of dehumanization of Indigenous and land based peoples (like the Gypsies and Jews).
And to be clear, we are not here talking about environmentalists who are predominantly wealthy and/or white and the impact of regressive energy policies on them. We are talking specifically about how abuse of the environment is weaponized to assist in the destruction of Indigenous and poorer communities.
Unless we take immediate corrective action, which requires we all work together on intersectional issues like systemic racism, environmental abuse and the right to protest, the intentional destruction of the environment to harm all humans (but disproportionately some more than others) will continue.
Whenever the issue of climate change and our global reliance on fossil fuels is brought up, there are almost always conservatively minded people who make the argument that none of the competing zero emission technologies are practical enough or cost effective enough and we should stick with fossil fuels. Some of the common arguments are:
They (renewable alternatives) don’t work
If they worked we would be using them by now
Our government shouldn’t be investing money in something that can’t compete by itself
We should not be interfering in the “free market” with government subsidies for renewable technologies
The term “free market” means various things to whoever speaks the term. In some cases, people see the term as meaning “a market without government intervention of any kind”. Usually, this definition is associated with politically neo-conservative and/or hardcore libertarian (anarchist) ideologies.
In this first way of thinking, any government intervention, including to hold monopolies accountable to the prices they charge for essential goods, to increase public awareness of a company’s environmental pollution, to pay for public health services, and taxes in general, are unwelcome interventions. In this way of thinking, capital is free to do as it pleases, but consumers are not really free.
The second, more classical way of looking at the term “free market” acknowledges that government is not the only potential threat to a free market (one defined by high levels of informed consumer choice). Instead, companies themselves can threaten the existence of a free market. Two particular examples are:
Monopolies, oligopolies and cartels (and price fixing)
Once a company, or a connected group of companies has over 80 or 90% market share in a particular industry, they have a monopoly. Monopolies and cartels are incompatible with a truly free market defined by informed consumer choice.
Monopolies and cartels alike draw their power from two things:
economies of scale (the tendency for a mass produced product to be cheaper than a niche product, preventing niche technologies from competing), and
flooding the market (intentionally lowering prices to hit all producers, but due to their larger size, the monopoly or cartel can sustain financial losses for longer than smaller niche producers)
The fossil fuel industry has had a near monopoly on human energy for over 200 years. When James Watt invented the steam engine in 1798, coal (the first fossil fuel) became the dominant energy source, powering factories, steam ships and eventually automobiles.
Because of artificially low prices (due to information asymmetry discussed below), they were able to lower prices each time a competing technology arose to kill the competition, without going under themselves as the extraction of fossil fuels (without environmental and human health “externalities” included) is very cheap.
Classical free market economics relies on informed consumer choice. Misinforming, hiding, omitting or lying about a particular effect of their product/s (for example, the fact that fossil fuels cause climate change) is a way companies can threaten the existence of a free market.
But regardless of when they knew about climate change, the oil and gas industry benefited from this lack of public knowledge about the harmful effects of their products. This resulted in low prices, as the costs of mitigating and adapting to climate change, cancer and respiratory ailments from toxic exhausts, and so on were passed on to the public and not factored in to the price of fossil fuels at the pump.
This allowed them to gain a monopoly, which (as we discussed under the earlier heading) is incredibly hard for consumers to break without significant government intervention, even now that the information asymmetry is slowly being resolved and more and more people are aware of climate change and other environmental problems associated with oil and gas.
We are seeing this play out right now. The core problem with this kind of reasoning is its denial of the fact we do not really live in a (classically defined) free market in the energy industry. Instead, oil and gas has a near-monopoly (score 1 against the free market) and engages in lies, omissions and withholds information that is necessary for consumers to make informed choices (score another).
It is hard to change a monopoly, for one. Fossil fueled cars, vehicles, and engines are so cheap due to economies of scale and the infrastructure is so widely available that you have to be a tree hugging hippie to want to take the financial and convenience hit to buy competing technologies. This is changing, slowly.
And people are not fully aware of the alternatives, for another. Just ask the next person you meet about hydrogen and probably the first thing they’ll say is “isn’t that why the Hindenburg blew up”? (Over 100 years ago, the Hindenburg makers used flammable cloth to contain a flammable gas, had open flames and openly smoked near the hydrogen. The oil and gas industry used that disaster well, not like their technology is flammable or has been associated with any disasters or anything).
And you still meet people here and there who are convinced that climate change isn’t real. Is it a free market choice to believe what they want (meaning the 15% of Americans who believe climate change isn’t real and/or humans aren’t causing it are choosing to burn fossil fuels freely and should be commended for being a part of the market based economy), or a failure of our public education system not to ensure everyone is aware of the scientific consensus on climate change?
So to counter arguments that “fossil fuels are the best available technology, proven by the fact that most people use them”, it is important to note that people haven’t really had a choice in this matter, firstly through buying the product with a lack of knowledge about its harms, and then secondly because of the monopoly created as a result.
Where to from here?
Before the industrial age began, factories were powered by water wheels (an early form of hydroelectric power), ships by sails (the earliest form of wind power), and humans moved around on their own or on horses. While relying on nature in this way for all our energy needs was inconvenient and hard, it was sustainable in a way that our mega-factories, mega-container-ships and grossly sprawled cities are clearly not.
Since 1798, a lot of neat technologies have been developed. Quantum physics gave rise to the semiconductor, a technology that is core to the now-ubiquitous solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and other solid state technology like thermo-electric generators (TEGs). There have been incremental efficiency and reliability improvements in turbines essential to the operation of hydropower, wind power and geothermal power facilities. Lithium ion batteries have taken off, providing higher reliability and performance than lead acid batteries.
So, the burning question is, how can we now have a balance of sustainability with modern expectations of wealth and convenience we have become accustomed to? Let’s quickly take stock of where the modern (2020) energy industry is headed.
Jurisdictions around the developed world are starting to incorporate renewable energy rebates and mandates into their electricity grid, reducing the fossil fuels used to charge our battery electric vehicles and power our lives. However, this process is painfully slow. The US still produces most of its electricity from coal, and Canada’s three tiny northern territories (total population under 114,000) consume 177 million liters of diesel a year for electrical generation. This diesel (and other fuels like gasoline and jet fuel) is usually flown in to the isolated communities on jet fuel burning airplanes.
The infrastructure for both battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is slowly developing. BEV charging stations are simpler and cheaper and so they have enjoyed faster uptake, but hydrogen is catching up, thanks to efforts by Shell (yes, that Shell).
95% of global hydrogen is made from fracked natural gas that is steam reformed into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The remaining 5% is made by the much older (and far more sustainable) technology of water electrolysis. Most hydrogen produced today is not actually used to power vehicles, instead it is often a feedstock for various industrial processes. The drive for hydrogen as a vehicle fuel has largely come from the oil and gas industry that produces most of it, while renewable electrolysis remains buried as a niche market. Will hydrogen become a savior from the short range, slow charge and short lifespan problems of batteries, or will it become the next fossil fuel?
Natural gas pipelines and export terminals are still being built all over the world, resulting in a fracking boom. So far, only France has taken the step of banning fracking altogether. Other countries including Canada continue to support and promote the fracking industry. To keep in line with UN and national mandates, the fracking industry, the government of Alberta and Canada are all planning that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) will prevent emission of carbon dioxide and methane (and other greenhouse gases), allowing them to continue fracking indefinitely.
The short answer lies in the simple economics we have already discussed. They are here, and they have dominant market share, so they control what happens in the energy industry including our future. This will happen for as long as they have a monopoly that governments and citizens are unwilling to break for fear of looking like they are against the neoconservative definition of “free market” i.e. one without any government intervention.
Because of their “too big to fail” status, they control governments who are dependent on these industries for jobs and tax revenues (in the case of Alberta and Canadian federal governments) and so these governments, who should be managing a just transition away from all fossil fuels (including the protection of displaced workers), continue to promote the status quo technology.
As Canada has an abundant supply of coal, natural gas, and oil reserves, CanmetENERGY is exploring ways to lessen the environmental impact of fossil fuel combustion technologies, which currently comprise a substantial portion of the Canadian energy supply. One promising option is carbon capture and storage (CCS).
CCS involves capturing CO2 emissions from large point sources and storing them underground in suitable geological formations.
Storage options such as enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and/or enhanced coal-bed methane (ECBM) recovery provide short-term opportunities for storing the captured CO2, while longer term options, such as storage in saline aquifers, are researched and assessed.
It is worth noting here that Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) and Enhanced Coal Bed Methane Recovery (ECBM) processes inject CO2 into depleted underground wells to allow more oil and gas to be extracted from them. The short term options for storing CO2, as declared by the elected government of Canada, are ways to extract more oil and gas and emit more CO2.
Yes you read that right. Wind to power fracking. Using Indigenous traditional territory and natural resources to export power to the exact thing First Nations across Canada have been standing in solidarity against. After outrage from the Haida, BC Hydro dropped the proposal as “uneconomic” and “carrying significant risk”. They omitted more accurate terms like “mindbogglingly stupid idea” and “we should have fired the person who came up with this” from the press release.
So instead of saying “yep, we were wrong about taking oil out of tar sands and fracking for natural gas and poisoning Indigenous people living nearby and we’re sorry, and we want to go in a new direction” the supposedly democratic government of Canada is investing further in a broken suite of oil and gas technologies which, however hard you try and capture all of the fugitive methane and CO2 that leaks out from fracking wells, it will never happen due to the violence of the fracking process.
Notably, the Canadian government is not investing in direct air capture according to the NRCan “Clean Fossil Fuels” website, instead choosing to myopically focus on how they can make incremental GHG efficiency improvements to existing fossil fueled factories and processes, as they make clear in the first paragraph of the quoted excerpt above.
So how does this research focus on incremental efficiency improvements to fossil fuel combustion fit in to a long term vision for the energy future of Canada and the entire world?
The answer is there is no long term plan, nor is it physically possible to end all GHG emissions and groundwater contamination from fracking processes with or without CO2 capture and storage. Literally “fracturing” a natural rock formation that contains gas under pressure will result in an uncontrolled release and it is not physically possible to capture all of it. Not today, not in 50 years from now.
It is like dynamiting a box of confetti and then trying to develop an advanced technology capable of picking up all the pieces, instead of questioning why use dynamite in the first place if the goal is eventually to pick up all the pieces. The fracking process is not compatible with a clean energy future and should be abolished.
While it is often a fine line deciding whether to make incremental changes or sweeping ones, the science is so clear on this topic that it should not even be up for discussion. Global warming and climate change is not going away unless we Stop. Burning. Fossil. Fuels. To invest, now, in a technology that incrementally improves efficiency of fossil fuel combustion is tantamount to supporting the continued burning of fossil fuels.
Any economic analyst would look at Canada’s determination to “make fossil fuels clean again” and condemn both the governments of Canada and Alberta for their stupidity, their short sightedness, and their lack of concern for the future economic (as well as environmental) health of the country. Why invest in something with no future? Why invest in a dead end? Do they know something we don’t about the ability for the UN and the world to actually enforce injunctions relating to GHG emissions and just don’t care?
Here’s a rational economic analysis: As the world gets warmer and has more frequent storms due to climate change (fact), the current “voluntary targets” will become UN mandates and be backed by threat of sanctions and becoming an international pariah. Both developing countries and developed ones that are experiencing the increased effects of climate change (which is, on our current trajectory, going to be every nation on Earth) will lash out at major per-capita emitters like Canada and Australia, “wealthy countries” who “could have done a lot more before this was a problem”. Countries who “knew and did nothing” or “didn’t do enough”. Both countries’ long, shameful history of racism will be brought up as further proof that we don’t care about any nonwhite, non-European people. This will, in turn, become crippling economic sanctions that will cause far more pain than if we actually committed to phasing out ALL fossil fuel production today.
Canada is playing a fool’s game by continuing to invest in dirty technologies instead of starting anew with fully renewable technologies while phasing out the fossil fueled technologies entirely. Canada should immediately:
phase out all subsidies for fossil fuels
revenue-neutrally increase subsidies for renewable alternatives at the same time,
mandate by law that all fossil fuel combustion must cease by 2050
take all its R&D investment dollars into CCS and mandate that it is ONLY used for direct air capture research, the only technology that is actually useful in reducing global GHG atmospheric content and therefore global warming, and ban public dollars from being spent to incrementally increase the efficiency of dead-end fossil fuel combustion technologies.
But I think we all know that this is not about rationality, or a supposedly meritocratic “free market” in which the best ideas are the ones that win. That is a lie told by neoconservatives when it favors them. Instead, we are stuck with a legacy of a fossil fuel monopoly, created at a time of information asymmetry before we were aware that they were damaging the planet, and now we have a government who is so dependent on these companies for jobs, for tax revenues, that they fear losing re-election if they righteously attack the fossil fuel industry. Canada has sold out and privatized almost all our national assets including oil and gas, reducing its leverage even further.
How then, can alternative technology be expected to compete on its own merits? Without forcible intervention, a monopoly is self-sustaining.
So, for all of those neoconservative “free market”, anti-government-intervention people reading this, consider why is our government is out there propping up a dinousaric, unwanted industry by spending public money researching into technological dead ends like CCS that the fossil fuel industry supports? Giving them publicly funded bailouts when a naturally occurring virus outbreak hits? Continuing to support them with generous public subsidies? Drawing the ire of the entire world by setting lower emissions reductions goals than the UN has (despite being a wealthy country more able to change habits than developing ones), and even then already failing to meet the lower targets it set itself two years ago?
But no, clearly the weak solar PV rebates and $5,000 rebate for your zero emission vehicles are the unnecessary, unwelcome interventions in a free market that was working just fine. (sarcasm)
I would ask neoconservative oil and gas industry supporters to ponder these questions, while they are probably sitting at a desk near a framed picture of Adam Smith, the famous classical economist, or a framed copy of one of his books which they have probably never read.