Pluralistic: Electrons, not molecules (06 Mar 2024)

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A hydrocarbon molecule as seen through a microscope eyepiece. The molecule is set on a flaming backdrop. Dancing atop the molecule is a Rich Uncle Pennybags figure from the game Monopoly. He has removed his face to reveal a grinning skull.

Electrons, not molecules (permalink)

When hydrocarbon barons do their damndest to torch the Earth with fossil fuels, they call us dreamers. They insist that there's a hard-nosed reality – humanity needs energy – and they're the ones who live in it, while we live in the fairy land where the world can run on sunshine and virtuous thoughts. Without them making the tough decisions, we'd all be starving in the frigid dark.

Here's the thing: they're full of shit.


Humanity does need energy if we're going to avoid starving in the frigid dark, but that energy doesn't have to come from fossil fuels. Indeed, in the long-term, it can't. Even if you're a rootin' tootin, coal-rollin' climate denier, there's a hard-nosed reality you can't deny: if we keep using fossil fuels, they will someday run out. Remember "peak oil" panic? Fossil fuels are finite, and the future of the human race needn't be. We need more.

Thankfully, we have it. Despite what you may have heard, renewables are more than up to the task. Indeed, it's hard to overstate just how much renewable energy is available to us, here at the bottom of our gravity well. I failed to properly appreciate it until I read Deb Chachra's brilliant 2023 book, How Infrastructure Works:

Chachra, an engineering prof and materials scientist, offers a mind-altering reframing of the question of energy: we have a material problem, not an energy problem. If we could capture a mere 0.4% of the sun's rays that strike the Earth, we could give every person on the planet the energy budget of a Canadian (like an American, only colder).

Energy isn't just wildly abundant, though: it's also continuously replenished. For most of human history, we've treated energy as scarce, eking out marginal gains in energy efficiency – even as we treated materials as disposable, using them once and consigning them to a midden or a landfill. That's completely backwards. We get a fresh shipment of energy every time the sun (or the moon) comes up over the horizon. By contrast, new consignments of material are almost unheard of – the few odd ounces of meteoric ore that survive entry through Earth's atmosphere.

A soi-dissant adult concerned with the very serious business of ensuring our species isn't doomed to the freezing, starving darkness of an energy-deprived future would think about nothing save for this fact and its implications. They'd be trying to figure out how to humanely and responsibly gather the materials needed for the harvest, storage and distribution of this nearly limitless and absolutely free energy.

In other words, that Very Serious, Hard-Nosed Grown-Up should be concerned with using as few molecules as possible to harvest as many electrons as possible. They'd be working on things like turning disused coal-mines into giant gravity batteries:

Not figuring out how to dig or flush more long-dead corpses out of the Earth's mantle to feed them into a furnace. That is a profoundly unserious response to the human need for energy. It's caveman shit: "Ugh, me burn black sticky gunk, make cave warm, cough cough cough."

Enter Exxon CEO Darren Woods, whose interview with Fortune's Michal Lev-Ram and editor Alan Murray contains this telling quote: "we basically focus our technology on transforming molecules and they happen to be hydrogen and carbon molecules":

As Bill McKibben writes, this is a tell. A company that's in the molecule business is not in the electron business. For all that Woods postures about being a clear-eyed realist beating back the fantasies of solarpunk-addled greenies, Woods does not want a future where we have all our energy needs met:

That's because the only way to get that future is to shift from molecules – whose supply can be owned and therefore sold by Exxon – to electrons, which that commie bastard sun just hands out for free to every person on our planet's surface, despite the obvious moral hazard of all those free lunches. As Woods told Fortune, when it comes to renewables, "we don’t see the ability to generate above-average returns for our shareholders."

Woods dresses this up in high-minded seriousness kabuki, saying that Exxon is continuing to invest in burning rotting corpses because our feckless species "waited too long to open the aperture on the solution sets in terms of what we need as a society." In other words, it's just too late for solar. Keep shoveling those corpses into the furnace, they're all that stands between you and the freezing, starving dark.

Now, this is self-serving nonsense. The problem of renewables isn't that it's too late – it's that they don't "generate above-average returns for our shareholders" (that part, however, is gospel truth).

But let's stipulate that Woods sincerely believes that it is too late. It's pretty goddamned rich of this genocidal, eminently guillotineable monster to just drop that in the conversation without mentioning the role his company played in getting us to this juncture. After all, #ExxonKnew. 40 years ago, Exxon's internal research predicted climate change, connected climate change to its own profits, and predicted how bad it would be today.

Those predictions were spookily accurate and the company took them to heart, leaping into action. For 40 years, the company has been building its offshore drilling platforms higher and higher in anticipation of rising seas and superstorms – and over that same period, Exxon has spent millions lobbying and sowing disinformation to make sure that the rest of us don't take the emergency as seriously as they are, lest we switch from molecules to electrons.

Exxon knew, and Exxon lied. McKibben quotes Woods' predecessor Lee Raymond, speaking in the runup to the Kyoto Treaty negotiations: "It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now."

When Woods says we need to keep shoveling corpses into the furnace because we "waited too long to open the aperture on the solution sets terms of what we need as a society," he means that his company lied to us in order to convince us to wait too long.

When Woods – and his fellow enemies of humanity in the C-suites of Chevron and other corpse-torching giants – was sending the arson billions to his shareholders, he held back a healthy share to fund this deceit. He colluded with the likes of Joe Manchin ("[D-POLLUTION]" -McKibben) to fill the Inflation Reduction Act with gifts for molecules. The point of fantasies like "direct air carbon-capture" is to extend the economic life of molecule businesses, by tricking us into thinking that we can keep sending billions to Exxon without suffocating in its waste-product.

These lies aren't up for debate. Back in 2021, Greenpeace tricked Exxon's top DC lobbyist Keith McCoy into thinking that he was on a Zoom call with a corporate recruiter and asked him about his work for Exxon, and McCoy spilled the beans:

He confessed to everything: funding fake grassroots groups and falsifying the science – he even names the senators who took his bribes. McCoy singled out Manchin for special praise, calling him "a kingmaker" and boasting about the "standing weekly calls" Exxon had with Manchin's office.

Exxon's response to this nine-minute confession was to insist that their most senior American lobbyist "wasn't involved at all in forming policy positions."

McKibben points to the forthcoming book The Price Is Wrong, by Brett Christophers, which explains how the neoclassical economics establishment's beloved "price signals" will continue to lead us into the furnace:

The crux of that book is:

We cannot expect markets and the private sector to solve the climate crisis while the profits that are their lifeblood remain unappetizing.

Nearly 100 years ago, Upton Sinclair wrote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it." Today, we can say that it's impossible to get an oil executive to understand that humanity needs electrons, not molecules, because his shareholders' obscene wealth depends on it.

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