“Kindly let me help you or you will drown said the monkey putting the fish safely up a tree.” – Alan Watts
That’s a quasi-parable about how ignorance can maim helpfulness, turning well-being into harm, through pure innocence.
But…that parable assumes the endearing conscientious purity of a mythical monkey. Sometimes, this works:
“In his book The Psychology of Totalitarianism, the Dutch clinical psychologist Mattias Desmet breaks down how generalized anxiety, often produced in part by overly mechanistic thinking, can lead to a (narcissistic) psychological need to exert more and more control over the external world – and ultimately to the delusional need to control all of reality itself. An individual or society’s ‘flight into [this delusion’s] false security is a logical consequence of the psychological inability to deal with uncertainty and risk.’” N.S. Lyons (an excellent Substack follow, btw)
Here’s a look at two big things happening in the world; you can decide which motivation fits. First, who is behind the “Just Stop Oil” movement, and secondly, Bangladesh. The pair are interwoven, fascinating and depressing.
Though the activity is showing up mostly in Europe, California is home to Just Stop Oil, an (obviously) anti-hydrocarbon movement. The organization is funded by a variety of sources, including some idealistic people, but the Climate Emergency Fund (CEF) is the group’s Death Star.
CEF is a separate organization run by some California wealth and/or entertainment blue bloods. The board of directors of the Climate Emergency Fund has six people who, at best, can claim a woefully inadequate background in energy systems.
The six include a former Saturday Night Live comedy writer, a Getty (yes, one of those, an heiress to the Getty oil fortune (“Just Stop Oil Except My Trust Fund”, while excelling in clarity, fell short as a rallying cry)), a Getty fund administrator, a Kennedy (yes, one of those, lives in Malibu), and a few other filmmakers.
The Climate Emergency Fund is a registered US charity (“We’re hiring!” says their website; one of the two jobs posted is Executive Assistant, whose duties include “Coordinate travel arrangements and process expense reports” and “Assist with planning events and special projects. If the candidate is based in Los Angeles or New York, occasional in-person support for events in the area may be needed”) and is a nonprofit “committed to supporting disruptive activism”. I smell private jets.
Ah, who cares, you might think, wealthy heirs and their Hollywood social circle can do whatever they want with their mountain of money. True. But…
What is the ethical framework of wealthy heirs and their decadent crew, who live lives of royalty-grade luxury, then use that wealth to diminish the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of destitute people on the other side of the world, because the world can’t handle more of the type of consumer that they (rich Californians) are?
What is the intellectual framework by which wealthy pampered elites decide that humanity can entirely re-invent an energy/electrical/transportation/energy distribution/food production/food content system within a few decades, but that humanity will be unable to adapt to potentially changing weather patterns?
What is the moral framework by which these activists decide “Developing countries cannot be permitted to source the fuel they need, and we are comfortable enforcing this because we say so and if you beg to differ you are part of the problem”?
Does that sound like hyperbole? Let’s have a look at Bangladesh and California side by side for a minute.
Here are a few data points to bookend these socioeconomic counterweights. From 2015-20, California registered over 2 million new vehicles per year. In Bangladesh, the entire country (with a population of 160 million, four times California’s), recorded less than 5,000 per year. For the whole country.
Bangladesh is currently unable to secure natural gas, any natural gas, because the wealthy nations of the world are outbidding them for it.
Bangladesh makes a lot of clothes. Clothing exports total $37 billion (US), out of a national export total of $39 billion. Many of those clothes go to the US, including California. The state imports about $35 billion worth of apparel annually.
Bangladesh doesn’t have much in the way of natural energy resources, so energy must be imported. It is not wasted; the country consumes about 10 gigajoules per capita per year in 2021, versus the US’ 280 and Canada’s 364 (one GJ ~= a winter’s day of not shivering (Canada) or, maybe, heating a swimming pool (California)).
Bangladesh produces none or inconsequential amounts of the big three fuel sources (oil, natural gas or coal) and, despite growing its renewable portfolio like everyone else, is dependent on energy imports.
Hey look at that, California is too. The state imports oil and natural gas. California talks a lot about a quick renewable energy transition, but it is built on power imports from other states as required when renewables don’t cut it.
But that strategy is failing, because neighbouring states are doing exactly the same thing – building our wind and solar, and strangling hydrocarbon power sources.
Notice the quiet difference in trajectory between California’s energy ambitions and Bangladesh’s.
California will be short of power over the “short-to-medium term”, as regulators say. Despite all the furore over hydrocarbons, the state is dealing with the problem by simply building more natural gas fired power installations.
In 2021, they announced they were building five (“temporary” facilities, the architects hastily assured everyone so as not to be tarred and feathered, and critics had the grace not to point out that “temporary” is a fairly elastic term seldom applied to any infrastructure more substantial than a tent and that everyone knows that).
Then, let’s look at what happens to Bangladesh when they need more power, and decide to go the natural gas route, possibly for similar emissions-reduction reasons as any other jurisdiction. Well, here’s what happens – they can’t.
It’s not that they can’t build new natural gas facilities just as California does, there simply isn’t any natural gas available to them. They can’t even buy it. (And yes, I know, Just Stop Oil is aimed at oil, but only in name only and insofar as it makes a pithy slogan – “Just Stop Hydrocarbons” doesn’t enrage bystanders in a satisfactory manner.)
Earlier this year, Bangladesh and Pakistan were unable to even land any cargoes because Europe was outbidding them for everything, even breaking contracts in some instance to take all the gas they could get. Bloomberg noted that Bangladesh’s gas crunch will persist through at least 2026, due to Europe’s insatiable and expensive tastes. Even Japan said the other day that global LNG is “sold out” until 2026.
As a result, Bangladesh’s economically critical textile industry – recall, one that is responsible for more than 90 percent of exports – has been operating at only 30-40 percent of capacity for most of this year because natural gas is not available.
Oh yes, by the way, Europe – spiritual home of the climate crisis movement, simply builds new LNG infrastructure when it wants – Germany recently built a new LNG import facility…in six months. With many more to come (and, as is always necessary, Europe’s natural gas shortage predates Putin’s war; in 2021 it was clear that Europe had outplayed its green revolution and was in a desperate fuel shortage).
The US’ GDP per capita is about $69,000. Bangladesh’s is about $2,500. Now, without natural gas, Bangladesh’s major export industry, obviously a major employer, is operating at 1/3 of capacity. Those unemployed are most likely not at home watching Nextflix, or idling away the unemployed hours at Starbucks.
In a nutshell, then, wealthy California and wealthy Germany simply build hydrocarbon infrastructure when they need to – and the poor can, what, go to hell?
Sort of. Those rich climate-crazy Californians show their disdain for the world’s poor in a few other ways. Consider a proposal the state just voted down in November elections. “Prop 30” was a motion to enact a 1.75 percent tax on income above $2 million per year.
That is, if say a person was lucky enough to make $2.5 million in a year, their cut of this new tax would be $8,750, a sum that would ruin my day but, at 3 percent GIC interest rates, equates to about 42 days of interest on that $2.5 million alone.
Prop 30’s proceeds were to go towards funding electric car purchase, building more EV charging stations, and beefing up firefighting defences. Out of California’s 39 million citizens, 35,000 make more than $2 million per year. In other words, 0.09 percent of the population would be hit with this picayune tax.
Fifty-seven percent of the state’s voters voted against the tax.
It was a safe bet that 35,000 voters would be against it, but…what were all those other poor slobs making less than 2 mil per year that voted against Prop 30 thinking?
To anyone who might be attracted by the siren song of just stop oil, think of it this way.
Oil, and hydrocarbons in general, are like a very long chain you are holding onto. It is in tension, and stretches off into the distance on either side of you, the ends dissolving into the horizon. Connected to this chain is pretty much everything you use on a daily basis.
To the left of you along this chain are many, many processes you can’t see, and can’t imagine without a traditional energy background, that brings you this fuel. Hydrocarbon production is complex, costly, takes a lot of time/capital/expertise, requires constant new-field development just to offset declines, and every link of the chain has to work for any of it to work.
To the right of you along this chain are all the uses of hydrocarbons you cannot see or cannot imagine – fertilizer production, metals production, heating, lubrication, jet fuel, jet construction, you name it. Hydrocarbons underpin every process and energy involved in the complex web that keeps us all alive. The story of Bangladesh’s jobs is one of them.
You, Just Stop Oil people, want to break this chain. You do not understand what this means.
It is bad form to tell someone to change course without offering suggestions, however. So, want to save the planet/climate/environment?
Forget net zero schemes for which there is no path.
Fight for nuclear, as it is the most energy-dense and emissions-free source.
Fight to replace global coal consumption with natural gas, because the inertia of the existing system is so overwhelming that no other low-hanging fruit compares, and the US has proven that it works as an emissions reduction pathway.
Fight for habitat preservation/energy efficiency/reduce/reuse/recycle.
Diligently try to develop new technologies – amazing things are happening in the “new energy” space; the creativity and pace and innovation is incredible.
Or, do you want to destroy economies like Bangladesh’s?
Then keep trying to “Just Stop Oil.”
Terry Etam is a columnist with the BOE Report, a leading energy industry newsletter based in Calgary. He is the author of The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity.