Fossil Fuels' Killer Application: War
The top-secret document, written by a high-level N.S.C. official, concerned Cheney’s newly formed Energy Task Force. It directed the N.S.C. staff to cooperate fully with the Energy Task Force as it considered the “melding” of two seemingly unrelated areas of policy: “the review of operational policies towards rogue states,” such as Iraq, and “actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields.”
Jane Mayer, Contract Sport, The New Yorker, February 16, 2004
If you draw a straight line from Paris to Heidelberg, two European centers of culture, civilization, and learning, you find this rather remarkable building right in the middle. Most of you probably don't know it, and its purpose is not apparent from this angle. Yet, it carries an important message, especially for young people of today.
If we view the building from the other side, things become clearer. We are looking at the ossuary of Duamount, just north of Verdun, which contains the earthly remains of roughly 130’000 young men –French and German – who were killed during the First World War, a little more than 100 years ago. At the cemetery in front of the building, there are 16’000 additional graves. These young men died because they made the catastrophic mistake of trusting their governments.
I show this picture to make an important point: human societies have an uncanny talent for making disastrous decisions, leading to death and destruction. To quote the historian Barbara Tuchman, who wrote a whole book on the subject:
A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity
Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly
Or, as the Austrian author Philipp Bloom once pointed out, the collective intelligence of humanity appears comparable to that of a yeast cell.
The First World War was an avoidable disaster, perhaps even more so than climate change. Its futility made some people, like the war poet Wilfred Owen, question the very purpose of human existence:
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?
Wilfred Owen, Futility
Unfortunately, the First World War is also a stark reminder that the people in charge are often stupid, evil, and greedy. And yes, they have no problem with sacrificing the lives of millions to stay in power.
What caused the First World War? There exists extensive literature on this, which I will not try to summarize. One reason stands out, however: An obsolete ruling class, with roots in the feudal system of the Middle Ages, had no intention of stepping down without a fight. Rather than implementing much required social and political reforms, they decided to rally the people to the banners of the emperors and kings. And it worked splendidly. There are many pictures from 1914 showing smiling soldiers marching off to war in front of cheering crowds. The critical voices, mainly from the socialist movement, were quickly silenced.
The phenomenon is as old as human civilization: The rich and the powerful are the ones who benefited from the existing economic and political system and therefore have no interest in changing it. The question is how to convince them or force them to step down. Because they will lose in the end, and “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” as John F. Kennedy once put it.
The political mistakes leading up to the First World War were compounded by the failures of incompetent military leadership, resulting in the senseless slaughter of millions. Whole books have been written about the remarkable disregard for human life and lack of curiosity displayed by the high-ranking officers during the first world war. As Dixon has argued in his classic “The Psychology of Military Incompetence,” the people in charge were not necessarily stupid, but there were fundamental cultural and psychological reasons for their lack of rational thinking (Dixon 2016). A bunch of old white men, who were wholly disconnected from the sufferings of ordinary people and had never been asked to think during their entire careers, were suddenly confronted with real challenges requiring an open mind and quick thinking. The results were not pretty.
Again, we are looking at the universal problem of any large organization: when quick and significant change is required, you need to replace the people in charge.
Today, we are facing a crisis far worse than that of 1914. People are already dying from extreme weather in many parts of the world, and the total death toll from climate destruction will be larger than that of the two world wars combined. We are again confronted with the fact that the people in charge are either incapable of grasping the magnitude of the challenge, or they simply do not care. It would be nice to believe that the political leaders of today are better qualified or have a greater sense of responsibility than the emperors and generals of old, but people like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, or Xi Jinping do not inspire much confidence. After all, when Boris Johnson addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations by quoting Kermit the Frog, we know that we have a problem.
The reasons for the crisis are very much the same as in the early 20th century: a class of the rich and powerful who benefited enormously from the use of fossil fuels and created large armies to ensure access to oil has no intention of stepping down without a fight. It is no coincidence that the symbol of the United States Central Command is an American eagle watching over the Persian Gulf. Ending the use of fossil fuels will have enormous geopolitical consequences.
I am not saying that all politicians are stupid or evil. Many of them are simply stuck in a system they feel unable to change, and they do not have the political mandate for the kind of changes required to prevent climate disaster. In addition, most people are opportunistic cowards. It is much easier for politicians and business leaders to engage in greenwashing, which appeases the climate activists without costing anything. Future generations will pay the bill, but they cannot vote and they do not affect current sales figures.
It turns out that humanity never responded rationally to the threat of climate change. Instead, we simply postulated that the problem could be solved by investing some money in research to enable “sustainable” or “green” growth, which is merely a new name for the perpetual motion machine. All available data, common sense, and experience indicate that it is not possible to decouple the economy from its ecological footprint, at least not fast enough. Hoping that new and miraculous technologies will allow us to continue to grow the economy forever is the moral and intellectual equivalent of sending young men out of the trenches to walk towards the enemy machine guns. It did not work in the past, and there are fundamental reasons why it will fail in the future. And yet we refuse to consider any other options.
General Melchett: Now Field Marshall Haig has formulated a brilliant tactical plan to ensure final victory in the field.
Captain Blackadder: Would this brilliant plan involve us climbing over the top of our trenches and walking slowly towards the enemy?
Captain Darling: How did you know that, Blackadder? It’s classified information.
Captain Blackadder: It’s the same plan we used last time, sir. And the seventeen times before that.
This might be the most frightening fact about climate change: not only have we refused to address the problem in the past, but we still refuse even to consider developing a plan for addressing it in the future. Instead, we continue to promote economic growth, hoping that a miracle will eventually save us. If it does not happen, we are all dead.
A recent newsletter from The Economist contained a fitting quote:
Problems that remain persistently insoluble should always be suspected as questions asked in the wrong way.
Alan Wilson Watts
The main reason for why climate destruction seems unavoidable is because we are not allowed to ask the right questions. Anyone who has ever participated in a brainstorming session knows the importance of encouraging people to “think out of the box” by allowing innovative and crazy ideas. Brainstorming sessions about the climate crisis, on the other hand, typically start with everyone agreeing to ignore 99% of reasonable ideas which could potentially be harmful to the economy. Thinking out of the box is strictly forbidden, and solutions without a profitable business model are considered anathema. This is madness, plain and simple.
There is nothing wrong with being optimistic about the potential of new technologies. However, what is wrong is basing your only hope on wishful thinking. Public buildings are equipped with fire exits, smoke detectors, and fire extinguishers even though we hope that they will never burn, and not because we know for sure that they will catch fire.
Unfortunately, the climate debate has gotten the concept of risk entirely backwards. Inaccuracies in climate models have been regarded as a reason not to act, rather than a reason to be even more cautious. To some extent, climate researchers seem to have fallen into an argumentative trap of their own making by over-promoting their research. If climate models were good enough, it would make sense to weigh the cost of climate change against the cost of climate protection, as was done by William Nordhaus in his infamous Nobel Prize Lecture in 2018. In reality, such estimates are meaningless, as the models are too bad.
The truth is simple: climate destruction is irreversible and potentially disastrous. It must be stopped at all costs. However, the rich and powerful are again using the oldest trick in the book to prevent this from happening. To keep people passive and docile, you need to distract them or give them something they fear more than climate change. So let us summon the bogeyman and roll out the tanks. Amazingly, people fall for this trick every time.
We are caught in a vicious circle. As long as we use fossil fuels, we need huge armies to secure the energy supply. And as long as we have these armies, we need oil to power them. In order to break this cycle, we need to take money away from the fossil fuel industry. And we need to build trust between nations. Because a nation that relies on military power is not serious about preventing climate change.