Energy without Conscience: Oil, Climate Change, and Complicity
David McDermott Hughes is Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and the author of Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging and From Enslavement to Environmentalism: Politics on a Southern African Frontier.
The Myth of Inevitability
Oil comes packaged in a powerful, increasingly deadly jargon. Petroleum professionals speak of “upstream” and “downstream” as segments of an uninterruptable commodity chain. In so doing, they perpetuate a myth of oil’s inevitability. In Trinidad, this chapter traces that myth from its formation in debates on asphalt more than a century ago, through the twentieth-century development of graphic representations of oil reserves, to contemporary debates on gas scarcity and on proposed, unworkable solutions to climate change. In one way or another, all of these discourses have made choices hard to see—and powerful people apparently powerless. In talking to me, for example, petroleum geologists did not cover up a shameful secret, as one might imagine knowing perpetrators of harm to do. Climate change, they understood, was important, and they would deal with it. But they always found something more pressing: oil to be located. In large part, diagrams made this choice of priorities, and the evacuation of conscience, appear normal. Substances at depth rose—if not in the past, then now, and if not now, then later. In the lifetime of my informants, geologists had married this model of upward flows to the economic scenarios of supply and demand. Hydrocarbons, they had come to assume, left the ground and entered the global market in one natural, entirely ordinary progression. Even their efforts to reduce carbon emissions actually produced more oil—and more carbon emissions. It could not be otherwise, they assured me.