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Keeping It Real: Real Deep Underground --- Book Review of Ending the Fossil Fuel Era

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Ending the Fossil Fuel Era
By Community Solutions Fellow, Thomas Princen, Jack P. Manno, & Pamela L. Martin (Eds. )
MIT Press | 2015 | 408 pp. | ISBN: 9780262527330

One approach to solving the climate-change problem is through centralized government intervention, for instance a tax on carbon and other greenhouse-gas emissions. However, political realities, especially in the United States, make it difficult to implement such a policy; furthermore, this approach elides the numerous other environmental and social costs of extracting and burning fossil fuels. The edited volume Ending the Fossil Fuel Era, by contrast, calls for an often localized politics of keeping it in the ground (KIIG), of resisting the extraction of fossil fuels and other resources in the first place. As Thomas Princen puts it, “If an emissions focus…fails to confront the source of the problem (both physical and political), then logically there is only one thing to do: go upstream to the source, to extraction.” Regarding the majority of fossil fuels, for the planet to sustain a livable future—for humans, at least—the only viable strategy is never to extract them.

This does mean change, as Princen, Jack Manno, and Pamela Martin argue that fossil fuels have been providing a high-energy lifestyle that will not be possible once we make the switch to renewables. Yet we must change for the sake of the planet, for our futures. Part of the strategy is to delegitimize fossil fuels, to make them appear, not the natural order of things, but a kind of abomination that must be stopped. Along with this comes an alteration of the assumption that the traditional Western pattern of increasing consumption and energy use is the only path forward; rather, conceptions of the good life must be radically different, while nature should be valued for itself. Local political movements then step in and achieve victories on the ground, or rather on keeping it in the ground.

This, at least, is the theory; however, it is abstract and empty without actual case studies. Fortunately, Ending the Fossil Fuel Eraprovides several of these, illustrating various battles to keep fossil fuels, and other resources, in the ground forever. These chapters have in common an illustration of the “resource curse,” the fact that countries and regions with an abundant, wealth-generating resource such as coal or oil tend to develop one-dimensional economies dependent on that resource. Even worse, much of that wealth often flows to the lucky few who own the capital and the rights to extraction while the locals end up with polluted air, land, and water that mars the landscape and often sickens them. Indigenous people, for instance in the Amazon, usually suffer the worst, as their traditional land is invaded and their way of life disrupted.

Indeed, it is often indigenous people, supported by their traditions, who lead citizens’ protest movements against such extraction. Manno and Martin cite the Potawatami Robin Kimmerer that “Taking coal buried deep in the earth, for which we must inflict irreparable damage, violates” the ancient code of many Native Americans. “By no stretch of the imagination is coal given to us. We have to wound the land and water to gouge it out of Mother Earth.” This might risk simplifying the attitudes of a complex array of cultures, some of whom support extraction for the economic benefits. Still, the editors of Ending the Fossil Fuel Era locate native cultures as a key source of resistance and of developing an alternative vision. Known as buen vivir in Spanish, or the good life, this philosophy has strong echoes in those parts of the sustainability movement that call for recognizing quality of life as far more important than economic growth.

Ecuador is notable for having “rights of nature enshrined in its constitution,” a policy bound up with indigenous tradition respecting nature, as Martin explains. Equally groundbreaking, Ecuador, at least until recently, had an actual KIIG policy regarding the oil beneath the Yasuni National Park. The lost revenue was to be funded by international groups including states, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations. This is an opposite strategy to a carbon tax in that, rather than paying a charge for the environmental damage one causes, outside sources pay for the profits one is voluntarily forgoing. Regarding developing countries, there is a certain logic here, as they will be suffering the planetary disruptions of fossil fuels but have never had a chance to profit from them. So they should be paid for the resources they forego developing. Actually implementing this, however, is difficult. Adapted in 2010, Ecuador’s KIIG measure had raised $290 million by the end of 2012, “far from the goal of $3.5 billion over ten years.” Indeed, after political squabbling, Ecuador has recently reversed course and opened the area to drilling (Vaughan, 2014). Any victories for the KIIG movement may be temporary as the capacity to extract resources remains, at least until a fully renewable economy is implemented around the planet.

The KIIG movement is also active in the United States, notably in the struggle against mountaintop-removal coal mining. As so often occurs with resource extraction, the locals receive the worst of the pollution and social disruption, while seeing only a portion of the economic benefits—although a larger part in the United States than do the indigenous people in the Amazon. Still, the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal are particularly egregious, permanently altering a huge natural feature while polluting water and harming ecosystems. As Laura Bozzi notes in her chapter, “[b]urying the headwaters harms the entire stream length,” destroying habitat, reducing nutrient flows, and carrying toxic compounds. Still, many local people support such mining for the economic benefits it brings. Even though earlier forms of mining employed far more people, economic options beyond mining are scant in these communities. The split between pro- and anti-mining people is thus divisive in many Appalachian towns. Bozzi herself was criticized as an outsider when she took part in anti-mining protests. The anti-mining movement is itself split between those who want better environmental regulations, along with more local jobs, and those who want to end coal mining altogether. The latter are working to replace lost jobs with clean-energy opportunities, although it is difficult to see how such jobs will remain local. The situation in Appalachia thus illustrates the intersection of class, economics, and the environment as it affects KIIG, showing just how vexed and divisive such movements can be.

Many of the problems of resource extraction are highlighted in a chapter on gold mining in El Salvador, by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh. Although not actually about fossil fuels, this contribution illustrates a recurring set of problems regarding resource extraction, while showing problems with free-trade agreements. When El Salvador, supported by a strong citizens’ movement, attempted to ban gold mining that dumped cyanide and arsenic into rivers, it faced a $100 million corporate suit under the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement. While a World Bank tribunal ultimately rejected this, legal costs are high, and El Salvador now faces a second suit, this time for $301 million. Such tactics might discourage countries from even attempting environmental and labor protections. Broad and Cavanaugh explain that “many believe…the very existence of investor-state clauses in trade agreements is an affront to democracy.” I would further ask why these agreements allow corporations to sue for loss of profit when governments institute environmental and labor protections, but do not allow similar suits against corporations for harming local rights. As I have argued regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership, free-trade agreements have moved far beyond affecting only trade, and the entire process of negotiating these agreements needs to be more open, with input from a variety of stakeholders beyond the financial sector.

Finally, a chapter on the Norwegian extraction of North Sea oil, by Helge Ryggvik and Berit Kristoffersen, illuminates the long-term difficulties in getting off fossil fuel. If any country should have been able to avoid the “resource curse,” it is Norway with its vigorous democracy and Scandinavian tradition of environmental awareness. Indeed, following the 1969 discovery of oil, Norway seemed exemplary in its regime of a “moderate pace of extraction” that followed strong environmental rules. However, intermittent unemployment problems—inevitable in all modern economies—gave companies the opportunity to increase the pace of oil production. Ryggvik and Kristoffersen argue that this has left Norway largely an oil state overly dependent on a diminishing resource and has crowded out any move toward renewable energy. Thus, “[i]n 2012, Sweden produced more than five times as much wind energy as Norway, and Denmark produced nearly six times as much.” (It is also true that Norway generates most of its electricity from its abundant hydro resources.)

Oil-extraction advocates argue that Norway is among the cleaner producers of petroleum in the world and thus should be allowed to maximize its output. Yet Ryggvik and Kristoffersen explain that in 2010, “the aggregate numbers from the Middle East were better than Norway’s, with 6.9 kilograms carbon dioxide per barrel, compared to Norway’s 8.7.” I would also ask whether Norway’s production of “clean” oil means that countries producing dirtier oil, such as Nigeria, will produce less of it. It seems likely that the latter will simply dump their oil on the world market, leading to lower prices and more reckless overall use of petroleum. Perhaps a system that pays the least efficient producers not to drill oil—similar to Ecuador’s attempt to keep oil in the ground—would work best. As always, the question of who would implement such a system remains.

Could the energy companies themselves be among those who implement the end of fossil fuels? The boldest statement of Ending the Fossil Fuel Era is the chapter “Exit Strategies,” by Princen and Adele Santana, which argues that the extractive industries must themselves participate in ending the fossil-fuel era and may already be preparing to do so. The problem is that admitting this, acknowledging that the large majority of paper assets are actually stranded and will never be developed, would drastically reduce the companies’ value. Like a master poker player, the companies thus disguise any future intentions to divest. Princen and Santana argue that oil and gas companies already think in terms of decades, a far longer timescale than most industries, and thus may be planning an “orderly exit.” These companies’ underlying philosophy could move from a twentieth century mission of “powering industrial society” or “building a great nation” to a twenty-first century one of “transitioning out of fossil fuel dependency” along with “creating a just and sustainable world.” It is certainly plausible that, behind the scenes, many fossil-fuel companies are beginning to think this way. Indeed, a number have called for a carbon tax to make the future business environment more predictable (The NewYork Times, 2015). Nevertheless, I would need to see more evidence of a deep change in their thinking, most importantly a much larger investment in renewable energy. Furthermore, as long as the major energy companies are making plans to drill in such places as the Arctic and the Canadian tar sands, it is difficult to believe that they are pursuing a long-term KIIG strategy.

The chapter on exit strategies is something of an anomaly in Ending the Fossil Fuel Era, which largely advocates an oppositional approach. KIIG represents an alternative, or perhaps a complementary, strategy to that of carbon taxes or cap-and-trade. The latter work best on a global scale, although they are currently being pursued in various national and regional frameworks. KIIG, by contrast, represents a simple philosophy that can be pursued on a case-by-case local basis, with clear villains in the form of coal mines and drilling sites. It seems unlikely that either strategy, by itself, will work. An effective KIIG strategy, however, may help set the stage for the kind of international regime that we need to eventually end the extraction of fossil fuels. It will lessen the power and political influence of the energy companies, and perhaps change the business model of at least some of them. Meanwhile, the economic, and therefore political, power of renewable-energy companies is beginning to increase. Along with this, we will need a deep change in local values, away from a philosophy of endless growth. Numerous factors need to coalesce for humanity to avoid great suffering in making our way out of the fossil-fuel era.