The Niger delta is burning. The oil companies plumbing the river basin of its black gold have found an ingenious way of dealing with the natural gas they consider a waste by-product of the extraction process. Capturing the gas would be costly, inefficient – so instead, they flare it off. Across the delta, towers of flame burn day and night, some of them stretching ten storeys into the sky.
Gas flaring was officially banned in Nigeria in 1984 – but still, two million people live within four kilometres of a flare site, at risk of the cancers, neurological, reproductive and respiratory problems linked to the pollutants released into the air. The soil is hotter, and crop yields have dwindled; “You plant, and before you know it, everything is dead”. When the rains come, they are black. Oil spills spew from the pipelines of Shell and ENI, the biggest operators in the area. Shell has reported 17.5 million litres lost since 2011; Amnesty International say that’s likely a hefty underestimate. The spills have poisoned drinking water, and destroyed the livelihoods of the fishermen who once combed the delta.
We are over the brink. People have already lost their lives to hurricanes and bush fires and flooding, to toxins and crop failures – all disasters rooted in fossil-fuel dependent extractive capitalism, bankrolled by a deregulated financial sector. People continue to lose their lives. Global temperatures soar, and a monstrous future slouches towards us from the ecocidal imaginations of the handful of humans directly invested in a doctrine of global annihilation. Now, the death drive built into the heart of our economy reveals itself in ever more undeniable terms; the skull is showing through the skin.
Scientists at ExxonMobil confirmed the truth of climate change in the 1980s, at the very latest. Since then, Exxon and its fellow fossil fuel companies have spent decades sponsoring climate change denial and blocking efforts to legislate against apocalypse. Under their auspices, newspapers and broadcasters and politicians revelled in a vicious subterfuge disguised as pious gnosticism; asking how we can know for sure that climate change is caused by human activity. In recent years, this strategy has buckled under the weight of public outrage and scientific proof.
The science is clear: only an ambitious, rapid overhaul of the fundaments of our economy gives us hope of survival. And that hope is tantalisingly within our grasp. We have the technology, and we have the financial capacity; all that’s missing is the political will to give those solutions heft, muscle and cold hard cash.
Now, culprit companies are suddenly flouting their green credentials to shore up their position as custodians of the future. Shell Oil has made a big song and dance about its investments in green technology. Goldman Sachs has funded research into how to make cities “resilient to climate change”. These are little more than attempts to seduce and cajole worried publics and skittish investors. Still these companies hoard over-valued assets, continue ploughing resources into carbon-heavy industries, show no signs of leaving enough fossil fuels in the ground to avoid the breakdown of the climate, the potential collapse of civilisation and the extinction of life on earth. Negotiators were banned from mentioning climate change in recent UK-US trade talks. the UK government has subsidised the fossil fuel industry to the tune of 10bn in a decade, and its legislators continue to take its lobby money in return. They defend their right to starve out and flood and burn chunks of human existence – and make money doing it.
We are being held hostage by a cabal of ruthless ideologues whose only loyalty is to a doctrine of global death. Their success thrives on silence, isolation, manipulation, denial. They are united in their opposition to reality, in their determination to hunt down or hound out real alternatives that threaten their mortal stranglehold on power. All other doctrines are heresy, and their preachers envoys of a sinister delusion. They are unique guardians of a dark and dazzling reality.
If this took place among a handful of hippies beckoning oblivion from the heat haze of a california desert we would call it is: a death cult. Instead, it is orchestrated from sumptuous glass towers, from the velvet inner chambers of parliament – so we call it business as usual.
To these science-backed suggestions that economic alternatives are possible – even urgent, necessary, beautiful – they react with vitriol and incredulity. Saving the world may sound appealing, but it clashes intolerably with the cultish diktat: ‘There Is No Alternative”. Partisans of the Green New Deal like Alexandra Ocasio Cortez are dismissed at best as well-meaning dreamers or childish hysterics, and, at worst, nightmarish envoys of backdoor totalitarianism. Indeed, grassroots activists have been murdered for organising against big polluters. The political allegiances are clear: Defending life is foolish. Annihilation is inevitable. We have only to accept it graciously, to walk into its arms.
Rightwing politicians barter casually about the difference between a decarbonisation target of 2030, 2045, 2050, 2060 as a matter of messaging and electoral success. As though that difference were not cashed out in millions of deaths. Such differences slide off the sunny, addled mind of the cultist, for whom life and death are indistinguishable.
A chosen few will be spared; the golden ones who walk in the light. As the asset-stripping and plundering continues apace, so the market for luxury disaster insurance packages has grown, with companies offering high-tech flood defences, private firefighters, private security to guard against mobs of looters. Theirs is a gilded world where disaster can never truly happen to them – because it never truly has. That no insurance policy in the world will provide them with breathable air or sustainable agriculture is a matter for the others, the ghosts, the un-living, those whose existence never really registered. Us.
Broadcasters tried to haul Boris Johnson before the court of the living on Thursday night for the climate change debate, to account for Conservative policy proposals which present a 50% risk of tipping the world into irreversible, runaway climate breakdown, to account for his fossil fuel backers. He responded by threatening them with censure and legal action. Cult leaders can tolerate no scrutiny of their fragile world picture, no challenge to their power.
We can break the stranglehold, and commit the death cultists to the bleak annals of history where they belong. It is time to choose only those who have chosen life.
Eleanor Penny is a writer and a regular contributor to Novara Media.