Polarization as strategy – No other way to interpret activist loathing of Shell’s voluntary “Drive Carbon Neutral” plan

How low can environmental/energy dialogue go? No one really knows. Every week, we set another all-time low.

Anyone involved with energy on a practical level -that is, anyone that is part of energy solutions rather than political machinations – knows full well how challenging it is to move away from a global hydrocarbon-based system. Due to the fact that our entire society is based on cheap hydrocarbons – all aspects of it – there is no “let’s abandon that one and build a new one” solution. Even incremental change is hard, and, perhaps for that reason alone, incremental change should be celebrated. Particularly if it’s a voluntary change.

That may be true in many realms, but not if you’re in the hydrocarbon business. No, if you’re in that business, the only thing that will win approval from the “far side” is for hydrocarbons to…roll over and die.

Want proof? The other week, Shell announced a plan to allow consumers to pay an extra two cents per litre of gas as part of “Drive Carbon Neutral” plan. Customers can opt to throw in an extra two cents per litre which will be funneled (initially) to a tree-planting program run by The Nature Conservancy.

Great idea all around – sensible, voluntary, with a clear beneficiary (as opposed to the “administrative shrinkage” many green schemes/charities seem to suffer from). Shell commented: “We see a lot of demand from customers to start helping. How can a customer who maybe can’t afford to buy an electric car, but wants to do something to help the environment, get involved?” Excellent! Additionally, an Indigenous group that would benefit from the program was a notable supporter; Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman for the Tsilhqot’in National Government, chimed in: “The reforestation project is an opportunity for economic growth within our nation,” he said. Even more excellent!

The celebrations were, of course, not universal. Here come the hate-club. “Insidious” and “pure-greenwashing”, said Environmental Defense spokesman and Death Eater Keith Brooks (don’t laugh, Harry Potter’s darkening world of swirling doom is coming to life). The program, in his eyes, is not just unacceptable but terrible. The option “puts the onus on the individual consumer instead of a massive polluter like Shell,” Brooks seethed electronically into the big dumb ears of the media, because it allows Shell to get off the hook for continuing to provide gasoline.

Where do attacks like that leave us? There is no joy in going after the likes of Brooks or Environmental Defense. He/they will never change his/their mind; they want to end society’s usage of hydrocarbons any way they can. They don’t want middle ground, they don’t want incremental progress – they want to slay a dragon. They refuse to acknowledge any good that Shell might do, because, as Brooks puts it, Shell is trying to “stymie and scuttle climate policy” through membership in CAPP. And that’s just one example; Brooks mocks any effort by Shell that does not get people off hydrocarbons (interesting to note that Brooks invokes religion in his attack, their 2 cents program “offers them the chance to seek absolution for their climate sins.” I don’t think that’s a mistake.)

But on the other hand, there is negative value in ignoring Brooks’ comments; those comments find their way directly into mainstream media (by invitation). To say nothing against them is to be as ineffectual as that CAPP demon that Brooks so badly wants to exorcise from this earthly world.

That’s the sorry world we live in. Try to do things better, and sure enough, here come the pitchforks. Try to defend against this activist army whose only job is to fill the airwaves with such vitriol and we’re “polarizing the debate”.

This shouldn’t be polarizing: Observe what you do, and your footprint. Make things better when you can, when you can afford them. Businesses, make incremental steps for the better, however you can. Shell hits the nail squarely, exactly, and precisely on the head. The program is stunningly clear in the choice it offers consumers too – as they pull up to the pumps, and ponder this contribution, they can’t help but ponder the size and luxuriousness of what they pulled up in. The program even has Indigenous support.

But incremental, voluntary, progress is unacceptable to some, if the “enemy” is allowed to live. Polarization is a now a profession. Energy in the media isn’t a dialogue now, it’s blood sport, leaving one feeling dirty for participating. To even write a commentary on and about the binary righteousness of the likes of Environmental Defense makes me want to throw up.

Any sane person’s head will want to split open when reading something like the attack on Shell. There is no onus being put on anyone. There is an option. There is an option that may make a person think about what they are driving. Individual consumers are, as is self-evident, the consumers. It could just as easily be read, by any civilized person, as a pointed wake-up call from Shell for people to realize their very own footprint. In other words, possibly a way to get people to think about reducing consumption.

But such positive possibilities cannot exist when polarization is a bedrock of activist communication strategies. There is no other way to interpret it. Progress, to Brooks’ ilk, is unacceptable, if the “enemy” is allowed to continue to provide the fuel that civilization requires to keep 7 billion people alive. That contradiction can only be hidden by turning the conversation into a comic book narrative; a villain must be created to stir emotions and distract from reality. It’s pathetic, and it’s everywhere.

The irony is that all the bluster and ferocity won’t help, it will only hurt. Governments will not, when faced with economic reality, kill off the world’s fuel source. We are going to be in a hydrocarbon based world for decades. All we can do is recognize what’s going on: people and groups that can’t conceive of how to govern and how to keep the world turning are being paid to advance an agenda that cannot succeed without the full cooperation of the world’s oil companies. Eventually, most will see that, and Brooks & co will move on to the next well-paid fight against the next villain. Until it is obvious that the only remaining villains will be the ones they create.

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  1. unclezip says:

    Anyone “who”. Humans are not “that”. Stop with the dehumanization of humans.


  2. John Chittick says:

    It’s extremely difficult to dredge up sympathy for corporate cowardice as advanced by some of the worst offenders (Shell and BP) in the patch. Forests are already experiencing significantly increased growth rates directly from fossil fuel combustion and increased atmospheric concentrations of C02 ( http://co2science.org/subject/f/forests.php ). I’m almost more sympathetic to the response of the hysteria merchants attacking Shell (in this case).

    Ayn Rand put it quite succinctly (and presciently) when she said (paraphrasing) that “on this planet you only have two means of survival. You can conquer nature or you can conquer people who conquer nature. No other alternative exists.” Digging further into this notion, the service sector is a legitimate and moral example of the later however when you get down to the moral depths of most of today’s politicians, too many lawyers, most of the professoriate, and green hysteria merchants along with their media cheerleaders, one must be clear about their relative merits in terms of value to society and the level of respect they deserve.

    Nothing resembling a clean, prosperous, industrial, liberal democracy is the goal of the likes of “Environmental Defense”. They, like the rest of their industry exist to sell hysteria while campaigning against prosperity up until the point of there being no residual wealth remaining to consume in that pursuit. The lowest level of such “people conquerors” these days, including too many politicians, are approaching the same moral depths as and not coincidentally, politically aligned with oven tenders, gulag guards and killing field operatives of the last century.


    • Terry Etam says:

      Great thoughts, and I hear you. The problem I wrestle with, endlessly, is not the John Galt view but the Hank Rearden view. And Rearden’s view includes the “simplicity” of being a single person in charge of a business. When you go public, you sell your soul (except Warren Buffett, more or less). Shell is managed by professional managers who are incentivized a certain way. You would expect moral courage from a board made up of the typical bizarre cross sections of most boards? What would you expect from an entity like Shell? What is the pathway to get to the sort of clarity of purpose of which you write? I’m not calling you out on anything, I’m just asking. I don’t see it as a possibility.
      At the end of AS, it became clear which way Rearden would go, given that the world was imploding and there was a new leader and a way out. Today our world is imploding. Where does a businessman go? Where do they exit to? I know that is a cop out in the Objectivist sense, just like Alan Greenspan was when he joined the Fed, but I find no other way than sometimes to accept pragmatism. That makes me an Objectivist outcast, and I have to live with that. But everyone else is too, whether they admit it or not. If you want to chase that right to the “top”, ask Nathaniel Branden about who could and couldn’t live the full Objectivist ethic….
      I do agree with your central tenet though, that it is an act of cowardice to not take some sort of stand. It sickens me to hear most corporate heads and commentators begin every public utterance with acknowledgment that climate change is a climate emergency. Shell is more guilty than most in that regard, and insofar as that goes I wholeheartedly agree with you.


      • John Chittick says:

        You know your Rand. I learned many years ago that Rand’s work could only be consumed in parts rather than in whole particularly when she strayed into aesthetics so I agree that we are all essentially “fallen objectivists” (“ominous parallels” with theology!)

        Perhaps a more honest tact for the O&G sector to take is make no pretense about their business being unapologetically anything else but the carbon business. Patrick Moore could help with sound scientific and environmental clarity as a sort of script for them to follow. EG. ‘returning a portion of the most essential nutrient to the biosphere while enjoying the incomparable, irreplaceable yet temporary benefits of efficiently producing high density energy’. The alternative is beer and popcorn and watching it all come down.

        The patch needs big players who can attract capital for mega projects but when it comes to Rearden, one would be more likely to find his equivalents in the small and midcaps, service companies, and drillers.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Terry Etam says:

        Well said! And thanks for the compliment – I am big Rand fan, with caveats as you mention. I’ve never been able to make it work all the way through, which brings up a perpetually vexing but interesting problem: If all the supporting arguments are logical and rational, the conclusions should be as well; and when I follow her logic it seems unassailable yet out in the real world, not so much. Maybe it’s the old economist problem of expected rationality, in the sense that humans are more complex and contradictory (particularly with respect to values and even more so to professed values – quite often two different things!) Anyway could write a book on that.
        Your point re: O&G is precisely on point and a huge missing link. I want to weep and/or punch the wall every time I hear someone talk about fossil fuels killing x or y. As of this day, fossil fuels keep 7 billion people alive. That is irrefutable and indisputable. The question is, where to go from here. I had a great chat today with an industry giant and we talked about how an energy transition is inevitable, but it should be when cheap oil/gas is consumed and economics dictate a shift to something else. That is, if oil went to $150/bbl and stayed there, we would see a sensible rush to the RIGHT solutions, driven by the market, and not by ignoramuses. We also need people to stand up and say, to the extent that climate is changing, there will be pros and cons. Maybe all the melted permafrost becomes a huge forest. Ironically, NASA said the very thing on the same page they say with great certainty that humans are causing climate change; they point out that some areas will benefit and others not. In other words, evolution will continue. 7 billion people have an incredible footprint, and we have to live with that. Make it work in the very best way possible, but make it work.


  1. […] Shell offers consumers a choice to pay more at the pumps with funds going to a reforestation project. A voluntary carbon tax – yet attacked by activists because it allows Shell to live. Time to lay bare the real motives of activists. Read on… […]


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