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.
Climate Change and the Victim Slot
In between forays into the oil belt and conferences with oilmen, I conducted ethnography within Port of Spain’s climate intelligentsia. I apply this term to a loosely linked group of professionally successful men and women, born in Trinidad and belonging to African and Indian ethnicities. All had earned bachelor’s degrees, and many had studied further in the United States, Canada, or Britain. They knew the facts of climate change, and they cared enough to join public discussions about it. To these scientists, activists, policy makers, and energy specialists, I introduced myself as a fellow traveler: an environmental anthropologist writing a book on energy policy. Together, in 2010, we participated in a round of public consultations on the country’s first policy regarding climate change. The participants might have considered carbon emissions and means of reducing them. Instead, the consultations and the policy centered on impacts: environmental hazards, including even threats to oil’s infrastructure. In a fashion I had not anticipated, my informants positioned the petrostate of Trinidad and Tobago as simply a victim of climate change. With these informants, my conversations sometimes bordered on arguments, as instructive as they were contentious. No one broke off contact, and all seemed to consider our debate one worth having. I kept probing for an answer to the question: How and why did the climate intelligentsia frame the country as unequivocally innocent? Innocence, after all, amounts to a license to pollute. Fortunately, though, some Trinidadian public figures are beginning to reconsider hydrocarbons in ways both painful and humane.