Anti-oil protests, meh

Back in the 1970s, when people fretted over “peak oil” and freaked out about long gas lines caused by Arab oil embargoes, Ralph Nader said “the world is awash in oil.”

He was right, of course; much more oil has been found, and technological advances (e.g., fracking) have unlocked vast previously inaccessible reserves.

Years later, as people began fretting over climate change, National Geographic magazine quoted a scientist who said “the world is going to run out of atmosphere before it runs out of oil.”

Earth isn’t “running out” of atmosphere. Although some of the gas surrounding our planet escapes into space by various physical mechanisms (details here), the amount lost is trivial and nothing to worry about (see story here). He was referring to global warming caused by accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.

The political right has lied about global warming, and been in denial about it. It’s real, we can see and feel its effects now, and it’s having real-life impacts in the here and now. Scientists have been raising the alarm, and nations have taken up the issue, but with more talk than do.

That’s prompting activists to take things into their own hands. Last week, two anti-oil protesters splattered tomato soup on Van Gogh’s beloved “Sunflowers” painting in London’s National Gallery (see story). They didn’t hurt the picture, which is protected by glass. What they did goes down in history as merely an attention-seeking stunt, but one that offended art lovers and many ordinary people.

This week, a group of anti-oil protesters blocked traffic on a London Street (see story here), inconveniency — and annoying — ordinary Londoners trying to get to work or go about their business. The Guardian says (here), “It was the latest development in a two-week-long string of protests organised by Just Stop Oil, which is demanding that the government halt new fossil fuel licensing and production.”

Fossil fuel consumption — and, by extension, carbon emissions into the atmosphere — continues to grow rapidly. See chart below (“PE” refers to “Primary Energy,” not “petroleum,” and the green line represents the total of all fossil fuel types; see story here). The modest dip in 2020 consumption was due to the pandemic, and is temporary.

If you believe, as these activists do, that humanity is on a collision course with climate calamity, I think you’re probably right. But their antics won’t prevent it.

What are ordinary people supposed to do? They have to get to jobs, shop, heat their homes, etc., and are stuck in a civilization based on fossil fuels. They can’t help being hooked on fossil fuels; they didn’t have a choice. Weaning humanity off polluting energy sources requires marshaling scientific, technological, and industrial efforts and resources on a gigantic scale far beyond the capacity of individuals. We can each do our little bit, but that’s not remotely enough.

The activists understand that societal change requires changing people’s attitudes and beliefs. That’s the role of protest. But this kind of protest doesn’t win sympathy for the cause, it turns people against it, and risks hardening political resistance to the necessary change.

We can’t stop using fossil fuels today, even if the political will existed, which it doesn’t sufficiently yet; and protests — even constructive ones — won’t change that. The problem is so big it’s like Mount Everest, which has to be climbed as a long uphill trudge, one foot before the other.

Most of us aren’t scientists or engineers in a position to create and refine new technologies that could provide humanity a path away from fossil fuel dependency. We can only wait for those changes. We can adjust our personal behavior in some ways, and every little bit helps. Another thing we can do to make a difference is not vote for climate deniers and those fighting against change.

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