It’s estimated that deaths from car pollution exceed 33,000 per year, (Union of Concerned Scientists). Now that we have become more aware of deaths, damage to the economy and overall harm to our country due to viruses as well as other contagious diseases, it’s time to include the actual, real pain that fossil fuel inflicts. From supporting totalitarian, oppressive regimes in the Middle East, to causing asthma in your children from the school bus they ride on, there is nothing, nothing good that comes from fossil fuels.
Think about it; all along the fossil fuel process, damage is left in its wake. The extraction process physically harms the immediate environment whether it’s being drilled out, or worse; ever hear of “mountain top removal?” Whichever process is employed to get at the oil, the infrastructure needed at the site adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Once extracted, the crude product has to be transported by truck, train and ship to refineries, which adds yet more CO2 to the atmosphere. Then, the refined product has to again be transported by trucks to gas stations, adding even more CO2. Fossil fuel companies enjoy special treatment from the federal government; incentives, tax breaks, policy maneuvers protecting them from competition, insulating their profit and planet damaging business model. And like the days of denial by politicians and tobacco executives about the death caused by their products, currently politicians and oil executives are pushing the exact same lies about fossil fuels; “It’s not that bad and think about the jobs it creates.”
Direct planetary damage or “atmosphere as dumpster” as my friend and climate change hero Paul Douglas likes to say is just one hugely terrible part of fossil fuels “total disaster as business model”. The oil industry props up Middle Eastern autocrats, “petro-dictators” are able to rule absolutely mostly because of the unbelievable amount of wealth their kingdoms have amassed from oil. Additionally, in those countries that rely so heavily on one singular industry, (namely oil), creativity in other industries is stifled. The one “super industry” rules all else and smart, creative people organize around that one thing to the detriment of other business models, as well as artistic expression. Politics shift to accommodate the super industry; it gets all and whatever it wants, becoming so closely tied with business that democratic leadership of any kind is impossible. We’ve seen this here in the US, in cities that become super centers of one company, or one kind of company. Sure they provide jobs, but once that super company leaves, or goes out of business, the town is left hollowed out, destroyed. Vendors that rely too heavily on one, gigantic customer always put themselves at risk because once that sole customer finds a better deal, or goes out of business, the vendor is toast; happens all the time.
Of course we don’t have exact numbers on how many people have been killed by petro dictatorships and oil companies, but it is very safe to say that they have caused immeasurable pain, suffering and death; just like the tobacco companies did and still do.
Up until now, we have mainly focused on CO2 emissions from transportation, but there are other very big, very bad contributors: coal fired power plants. In my own focus on big oil, due to my work in transportation, I overlooked coal, maybe because power plants aren’t everywhere you look, like cars are. Power plants are there, we know they have smokestacks and pump out CO2, but the damage from transportation is much more evident; we sit in traffic jams where we can see thousands of smoking tailpipes. In reality, all those smoking tailpipes are power plants for the vehicles they reside in; every tailpipe a smokestack, millions upon millions.
Here’s a question so simple, it comes off like a dumb question you’re afraid to ask in algebra. Why does the world put up with it? Why do we let big oil off the hook over and over? Why do we let them sell their toxic products all over the world? Why does the world let big oil kill millions of people each year? Why don’t they have to pay a penalty, as most all other industries do for creating toxic waste? A study by researchers from Harvard University, the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London found that fossil fuel products kill 1 in 5 people globally each year. Even if 1 in 5 is too liberal of an estimate, 1 in 10 is still terrible. And to add insult to injury, we give them subsidies; we subsidize them for poisoning us and the planet. It’s as if there was one country that waged constant war on every other country and never suffered retaliation, consequences; allowed to march on, causing harm everywhere. The multiple crashes of Boeing 737 Max jets resulted in the grounding of every 737 Max, huge lawsuits and huge losses for the company. The 737 deaths are tragic, awful and represent about 600 people. Fossil fuels kill millions. And whenever someone has tried to hold them accountable for an oil spill, they drag the process out so long that the impacted never see any restitution – at least which matches the damage incurred.
There are people who would say; “We can’t tell businesses what to make, or what to do. It’s anti-capitalist, anti-democratic” Why not? This is exactly what the US did in WWII; the government told factories they had to make weapons, equipment, trucks, planes, ships for the war effort. Did America turn into a socialist-communist autocracy? No. Did it kill our economy? No. After the war, did the factories, workers sit, idle – not knowing what to do cause the war was over? No it was just the opposite. In fact gearing up for the war had an enormous positive impact on the US economy. America got real good at making stuff, developed new technologies and it set the stage for the American Century. It’s hard to estimate the positive economic impacts of what the US developed and built for the war effort, but whatever it would be, is mindbogglingly gargantuan.
Mobilizing American manufacturing and workers to transition to an all clean energy technology paradigm would have a similar effect. There are hints of this coming from China, the EU and the US, but what is necessary is an alliance, just like one that brings allies together in war.
Yes, there are CO2 emissions from lithium mining, from building electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines, but should these technologies be aborted because of it? To say that we should abandon the pursuit and implementation of clean technologies because the transition is in some way not “perfect”, is all or nothing thinking. Transitions take time. All or nothing thinking says “we have to have it all work 100% now, or it’s not worth it.” This is not the way the world works. The telephone was invented in 1860 and seven decades later, it was still not in every home.
And remember, ICE vehicles kill and poison not just with particulates in the air; gasoline exposure is carcinogenic and it’s not just gas. Multitudes of other fluids are necessary for ICE cars to function. These chemicals leak into the ground and exposure to them cannot be considered harmless.
The fossil fuel industry damages, poisons, enslaves and corrupts; it hurls its asteroid size destruction in all directions, into all aspects of human life, human society and the planet itself. The only way human civilization can move into a brighter future, or a future at all is to run away as fast as possible from fossil fuels.