THERE’S A SCENE in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” where an embattled dust-bowl sharecropper struggles to defend his land. He threatens to shoot the man sent to demolish the farm buildings on behalf of the bank. Don’t blame me says the demolition man. The farmer then threatens to shoot the bank president who signed the foreclosure papers. Patiently, the demolition man explains that the bank manager is only carrying out the instructions of the bank’s owners back East. Utterly defeated, the propertyless sharecropper cries plaintively: “But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.” To which the demolition man replies: “I don’t know. Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t human at all.”
It’s an exchange I always recall whenever I hear people advocating going after “the man that’s starving me”. The latest target of this “who can we shoot” proposition are the 100 companies allegedly responsible for 71 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Not surprisingly, the first of these planetary polluters to fill the gunsights of Earth’s angry sharecroppers are the oil companies.
Former One Tree Hill-feller, Mike Smith, now working for the Iwi Leaders Forum, is aiming to bring Rainer Seele, CEO of the Austrian oil-giant OMV, before the International Criminal Court for “genocide and other climate crimes impacting on indigenous communities now and in the future”. It would be churlish not to wish Mr Smith well, but the chances of Mr Seele being convicted (or even indicted!) by the ICC are about as good as Steinbeck’s sharecropper bagging a New York banker with his gopher gun.
The Iwi Leaders Forum may have deep pockets, but they are unlikely to be as deep as OMVs when it comes to keeping a team of international law experts on retainer for the length of time between Mr Smith launching his legal case – and its inevitable abandonment. Inevitable? Of course. The idea that the CEOs of those 100 companies will ever be brought before a criminal court for doing what their billions of customers and clients around the world demand of them is ludicrous.
That’s the nub of the problem, isn’t it. Those giant corporations would wither and die in just a few months if the peoples of the world unanimously agreed to stop purchasing their products and services. What could be simpler? Just throw away your lap-top and cellphone. Junk your car – and your ready-to-wear wardrobe. Leave the city you’re living in. Stop using electricity. Throw away your prescription medicines. Easy-peasy! Take away the demand, and rest assured, there will be no more supply.
Except, the demand for all those goods and services isn’t going anywhere – is it? In fact, it is set to grow, exponentially, as all the peoples on earth currently shut out of the Western lifestyle determinedly amass the wealth needed to acquire it. Now, the Mike Smiths of this world will undoubtedly urge the people of India and Brazil, and the poorest nations of Africa, to embrace their poverty as the surest means of saving the planet, but I would advise them to put on their running shoes before they start making their pitch.
There will be many who object that this is nothing but a crude exercise in victim blaming. Most people really do want to save the planet, but the relentless battering of journalists, advertisers, public relations consultants, lobbyists, corporate fixers, corrupt politicians – many of them on the payrolls of those 100 companies – keep us all running, like so many demented consumerist hamsters, on the great wheel of capitalism.
But, once again, all we have to do is stop. Except, we don’t stop – do we?
This civilisation we have built (we being the whole human species) is the most astonishingly wonderful thing homo sapiens has ever seen. We love it. We cannot imagine how awful life would be without it. And, we most certainly are not going to co-operate with anyone who advises us to throw it away.
We like our lap-tops and our cellphones. We like our cars and our cheap RTW clothes. We like living in vast, vibrant cities built out of concrete and steel. We like being able to flick a switch and get all the energy we can use. We like turning on a tap and being able to drink the water that comes out. We like it that there are hospitals and clinics full of clever doctors and nurses, and pharmacies full of clever drugs. And we don’t actually care if every last Polar Bear in creation is reduced to a pathetic heap of skin and bones – just so long as our super-civilisation, powered by its indispensable and irreplaceable (at least for the foreseeable future) fossil-fuels, keeps on a-rockin’.
So, much and all as Mr Smith might wish it were otherwise, Mr Seele and all the other CEOs of those miscreant 100 companies have nothing to fear from virtue-signalling activists. They know, just as the demolition man in Steinbeck’s novel knew, that there’s nobody to shoot.
Because the thing that is frying the planet – and all our futures – isn’t human. It’s a vast and impossibly complex economic machine, and it absolutely does not care what we think or say – only what we buy.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 14 March 2023.