Michael Hoexter: Summer Heat – The Movement Against Ripping the Face off the Earth for a Brief Fossil-Fueled “Party”

By Michael Hoexter, a policy analyst and marketing consultant on green issues, climate change, clean and renewable energy, and energy efficiency. Cross posted from New Economic Perspectives

350.org’s “Do the Math” educational campaign and documentary film points out a crucial fact for our time: that most of the known reserves, the assets of the fossil fuel industry, must remain in the ground untapped, for the climate to remain something remotely like what we have known throughout the history of civilization. Civilization requires agriculture, which is dependent on a few sensitive species to produce a surplus of food for masses of people with comparatively lower levels of labor or mechanical work. If we make the climate inhospitable to these species, as well as to ourselves, via fossil fuel use and degradation of the carbon buffering capacity of the environment, we will make it vanishingly likely that our own success as a species will continue.

Another 350.org initiative for summer 2013 in the US, one of the centers of the worldwide fossil fuel industry, “Summer Heat”, is attempting to build a movement that draws the connection between climate change and keeping fossil fuels in the ground and pushing this connection into public awareness and onto the political agenda of ruling elites. “Summer Heat” will attempt to build a framework of common meaning around a series of movements against the more desperate, “unconventional” fossil fuel extraction practices that exact a more obvious toll on their points of extraction than the “easy” fossil fuel extraction of the days of oil gushers and natural gas driven upwards through vertical boreholes by underground pressure. These movements are for the most part geographically distributed and sometimes have different points of entry into their opposition to the new and more violent extraction methods of the fossil fuel industry.

The growing fight against the Keystone XL pipeline points out the much higher chances of damage to local environments from the more corrosive tar sands-derived heavy oil/bitumen in transit in the pipeline as well as the obvious open sore of the tar sands mining efforts in Alberta, Canada. The refining of tar sands is a process that is dirtier and has a higher chance of corrosion damage to facilities than conventional oil and leaves behind petroleum coke, a dirty form of coal.

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking does not leave such large open scars as tar sands extraction but instead creates a more widely dispersed patchwork of drilling sites and laces toxic chemicals and methane/natural gas into the water table in densely populated and highly productive agricultural lands. Fracking is a technique that can be used to extract “tight” and heavy oils trapped in rock formations, as well as the now more common fracking for shale gas.

In West Virginia, mountaintop removal mining, radically alters the Appalachian landscape to extract coal and has stirred some resistance. Other techniques, considered less controversial perhaps simply because they are older or occur in remote locations, are strip mining of coal in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, which also leaves large open sores in the land, or deep water drilling, which with Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 showed how damaging it can be to an entire ecosystem. These unconventional fuels and techniques have for the most part higher carbon emissions per unit usable energy both from the more energy intensive process of their extraction and refining as well as accidental emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas in fracking for gas.

Those fossil fuel extraction processes that have attracted opposition by social movements have gained energy because of the dramatic destruction or poisoning of various landscapes that have taken place because of these newer, more invasive, more energy-intensive “unconventional” fossil fuel extraction techniques. If we were truly rational beings, we might, at this point in history, be almost as upset about the conventional “easy” forms of fossil fuel extraction and combustion as we are about the fossil fuel industry physically altering the landscape or its viability to get at fossil fuels. It has been difficult to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis via the abstraction of carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, so the visual aids as well as immediate dangers of local toxins from fossil fuel extraction and refining help add urgency.

A Perception Problem

While the destruction of landscapes and the injection of known toxins into drinking water and the ground provide an additional spur to action, there are dangers that the public by observing this movement from afar and through the lens of the mass media will not quite get the problem of the invisible, insensible injection of more carbon into the atmosphere and oceans. These “local” pollutants can easily get filed by the public into a couple of familiar mental categories that will allow people to evade further thinking on this matter:

1) conventional pollution: poisons and impurities which provoke fear and avoidance

2) a mental category “environmentalist”, meaning someone who is perceived as hypersensitive to and exaggerating the dangers of poisons and impurities or can afford to do so because of relative wealth and privilege. Alternatively an environmentalist can sometimes be thought to harbor an unrealistically high standard or vision of a how society should function in relationship to nature, which may in fact be the case with some environmentalists.

3) the focus on the local effects of unconventional fossil fuels can lead to a political focus on “cleaning up” the extraction of fossil fuels rather than stopping their extraction. The call for “best practices” will appeal to “serious” people and obscure the call to end the practices of relying on fossil fuels altogether.

I contend that even members of the climate movement can get caught up in political positions that are indistinguishable from conventional environmental positions when it comes to the toxics produced by the fossil fuel industry that have primarily local effects.

There is then a critical “and” that must be present in the messaging and appeals of the climate movement when confronted with a demand, for instance, for clean up of oil spills or reducing methane leaks from fracking wells, otherwise the message of transitioning off fossil fuels gets lost. The movement may, perhaps gleefully, in accumulating the list of “bads” associated with the target of their protests and actions, not realize that they can be shunted into a narrowed role that doesn’t address the climate change that affects everyone. I am active in a group in the Bay Area that is affiliated with 350.org that has among others different groups that are opposed to hydro-fracking as well as to tar sands development and the Keystone XL pipeline. We are currently hammering out a coherent message out of a diverse list of demands for an August 3rd event at the largest Bay Area oil refinery in Richmond, CA Just the complexity of each of these issues and the variety of possible demands that can be raised against them, all of them in some way worthy, may lead to the movement’s energy being temporarily sidelined into one or the other “reforms” of fossil fuel extraction techniques.

The “and” is critically important also because it also implicates everybody who uses or enjoys products made with the help of fossil fuels in the massive project of transforming our societies and economies before it is too late. By dwelling on local pollution, the full moral impact of the climate crisis is dampened and directed away from personal engagement in political and economic action.

Furthermore, the technical complexity of some of these issues also presents the possibility that the movement itself becomes too “technical” in its language and approach to the politics to appeal the broad swaths of the population that know somewhere that we need to change our energy system. I have a proposition that this movement should adopt as a conceptual and rhetorical option a still more emotive and simplified language to describe the overall direction of climate activism as regards the rise of unconventional fossil fuel extraction and the opportunity it represents to educate the public.

Desperate Destruction to Feed a Brief “Party”

I am proposing that the climate movement, which will only grow in the future, is in a stage right now where we are a movement “against ripping the face off the earth for a brief fossil fueled party”. The metaphor of “ripping his face off” is most current in our language because of the language of Wall Street traders. In the frat-boy language of securities traders, “ripping his face off” is a boast that they had taken advantage of counterparties in various trades, sometimes in the case of trading divisions attached to investment banks, these counterparties would be clients of the bank that employed these traders. The glee bordering upon psychopathy at humiliating others expressed in this language is worth commenting on in itself but the metaphor seems to resonate in a different way and context to the current strategy of the fossil fuel industry.

Unconventional fossil fuel extraction techniques are almost literally “ripping the face off” the earth to get at the fossil fuel resources that we supposedly “need” for our society to function but that fossil fuel industry wants to ensure that we “need”. Tar sands excavation, more conventional open pit coal mining and unconventional mountain top removal coal mining all fit the “ripping the face off” metaphor perfectly. Fracking is not quite a literal match for this metaphor but the damages to densely populated landscapes used for among other things agriculture of fracking fluid and methane leaks are as damaging as the open sores that various surface mining techniques create. Deep sea oil drilling has very high risks as we have seen with Deepwater Horizon, which poisoned the ecosystems of the gulf

Then what is being expressed by the “ripping the face off” metaphor is a desperate or calculating disregard for the consequences of extracting these oil, gas or coal deposits, something that should be made obvious by the climate movement but isn’t..yet. The question that the climate movement should be asking the greater society is the following:

Are we the kind of society that defiles the earth and almost certainly jeopardizes our future in search of a temporary patch to our energy problems?

Or more emotively:

Are we the type of people who rip off the face of our mother/father Earth to have a brief fossil-fueled party?

I don’t see the point of soft pedaling the emotional component of what is also a rational, scientific argument for a sustainable energy and land-use policy. Disgust, self-disgust and anger need to lead people to act. The public needs to recognize the mounting desperation of our fossil fueled society and the fossil fuel industry that is leading it down the road to perdition. A simple accounting of tons of carbon or of methane leakage percentages does not entirely capture the stakes involved.

I believe that a unified movement, a concept that should be used to explain why fracking, tar sands development, mountain top removal, and open strip coal mining are of one piece is that it turns us into a species that is driven by temporary wants as opposed to long term objectives and principles. We are all implicated in the techniques that the fossil fuel industry uses.

The question remains: Who wouldn’t want to join the Movement Against Ripping of the Face of the Earth?

Coda: Fleeting vs. Semi-Permanent Benefits from Tearing At the Earth

I am not one of those who believe that we will next transition to a primitive or tribal society or that we would want to. There may be some in the climate movement who treasure that thought. They are strict and dogmatic preservationists or Earth Firsters, who are, whether they know it or not, neo primitivists. Many of these people haven’t quite thought through their insistence that all of the damages or changes in the land left by humanity should be or could be erased.

I am of the opinion that the next, better economy and civilization we will have will use a fair amount of the earth’s resources and will still have substantial impacts on the earth’s surface. We will still live in the “Anthropocene” era, where humans profoundly shape though do not necessarily consciously control the earth. To build an economy that uses renewable energy converted to electric energy to do useful work (by far the most likely route), we are going to need copper, iron, rare earth metals, and lithium among other elements to build that economy and civilization. This civilization, however, will of necessity need to work to undo at least some of the worst excesses of our current civilization, including reversing deforestation and of course radically reducing our fossil fuel use as soon as possible.

But the foolishness of our civilization is made obvious by ripping up, using up, and poisoning the productive, protective, and sustaining capacity of the earth to “enjoy” only a brief injection of energy. We need to throttle the forces that push elements in our societies to spur on this quest with only a brief benefit to a very few people within the long chain of human existence. I will in the next essay address the only tools that we have to achieve these goals, tools that have been for the most part overlooked in the brief history of climate change and alternative energy policy.

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  1. steve from virginia

    To build an economy that uses renewable energy converted to electric energy to do useful work (by far the most likely route), we are going to need copper, iron, rare earth metals, and lithium among other elements to build that economy and civilization.

    Not really. This is nothing more than spam for the electric car industry and business as usual.

    Every climate promoter should get rid of his or her own personal car first then offer advice later. Otherwise, the exercise is nothing but empty theatrics/self-aggrandizement. If the climate dudes are serious they will get rid of their cars. If they refuse to drive or trailer their cars to junkyards where their cars are shredded … they aren’t serious. They’re all hypocrites; ‘do as I say, not do as I do’. The McMansions and luxury jobs should go, too. How about stop eating meat, while you are at it?

    Solving the climate problem would be difficult but a good first step would be to get rid of the cars altogether. They are simply useless instruments of junk convenience that cannot pay their own way. It is not enough that we rip our own faces off but that we have grossly indebted ourselves to the extent of hundreds of trillions of dollars … to do so.

    1. NS

      Very few people (in the U.S. anyway) live someplace where in the absence of cars they can get the kids to school, Mom to the doctor, and themselves to work, all in the same morning. Getting rid of cars is a good idea. It will require an enormous transformation of our communities to accomplish.

      1. American Slave

        Or we could be like Vietnam and tax the hell out if cars but make motorcycles and motorized rickshaws and other micro vehicles cheap.

      2. American Slave

        To add to that I would say that one of the things Germany did right was there public transportation system with electric busses that arrive every 10 min.

        1. John F. Opie

          Most definitely not the case. I live near Frankfurt and public transportation is not any better than living in Pittsburgh (which I have also done). You can live with it, but it’s not a lot of fun and takes significantly longer than driving a car, in my case more than doubling the commute. Not cheap either, with a monthly fare card for all of 10km in excess of $125.

          Diesel buses, too. No electric except for streetcars and subways.

          1. Yalt

            Doubling the commute?

            We’ll take Cincinnati as an example (it’s about the same size as Pittsburgh but I know it much better). Taking the best-case scenario for public transit here, a downtown job with ordinary daytime hours, the drive takes 20 minutes and the bus takes an hour. That’s not a disaster, but if the bus only doubled the commute I’d be pretty happy.

            Or let’s say I’m trying to get somewhere other than downtown, or not during rush hour. It’s a 20 minute drive from here to the dentist. Without a car, to make a 1pm appointment, I could take the 8:04 bus downtown, change to another bus running all the way back out, and get to my appointment three hours early. There is no later bus that would get me there.

            When the appointment’s finally over I could reverse the trip and be home a little before 5pm. An hour trip to the dentist has become a grueling 50 mile, nine hour journey…and even that is only possible because of the happy and rather unlikely coincidence that my dentist happens to have an office near a bus line.

            This is not an unusual scenario in a mid-sized US city. Buses on many routes run only during rush hour; lines are radial only. Public transportation serves no purpose here except to get people to and from their jobs downtown, and we do not have a particularly large or lively downtown.

            A car is not a luxury here.

    2. Policycritic

      “Not really. This is nothing more than spam for the electric car industry and business as usual.”

      Ko kidding. Copper, iron, and rare metals being stuffs in the ground that have to be extracted, unless the writer has some immaculate conception idea for producing these things without defiling the earth even more. But then this article is simply a PR piece for his future job security, overwrought and overwritten.

      1. Michael Hoexter

        By the way, the “Coda” about mineral extraction vs. fossil fuel extraction doesn’t say that this process is in any way immaculate…this is your prejudice not mine. My point is that copper, lithium, and rare earth atoms stay in the economy much longer than fossil fuels. It is worthwhile to reform and clean-up as much as possible the mining of these minerals because they are more valuable in the long run. It may be that we can do without them in the next generation of energy conversion technology.

        1. john c. halasz

          Mineral resources aren’t themselves infinite and their extraction entails significant environmental costs. Hence, in the future, recycling industrial components as much as possible is definitely on the agenda. As for automobiles, they are a highly inefficient system of transport in energy and resource terms, (with at least half the energy embedded in the system not expended for locomotion), such that an advanced electrified public mass transit system, (which can be highly personalized with current computer technology), is currently perfectly feasible without waiting upon (redundantly and wastefully) some exotic battery storage technology. That would extend beyond the bounds of current corporate capitalism, requiring huge new investments in infrastructure and productive capital stocks, while destroying the “value” of massive amounts of current corporate physical and financial capital, but that a problem of political economy, not physics or engineering.

    3. Michael Hoexter

      This is not about personal virtue but about changing systems. We need to build a new energy and transportation system, including much more electric public transportation powered directly from the grid as well as battery-electric vehicles.

      This piece addresses where we mine/extract minerals and fossil fuels from the earth….not a complete statement of how our future energy and transportation system should look.

    4. the heretic

      A compact car with excellent aerodynamics would have a substantial impact on fuel consumption reduction, especially for City driving (lots of stop n’go driving). The benefits of hybrids are over-hyped. That would be a much more practical compromise than droping the car, expecially in sub-urban environments such as North America.

      Even a comfortable Toyota Corolla or a Civic would be acceptable, especially when compared to the fuel consumming behemoths like the SUV or the mini-van.

      Is there any organization working to develop a set of palatable environmentally friendly alternatives for people to live with, instead of the more radical ‘no more meat or car, back to the earth’ type solutions?

      1. the heretic

        BTW, technology can never be the panacea to our environmental problems, it can easily lead to other forms of abuse when not caretfully though it. BMW is working on the 8 series, a beautifully designed hybrid car with very impressive performance characteristics (especially for a hybrid)… a marvel of engineering, worthy of pursuit for the sake of expanding skill and knowledge, an absolute horror to the environment in terms of resource consumption and energy consumption should it ever be built in mass. Also, a very bad thing for inducing more envy among ordinary people.

        1. Michael Hoexter

          There are plenty of organizations that counsel taking steps towards a slightly more environmentally friendly world. Start with the current Administration, whose main positive environmental achievement has been to raise fuel standards.

          Unfortunately those who content themselves with these supposedly “realistic” solutions ALONE are the true utopians. We need to develop an exit strategy from our fossil fuel dependence IMMEDIATELY.

          A politics and economics that take “nudges” as their fundamental mode of action are completely “out to lunch”.

    5. jrs

      No. Getting rid of cars is an individual solution, climate change is not an individual problem. Pretending individual problems are what matter is a diversion.

    1. American Slave

      And also just like a glass of ice water that stays the same temperature till the ice melts I have a feeling when the polar caps in the ocean melt were in for a real surprise.

    2. Policycritic

      Half of the world’s oxygen is produced via phytoplankton photosynthesis on the oceans. The other half is produced via photosynthesis on land by trees, shrubs, grasses, and other plants from CO2.

      Your science knowledge is skewed.

      1. American Slave

        That would normally be the case but were putting more co2 and water into the atmosphere than is being taken out hence the rise in co2 and ocean acidification.

  2. American Slave

    If it weren’t for the limitations of capitalism than right now we could create (high paying if we wanted) untold of amounts of jobs right now planting trees and going into full time organic and permaculture farming. And if we produce too much food to sell or give away than we can compost it to fertilizer for next years crop rather than this just in time and just enough food production system we have right now.

    1. Expat

      It isn’t the limitations of capitalism, it’s the limitations of Obama, who has said on several occasions that he does not “believe” in public jobs for the unemployed. No Roosevelt he. Better dead than red! Or green.

      1. American Slave

        Well….. its true, in a world full of honest and realistic people anything is possible but to give an example I will use 2 authorian countries as an example. Lets say Saudi Arabia decides to go solar than the king will come under pressure from the oil companies to abandon it or they could technically pay off the military to get rid of him vs North Korea which has a central (non communist) economy so if he decided to go solar than there would be a lot less financial and special interest reasons to appose it. Not than I think we should have a central economy I prefer employee run companies but it would be good to find a way to overcome limitations and for oil companies to convert to energy companies otherwise we might as well still be using asbestos insulation and lead paint.

        1. Calamity Jean

          As long as the Saudis continue to sell oil outside of the country, why would the oil companies care if they go solar internally? If Saudi Arabia converts all of their internal electric supply to solar, that just frees up more oil to go to the rest of the world. In fact they are doing just that, the Saudi royal family is aware that the country is starting to run out of oil so they are promoting solar power to reduce burning oil for electrical generation.


          They are working on wind power also: http://www.zawya.com/story/ZAWYA20090521044045/

  3. washunate

    Yep, we don’t need moar growth. We need different growth. Growth in living standards and equality and justice, not oil usage and GDP and corporate welfare. Let GM go bankrupt and stop covering up BP’s incompetence and leave the shale in the ground and end tax cuts for McMansions and stop wasting water on industrial agriculture and end the radical warping of IP and re-regulate airlines and so forth.

    Instead, reclaim those ancient technologies like wind power and trains and organic farming (you know, farming). I would quibble with the notion of electric cars – it is automobiles themselves that are inefficient in many use cases (for both total energy required and land use/development patterns).

    But like every other issue, the issue is management. Sensible environmental policies aren’t controversial; they’re common sense. It just requires having leaders in power who care about the public good – that’s the movement trick. There is huge demand for subways and organic food and better designed communities and more energy efficient housing and so forth – we just have to stop public policy that so egregiously misallocates society’s resources.

  4. Fiver

    If this piece is indicative of what “marketing” can do for the environmental movement, I urge fellow “greens” to adopt a do-it-yourself approach, as the key points are lost amidst an overly complex and wandering argument that by the finish line has abandoned hard-nosed reality in favour of, well, faith.

    Not that the author doesn’t raise important points with respect to the approach taken by the environmental movement to date, chief of which is the unfortunate tendency to emphasize the local, human health or economic effects of any given deestructive process or action rather than the wider, systemic consequences.

    The history of efforts to “mitigate” deleterious environmental impacts is very clear on this: from zoning certain activities to building taller smokestacks, to off-shoring entire production sectors in order to clean “our” local air and water represents a typical sequence wherein the effects of toxic processes are successively re-located to districts further afield as the local effects generate local opposition, finally finding home in places so poor, corrupt, weak etc., a toxic living is better than no living at all.

    Only an environmentalism that recognizes that many of these processes must be abandoned altogether, because the cumulative effects are destroying global bio-systems upon which all species depend will we make any real progress.

    At bottom, it is a new, deeply moral, even religious outlook that we so desperately need to acquire – one which overturns the archaic and now suicidal notion that the human species is worth more than any or all other species; that “God” or “Something”, “gave” the Earth to Man to rule; and that the rule for humanity must be to always act in a way that supports all of life, which perforce requires us to support each other as well.

    Lastly, we must recognize that US-centred corporate/military/security globalism is an unmitigated disaster, a calamity for which the US Empire is already planning.

    Consider this simple piece concerning some likely strategic consequences of shale fracking and tar sand mining “our” way to “self sufficiency”;


    Then have a look at this piece on the looming global water crises, and where they will hit hardest:



    Simply overlay the two sets of countries most affected by the shift away from the cleanest, cheapest fossil fuels, and those most at risk from disastrous water shortages and it becomes apparent what the “Fortress North America” strategy is really all about.

    1. William

      “Only an environmentalism that recognizes that many of these processes must be abandoned altogether. . .”

      Ha! YOU must be one of those environmentalists with “unrealistally high standards” that the author mentions.

      1. Fiver

        Well, I’d suggest the “realism” embodied in an expansive knowledge of the problems as they exist today, how they came to this state, how much time we have left to act, what those actions will involve and cost, etc., trumps the “realism” that claims 1 thing only – that despite science-based evidence, historical fact, widespread consensus with respect to those industries/actions that are most damaging now and into the future, the immense scope of the consequences of inaction etc., that all these amount to nothing vs a stupidity so pervasive it belies the abilities of humans to have ever creeped forward into a state of “civilization”.

        I am not saying it won’t take a tremendous jolt of some sort, but that when said jolt comes, most of us are still capable of adapting to a far, far less consumptive, far, far more egalitarian form of society. If Obama’s dismal Admin policies keep us on this immensely destructive corporate globalist track, that day is coming much sooner than any would’ve anticipated prior to his election.

  5. William

    “. . . an environmentalist can sometimes be thought to harbor an unrealistically high standard or vision of a how society should function in relationship to nature, which may in fact be the case with some environmentalists.”

    Mr. Hoexter, you wouldn’t be needing to write this article if the “unrealistically high standards” of “some environmentalists” had been held by more people. Your article reads like someone who has suddenly woke up to the fact that humans are indeed hell-bent on destroying all life on the planet, but only when it has reached the point where it means humans will all die too. I’m sure you know about American exceptionalism, well let’s begin a new meme: “human exceptionalism.” Those who are not patriotic and do not believe in human exceptionalism would be “some environmentalists.”

    Well the cows have all left the barn, and now people who thought “environmentalists” were unrealistic, are gaining awareness of what those “unrealistic environmentalists” have been saying all along, trying to paint themselves as having being against the reality of planet-rape all along.

    1. Michael Hoexter

      There are varying visions within the environmental movement. Some hold up what I would consider to be a true utopia, a descendant of our current society that would have the environmental impact of hunter gatherer tribes, while others realize that humans will have an impact on the world and shape it in some way (the Anthropocene idea). This conflict was played out in the early 20th Century between the preservationists and the conservationists, the first group gathered around John Muir and the second around Gifford Pinchot.

      Currently, the environmental movement is divided along similar lines, though a part of the faction that looks like “preservationists” are people who don’t like the looks of wind turbines and large solar installations. I consider this unrealistic if we want to have some of the benefits of our current civilization in a future renewable energy powered society.

      I believe some of these current preservationists are too used to fossil-fueled access to remote natural areas, disregarding the invisible and semi-visible pollution of fossil fuel use that enables them to have the sense that they are communing with untrammeled nature.

      We are facing a choice between different types of human-made transformation of parts of the landscape, while keeping as much natural semi-undisturbed areas as we can. There will be conflicts but I think the frame of the debate needs to change to how much renewable energy and electrical transport infrastructure we need rather than to whether to build it.

  6. Jardinero1

    I love the mainline protestan/teleological bent of this piece. The author genuinely believes that in the past all was good. Then these greedy oil companies offered us this seductive fruit which we accepted and ever since then, everything is all fucked up. But, if we would just open our hearts to the sustainable word, then we could all work towards the sustainable happy ending which is the true destiny.

    Nature is not teleological. There was no right state in the past. There is no right state to work towards. Nature just moves along and changes and what humans do on this earth doesn’t matter to nature.

  7. Renodino

    We evolved as a cold weather species. No reason we should survive climate conditions that last existed 80 millions years ago. Fun while it lasted.

      1. Dan bednarz

        Great suggestion, Michael; which principled nation is going first? Actually, given the dominance of neoliberalism and the reality of peak oil, we’re now “getting off” oil by wrecking peripheral economies/nations to preserve the status quo for the political elites of the core nations.

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