It started in the morning, when news came in from the Netherlands that a Dutch court ruled in a case against Shell, ordering the oil giant to cut emissions 45% by 2030 in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. The case had been brought by activists, led by Milieudefensie, the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth. Organizers ultimately signed up 17,000 co-plaintiffs to the case and mobilized hundreds of thousands more to support the effort.
While the ruling will surely be appealed, and doesn’t go nearly far enough to address Shell’s decades of human rights and climate abuses, it’s a monumental win. It will also help validate what many have dismissed as a long shot legal strategy to hold polluters accountable for their climate crimes. I remember back in Paris in 2015 when we hosted a mock tribunal for ExxonMobil in a warehouse far from the official UN Climate Talks. To see an actual court hold Shell accountable today felt like watching our fantasies play out in real time.
The same could be said for what happened this afternoon at the ExxonMobil shareholder meeting, where an outside effort succeeded in replacing at least two of Exxon’s board of directors with candidates dedicated to decarbonizing the company. I’m honestly skeptical that a few new board members can radically reform a corporation that has long been one of the greatest barriers to climate action, but it’s still a stunning rebuke. The vote was effectively a referendum on Exxon’s business model of “drill, baby, drill,” to which investors said, “thanks, but no thanks.”
A similar thing happened (same day) with a shareholder revolt at Chevron – not overturning any policies just yet but worried about the optics of the dirty work. Some media, cough NPR cough, puzzle over this with a ‘what does it mean?’ contrariness, looking for a way to defend even the energy companies’ rights and status quo. And not to get too Cassandra about this but the dust is settling a bit differently. When the most intractable, no one to blame, just-business energy providers can be re-directed from inside, a lot more becomes possible. Money does have uses. Keep up the pressure.
One of these words does not belong. David Leonhardt’s NYT magazine article on China offers a lot to digest over a week heavily gilded with L-tryptophan, so take it slowly and don’t miss the subtext – what’s wrong with the entire formulation: mainly that the hope of all humanity and the fate of the known universe rests upon China kicking some old-school lavish consumption into high gear.
The larger idea is to build a more sustainable economy, or what Chinese leaders have called a balanced and harmonious society. In that economy, families would not have to save 20 percent of their income in order to pay for schooling and medical care, as many do now. They would instead be able to afford more of the comforts of modern life — better housing, clothing, transportation and communication. In time, China would become the world’s next great consumer society.
Okay, it’s sounds good, especially with sprinkles of harmony, but which of these ideas don’t go together? I know – the whole idea that there can be anything but a continuation of the way things have been is nothing but hippie. But that’s why this whole thing is so difficult and you need to get off the baby sitter, Joel, and figure out something new besides the old brand of consumption. Buy and save the world. You see how incoherent that sounds? well, that’s this plan in its entirety. Read the article – the best case scenario, that China props up the world economy by engaging some kind hyper-consumption mode, is absolutely bleak. How long will that last? Then what? Remember: closed system. Whatever else it is, another fossil-fueled buying spree that lets us all hang on a little longer is not enough… is not it, as the kids say. This is not anti-growth, it’s just a realization that we can no longer see everything only through the prism of growth – as important as that is. So, it’s really a comment on the weakness of this response, if we can even still call it one, of framing the next last best hope on China going down the path we have used to get where we are, which is turning them into us so that we can… what?
remember, also, cycles are for pedaling. In some ways, this is the story of China’s decline before it even starts, and in this way can be instructive. Our future is linked – there are no separate dimensions for prosperity and decline. It is this we will choose/fail to reckon with until we no longer cannot.
We spend all manner of time and effort trying to de-couple these things which cannot be separated, no matter how much we want them to be.
I’m talking about economic growth and any of the things we don’t want to tackle because we’re afraid tackling them might harm our prospects for growth: health care reform, immigration policy, energy policy, especially regarding carbon emissions. Not only only will addressing these policy challenges head-on not jeopardize the future of the economy – the future of the economy is pretty-well destined to leave the toilet and head toward the sewer if we don’t address them. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
So what do you see when you see this graph? Are the prospects for growth drying up? Are they tied to other coincidental developments( peak stupid oil, the internet, the economic rise of Yurp and China? The wild swings of yesteryear and the policies that conjured them should not be the goal now. But this is a difficult idea for our better minds to grasp. We want to go back back back. Time goes forward forward forward, and well have to do way more with way less or we’ll just be like those crowds of people in old movies that are all dead now.
The prospects for and directions of future growth are changing; not in-a-phone-booth kind of changing but cloaked in the heavy disguise of things we’ve [supposedly] never done and so appear foreign and frightening, even un-American. But that charge is scurrilous and ignorant, and done they must be if the growth we crave is to become the reality we so desperately seek to escape. The extent to which we do not get this can become depressing; the extent to which we do will liberate us in the direction that turns hopes into certainty. Warning: An opposite set of outcomes may apply to the more resourceful among you.