Carbon Wars: Fight Smarter, Not Harder

I just finished a post that advised against protesting tar-sands oil as an environmentalist strategy. Before I go on to positive steps I would recommend, I have to push further and protest all carbon protests.

But here is what I am NOT saying with all of that: I am not saying oil protesters are hypocritical. The "hypocrisy" argument is commonly hauled out for protestors of all kinds. Here's my high-school friend, Paul Waddel, on Facebook, tired of pipeline protestors just the other day:

Chop your wood, forsake electricity, dip buckets in creeks for water. Build an outhouse or dump your sewage in the nearest water like Victoria does.
Most British Columbians are on side with Alberta but baffled by the animosity.
For those against Kinder Morgan. Ditch the hypocrisy unless you are willing to live like a modern day cave man
Curiously if you are reading this it’s on an electronic device it was 100% made with fossil fuel. Ditto the eyeglasses you may need to read this. The battery to power your device? Fossil fuel.
Pick you poison. Tired of your selective shopping list.

Paul has a point I can argue respectfully, but I do argue it. People protesting that the world is not run well can't be asked to not use the resources of that existing world to change it. It's the only world they have. I recall critics of "Occupy Wall Street" claiming that they could not put their donated funds into any bank. It's not enough that these people are fighting multi-trillion-dollar-per-year industries, they should restrict themselves to the tools of hunter-gatherers?

No. On the contrary, turning your enemy's weapons and other resources back against them is among the most-hallowed tactics in warfare, so using the resources created by the world you want to change, to effect that change, is the smartest way to do it.

But in the case of protesting oil pipelines and other infrastructure, that is, alas, the ultimate reason to not protest oil production, but rather use it. Take it from the ultimate anti-capitalist, Lenin: "The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them." Or in this case, Exxon will cheerfully sell you the energy you need to build a lithium-battery gigafactory that heads us towards eliminating their business model.

More broadly, protesting production is the least-effective way to change the fact of that production. Even a conservative oilman like GW Bush could see that "America is addicted to oil", but liberals seem to resist extending the metaphor to the realization that fighting oil producers is like the drug war against drug production, which has never worked. Environmental campaigners are virtually always liberal on the drug issue, quick to plead that 80 years of cannabis Prohibition worked no better than Prohibition of alcohol: all it did was drive the price up and bring in producers even more eager (and ruthlessly brutal).

Coincidence even provides us with examples from within each "war" that happen to rhyme. No drug was pursued with greater law-enforcement zeal than cocaine; that part of the Drug War had its own 1980's TV show in Miami Vice. What did the cocaine cowboys cause by driving up the price of the stuff? The invention of crack, which was so potent it drove the price of a high down from stock-broker budgets to that of every poor street-person. Twenty years later, what did we get from the price of oil skyrocketing way over a hundred a barrel? Desperate engineers turned to crack(s) - but the word was taken, so they called it "fracking" instead. It caused a crash in oil prices almost comparable to the cocaine/crack debacle.

That oil-price spike, by the way, came not from all the oil-related protests in the world, but from higher consumption in Asia combined with America throwing another war for those Arabs that are sitting on "America's" oil. Protests against new oil infrastructure, from wells, to plants and pipelines, almost never work.

If you judge the effectiveness of protests by count of pipelines halted, wells not drilled, plants not built, they have to be the most-frustrating, near-hopeless wastes of energy (literally, in the case of gas spent driving to the protest) you can throw away your time upon. Why do they go on?

I got the answer to that in 1991, eavesdropping on Gulf War protestors at Calgary City Hall. They were all young, teens and just-past, camped out in the atrium with their signs and costumes. Listening in as I passed, I heard the exact same conversations I would have heard at any teen party, spiced with a lot of self-congratulatory chest-thumping about their virtue and the evil of those they fought against: it was a social occasion. Boys, in particular, were clearly showing off for the girls present as at any such occasion in human history.

Restricting your own consumption and paying extra for efficient cars and houses are not energizing, emotionally-satisfying experiences like fighting Evil with staunch friends and allies. A protest has a strong sense of community, and participants frequently want to stick around when the party is clearly over; they trudge away to have protest-nostalgia for life.

I've got no problem with that, actually: all social clubs are social goods, with the possible exception of the Klan. It's great if birds of a feather find each other and buck up the morale of all. But as with my post about protesting the tar sands, I worry that protestors will now feel some moral right to go right on consuming, their duty to the environment already done, when the protest itself did nothing detectable at all.

The next level of problem is that if the protest did manage to stop a project, that restriction of supply, and consequent tiny increase in world oil-price, would have very little effect upon world consumption. (As a global problem, only global changes in consumption are relevant to it.)

The price/consumption relationship, or rather lack of one, is pretty plain in this graph at , using data from the BP Review of World Energy:

Properly, I should extract the Y-values from the two lines, PRICE and AMOUNT, and graph them against each other. But, honestly, cannot everybody see that price and consumption are basically unrelated? The only positive correlation at all is second half of the oil shocks of the 1970s. For the first half, from 1973 to 1977, you get a NEGATIVE correlation: consumption actually did continue to rise a bit as the price jumped from $10/bbl to $60/bbl - SIX-FOLD(!). Only in the late 1970s did consumption finally drop 15% for a few years, as the price spiked further up to $100/bbl.

There's only a tiny drop in 2008 from a gargantuan financial crash. The consumption drops from the price-spike in 1998 and again in 2003 are barely visible, though the jumps were over 100%. This tells a clear story that most oil consumption is inflexible with oil price. It's either necessary (got to get to work, got to harvest crops) or just a small fraction of the price of some manufactured good.

Protestors seem to be thinking, as they stand there in uncomfortable weather staring down bored cops, that if they stop a pipeline carrying a million barrels a day, then one million fewer barrels will be burned. I think a lot of street-cops imagined the same about impounding kilograms of cocaine; that exact amount would now never reach a customer. But of course, the whole law-enforcement effort only ever stopped 10% of the drugs trafficked, from border to streetcorner. All that the police did was cause the local drug-lords to put in orders for 11 couriers instead of 10, and bump the price accordingly.

The big difference is that the drugs are actually illegal! With oil, you don't even have that. With drugs at least you got 10% of the product interdicted via the whole power of the State dropped on them; some producers got life in jail. With oil, you are stopping less than 0.01% of the product flow, and consumers can just legally, and easily, turn elsewhere.

So let's sum up just how little good you are doing at an oil-related protest, on three levels no less:

  1. For the time and effort spent, you are barely reducing production and thereby raising the price, at all;
  2. If you did raise the price, it would have no effect on consumption and the consequent damage to the world;
  3. And worse, raising the price would probably end up as a Bad Thing that stimulates a new technology - one that will lower the price more than you ever raised it!
So stop. Just stop, that's my advice, stop wasting your time and effort. If you want to have a team-building gathering and make friends with other environmentalists, hold a meeting on what positive steps can be taken to have good effects. Those will be for my next post.

Text is COPYRIGHT, Roy Brander, 2018. All graphics are available Internet grabs that link to their source, and will be taken down upon request, to "roy.brander" at Google's mail system.