Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Full steam ahead to oblivion
Talk of a carbon tax always brings to mind that Mark Twain tale of mummies as loco fuel. Burned on to my mental retina is the image of these sacred, 3000-year-old remains “purchased by the ton, or by the graveyard”, being shoved end-on into the steam train’s glowing maw as (camera pull out) it chugs across the desert.
Twain offered the story as hearsay, but did add that “sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, ‘d–n these plebeians, they don’t burn worth a cent – pass out a King.'”
It’s the sheer arrogance that impresses, the full-on hubris that made the 19th century what it was. Yet if it’s hubris we’re talking, ours eclipses theirs every time.
History – if there is still history, in the future – will surely judge the 20th century for its sacrificial approach to past and future, oxidising ancient remains and filthying lives unborn to power its own, reckless present.
It’s getting worse. This century we’re already using energy at three times the rate of the 20th, and that figure is rising. True, we may yet avert catastrophe. Equally, however, the entire modern experiment, for all its advances, may prove humanity’s fatal flaw.
Let’s not pretend. There’s more at stake here than lifestyle. A carbon tax that did not diminish our living standard would be futile and governments have no business promising, as Swan-Gillard rhythmically do, that petrol or electricity prices won’t rise or that big polluters won’t pay. The whole point is to impact us, and not in a good way. If it doesn’t hurt, it won’t work.
There’s more at stake, too, than a few hundred deaths from lung cancer, dreadful as that disease is. So while the Gillardists make a hullaballoo of their stand on Big Tobacco, it is clearer every day that the industry which we must contain – that should be not just plain-wrapped but locked in a small dark room and poked with a burnt stick – is Big Hydrocarbon.
We know the power of advertising. Even in a society like ours that has taught kids to unpick ads for 50 years, it still works a treat. It’s why Big Tobacco had to invent that silliness about plain packaging delivering tsunamis of contraband chop-chop from Asia. It’s how Big Mining won the mining tax “debate”. And it’s how Big Hydrocarbon is helping us jump off the cliff.
Now a new advertising genre has emerged; hydrocarbon greenwash. Take BP’s $1 million-a-week post-Gulf of Mexico advertising spree, run even while it was short-changing devastated fishermen and ending its investment in renewables. Or Shell’s “let’s help to keep the skies blue” tag-line, backed by child kite-flyers in Brazil for a fuel that “can cut fuel emissions by 30-76 per cent”. Toyota’s “filled with commitment” ads, enumerating its workers’ volunteer input to communities or Chevron’s “Big Oil should support small business” featuring an African woman in ethnic dress.
They’re all in it. Just as it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, it’s cheaper to clean up your image than your act. And you don’t even need to claim greenness. You just need to grab the moral high-ground.
Entitlement be damned. Hydrocarbons gave us modernity, didn’t they? They gave us internal combustion,
plastics, fertilisers, moon rockets, electric toothbrushes, bubble bath. Many things set modernity apart but the most dramatic is the sudden ubiquity of the carbon-hydrogen chain.
Since then humans have so changed the world that science has renamed our geological era. What was the Holocene, beginning 12,000 years ago, has ceded to the Anthropocene, thought by many to have begun in 1800, when our species first hit
1 billion. Most of this change – mass agriculture, urban sprawl, deforestation, aviation – is via hydrocarbons. It was also in 1800 when atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuels started significantly to rise. And it wasn’t just the mummies.
Hydrocarbons are everywhere. Even without climate change, which every week looks more urgent than we thought, they have shaped our cities and our countryside, infiltrating our soils, our food chain, our bodies.
We’re facing the sixth mass extinction in history, the only one caused by an implicated species, and a good part of it is down to hydrocarbons.
It’s not just climate change, either. There’s also habitat loss and straight old poisoning. On Lord Howe Island, the shearwaters are dying by the hundred with stomachs full of plastic. The London sparrow is all but gone, and studies blame diesel particulates, to which everyone switched for cost and climate reasons.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are combustion products of diesel and of our electricity stations’ dirty brown coal. Known to penetrate the skin, they are also in cosmetics and face creams. Some – like the EPA-listed carcinogen and neurotoxin 1,4-dioxane – have been found in bodywash and bubble bath specially ethoxylated to be “gentle” for children.
And there’s industrial civilisation’s cancer epidemic which, while clearly multi-factorial, correlates neatly with this hydrocarbon insurgence. (Breast tissue, for one, is known to concentrate and metabolise aromatic hydrocarbons like benzene, a carcinogen).
None of this was necessary. Alexis Madrigal’s book Powering the Dream documents green technologies available a century ago, from Manhattan’s 1890 flocks of electric cabs to geothermal district heating in Boise, Idaho, in 1910. This early green-tech was cheap, viable and acknowledged as sustainable – but sidelined because Big Hydrocarbon perverted history.
Through the mid-20th century Big Oil lobbied to rip up tram tracks and expedite car-dependent sprawl. Even now, despite the US debt blowout and high oil prices, US oil companies are subsidised by billions of dollars, paying an effective 9 per cent tax rate instead of 25 per cent, and in turn funding the Tea Party.
Yet still our big polluters oppose a green future and still our politicians score goals for them.
John Robertson, as NSW energy (and, natch, environment) minister, planted his cluster-bomb Solar Bonus Scheme, acted all surprised when it blew up in Barry O’Farrell’s hands and now sits back to watch it benefit his old coal-industry mates. O’Farrell pretends a coal seam gas moratorium while his minister, Duncan Gay, lets Shenua dig up the fields, as he told Parliament, on a “gentleman’s agreement”.
Tony Abbott can’t see his way through the smoke Big Tobacco blows up in his bicycle seat, let alone Big Oil. Nick Minchin still calls global warming “alarmism”. And Julia Gillard knocks the green tech from the budget while promising to keep petrol prices low.
Bugger the future. Full steam ahead, I say! Pass out a king.
ILLUSTRATION: EDD ARAGON