Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Putting Out Fire With Gasoline!

Christopher Wright, Daniel Nyberg

Oil Derrick Worship by Jason Skinner via Flickr

Over the last year things seem to have gone from bad to worse for the world’s climate. The election of billionaire property developer Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has presaged a new Dark Age of climate politics. In the opening few months of his Presidency, Trump has decreed the expansion of major fossil fuel developments including the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, the neutering of long-standing environmental protections, and draconian budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In addition, he and his leadership team have dismantled many of the Obama administration’s climate initiatives.

All this runs in direct counterpoint to the optimism many environmentalists felt after the landmark Paris climate agreement finalised in late 2015, which committed the world’s nations to undertake serious action to avoid dangerous climate change. The Trump reversal on climate change has sent a chill around the globe as political leaders now back away from the tough measures required to radically decarbonise energy and transport systems. For instance in Australia, Federal and state governments have prioritised public funding for a new mega-coal mine (one of the world’s largest) designed to export vast amounts of polluting coal to India. This occurs at the exact same time as the largest living organism on the planet, the Great Barrier Reef, undergoes a second catastrophic bleaching event likely resulting in the death of up to two-thirds of the reef!

In our book, Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction, we argue that our economic system is at war with the maintenance of a habitable climate. Over the last two centuries, developed economies have relied upon fossil-fuel based energy (coal, oil and gas) to drive unprecedented growth and prosperity. However, this has come at a huge environmental cost. As climate scientists have highlighted for decades, escalating use of fossil fuels and the diminution of forests and carbon sinks, have changed the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans with catastrophic consequences. Climate change is accelerating beyond previous worst-case scenarios.

our economic system is at war with the maintenance of a habitable climate

Despite this, our political and corporate leaders continue to promote a message of ‘business as usual’. In our book we label this process ‘creative self-destruction’ in which the innovative capacity of capitalism focuses on ever more efficient ways of extracting fossil fuels. Our book explores why this seemingly suicidal path is maintained and celebrated. We argue that a series of powerful political myths underpin the imaginary of ‘fossil fuels forever’. These include the myths of corporate environmentalism – that businesses are the best agents to respond to the climate crisis through technological and profit-oriented innovation; corporate citizenship – that businesses should be left to self-regulate and increasingly determine public policy outcomes; and corporate omnipotence – that there is no alternative to neoliberal market ‘solutions’ to the climate crisis.

After forty years of political vacillation, climate change now represents an existential crisis. However, growing resistance to this dystopian future is also mounting. The fossil fuel industry and its financial backers are targets of a growing social movement challenging the magical thinking of ‘business as usual’. Local and indigenous communities, farmers and the young are rising up to challenge the new carbon frontiers. If humanity and the many other species which exist on this planet are to have a future, we cannot go on as we have. We have to shake free of the processes of creative self-destruction and drive new more sustainable visions of our place on this planet.

About The Authors

Christopher Wright

Christopher Wright is Professor of Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School. He has researched and published widely in the areas of management knowledge d...

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Daniel Nyberg

Daniel Nyberg is Professor of Management at Newcastle Business School, Australia, and an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on political activitie...

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