An open letter to any idiot that would compare petroleum with tobacco

I know, I know. Conversations are supposed to be positive and constructive. Bad Terry. The goal is, and should be, to expand the energy dialogue to be more inclusive, to bring together the disparate viewpoints so that we can start pulling together towards a greener future, at an appropriate pace.    

But that isn’t always possible when myths or outrageous accusations are held out as truths, and become part of the mainstream narrative through unopposed force. Constructive dialogue does not mean sitting idly by and treating as valid some dangerous misconceptions that are deviously inserted into the debate by people that should know better. So what follows is not a discussion on the merits or dangers of fossil fuels relative to tobacco, because that is nonsensical. What follows is an axe to the forehead of such a pathologically inane comparison.    

Let’s examine a typical exhibit in the now-common narrative: ‘The tobacco industry was also sued because it was making money by selling a product it knew to be harmful, and then concealing that harm and casting doubt on the evidence in the minds of its users. In fact, the Centre for International Environmental Law, in its research into the Tobacco Industry Archives (one of the fruits of the legal action against the tobacco industry) found close ties between the oil and tobacco industries, noting “the oil companies have benefited from the tobacco playbook in their fight against climate science.”’stated retired professor and senior scholar Dr. Trevor Hancock in a Victoria Times Colonist opinion piece.    

It is worth a minute to dissect these statements, to consider them from a broader viewpoint, and to place them in a more appropriate context. The spine of the argument is that both industries sold a product that they knew to be harmful, concealed the harm and cast doubt on the evidence of the harm. That may very well be true for the tobacco industry, which was a purely recreational/lifestyle product. Does that argument carry over to petroleum?   

To consider if it does, and to test if the oil industry knew of/hid evidence of harm, first consider the circumstances in which the petroleum industry found itself for the past seven or eight decades. The world’s focus was on securing energy supplies to feed growing economies and to increase global living standards (transportation in particular was part of a global lifestyle revolution/explosion, as was the rise in heating fuel demand).    

Recall also that the seemingly-crystallized “global warming” doctrine was anything but universal decades ago. In the seventies, credible sources speculated that the earth might be in danger of COOLING too much. I am well aware that some parties want to make it illegal to even speak of that (EcoJustice being one organization that is trying to make it illegal to speak of such things), but the theory did appear in Newsweek and at the time was a completely plausible story.     

Leaving that point for a second, it is also germane to the discussion to point out the lengths that governments were going to, from the 1950s right into present era, in order to ensure ACCESS to petroleum. There are a million examples, but for one, consider that in 2001, fifteen Saudi citizens helped stage the most brazen attack on the US since Pearl Harbor, and in response the US government resolutely stood by Saudi Arabia solely because of its oil reserves. Given that the US was willing to swallow such a direct assault and remain friendly for the purpose of petroleum access, does it seem remotely plausible to suggest that there would possibly be any hesitation to refrain from developing petroleum resources because of global warming concerns, both on the part of western governments and oil producers? In other words, would objections to further fossil fuel usage on the grounds of fledgling theoretical global warming speculation have had an ear anywhere in the world?  

And at what point, even if companies buried “evidence of harm” (and there is no such thing; ten thousand years ago the prairies were covered under half a mile of ice, and current years are hottest on record; at what point on that continuum did that become dangerous?), would they have stepped in front of that freight train, that is, refused to stop providing fuel for the world? Adding together the countless bloody wars and strange international bedfellows that the global/governmental/societal demand for petroleum has created, and adding in the existence of stories like the above mentioned Newsweek article – for which you will recall no one was locked up for considering – does it sound even remotely plausible for a government or corporation to have even considered starting a discussion about slowing fossil fuel usage, for a theoretical possibility that oil usage might someday dominate GHG emissions? Would it not have been a far more valid concern, assuming those players could even envision a world of 7 billion people, to worry about how all those people would be fed and kept warm? Would not a legitimate concern for the viability of keeping 7 billion people alive not have been the primary and ethical objective of petroleum producers?    

It would have been then and should be now, because if those producers were to listen to morons who liken petroleum to tobacco and shut off the taps tomorrow to save the planet, billions would be dead in months. That is an irrefutable statement which can be envisioned successfully by even non scholars; mass starvation would happen relatively quickly and the arrival of a winter without natural gas would take care of many of the rest (even firewood would not save any decent sized city). Clever zealots will say that of course we don’t mean shut off the taps immediately, but if they say that, what do they suppose a successful global lawsuit that awarded trillions in damages to coastal cities would do the fossil fuel industry? They know well that it would bankrupt it, and production would then inevitably cease, and quickly.    

Ah, but the scholars argue, there are still similarities between oil and tobacco, because each can be seen, if viewed through a singular and peculiar lens, to have the power to harm humans. But so does almost everything, if taken in such a singular context – many things can cause mass harm to humans or the environment. As a whole though, is it sensible to consider as roughly equal the benefits to humankind that have been derived from fossil fuels with the benefits derived from tobacco? Because those must be considered if we are considering the downside.      

Would a world cut-off from fossil fuels bear even the slightest possible theoretical resemblance to a world cut off from tobacco products? If tobacco had not been introduced to society, what would have been the impact? If fossil fuels had not, what would have been the impact? And how on earth would anyone that is remotely interested in an honest discourse consider the two to be comparable in terms of the pros/cons to humanity?    

What the whole comparison does, or should do, is jar any rational person to the soles of their feet, and lead to a completely valid and violently downward reassessment of the value of the “academic” designation when it contemplates cunningly devious strategies like a petroleum/tobacco comparison. One shudders to imagine what sort of educated person would approximate the benefits of petroleum with the benefits of tobacco. If these are the pillars of higher education upon which we have built our society then – and I do not reference religion lightly – God help us all.  


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