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Society’s Cancer: Fossil Fuel Companies


What do you do when you find out you have cancer?

Actually, let’s ask a more useful question: what does a survivor do when he or she is diagnosed with cancer?

When Reddit user jonnypondwater–a well-paid worker in Canada’s tar sands–became cognizant of the staggering environmental destruction caused by tar sands operations, he quit:

The oil sands will probably continue to expand and be extracted for the next 30+ years. It is that sort of ignorant “oh well it’s going to happen anyway” attitude that is sending the environmental state in a downward spiral. Me quitting my job was a personal/moral decision I made because I didn’t want to be a part of the wide destruction and contamination of the environment in that area.

Not only are oil extraction operations there destroying the region, they also pose an enormous threat to Earth’s climate. Jim Hansen, the top climate scientist in the US, has said that burning a significant portion of the oil waiting to be extracted in the tar sands would mean “game over for the climate.”

Even without having burned that much of the tar sands oil, Earth’s oceans are already acidifying from carbon emissions faster than they did during four major extinctions over the past 300 millions years, when natural bursts of carbon emissions skyrocketed global temperatures.

Image credit: flickr user *~Dawn~*

Increasing CO2 levels threaten to warm the oceans and decrease their dissolved oxygen concentration,  making mass marine extinctions increasingly likely. And given that ocean life is an essential part of the food chain, massive die-offs would be a grievous outcome for humanity.

This is but one of several potential symptoms of global warming–others include extreme weather events, radically diminished biodiversity, disease outbreaks, and large-scale emigration.

With all the attendant dangers, why do we continue to burn fossil fuels at an increasing rates?

The answer: fossil fuel companies. Like a cancer, they have infiltrated the political system–malignant and growing. They pay for legislation favourable to their profit margins, and they launch messaging campaigns aimed to convince the public that global warming isn’t really happening.

As would-be survivors, we need to fight them with everything we have.

So I’ll ask it again: what does a survivor do when he or she is diagnosed with cancer?

Stop Feeding The Cancer

Those battling cancer will often give up eating things that are likely to feed tumours, such as processed and acidic foods.

In the same way, we need to stop giving Big Oil so many handouts. In the last sixty years, fossil fuel companies received $594 billion worth of government subsidies in the US alone. These subsidies have the effect of artificially lowering the cost of gas–thereby masking the built-in environmental, social, and health costs. The real cost of gasoline is more like $15 a gallon.

Image credit: flickr user Bruno Rodrigues

On top of that, the Obama administration is set to open up the Arctic for offshore drilling, beginning as early as next summer–a move made possible by melting Arctic ice (which is caused by climate change).

This overt government toadying isn’t altogether popular with the general public. A poll last month found that 70% of Americans are opposed to subsidies for “coal, oil, and natural gas companies”. This isn’t very surprising, when you consider that fossil fuel companies are already the most profitable in the world. Why does the government need to lend them extra support?

And how much better off would we be if that money was invested instead in renewable energy and public transportation–thereby alleviating our fossil fuel addiction?

Develop an Alternative Lifestyle

When you find out you have cancer, it’s natural to start building a life away from things known to cause cancer–like polluted air and chemicals.

Similarly, society desperately needs to start focusing on a near future that features minimal fossil fuel use.

As climate activist Bill McKibben points out in this article, many climate scientists have said an increase in global temperatures of two degrees would be the most warming our civilization could possibly withstand.

Image credit: flickr user Andrew Barclay

It’s quite likely that an additional 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions would put us past that mark. However, oil companies’ remaining oil reserves are estimated to constitute 2,795 gigatons of emissions. I can’t say it better than McKibben has: “It has to stay in the ground.”

Cutting subsidies to fossil fuel companies and pursing renewable energy sources go a long way toward developing an alternative to our carbon-crazed society. But there are plenty of other things we can do, too.

You’ve probably heard them before: take public transportation, walk/bike, buy l0cal food, reduce consumption, conserve energy–the list goes on and on.

Such lists have acquired the stigma of being the domain of smug environmentalists. But that’s inaccurate. It’s the domain of citizens that would like to see their civilization outlive the 21st century.

Treat the Cancer

Finally, when you have cancer, you fight it using any means necessary.

Just like the tobacco industry did throughout the 20th century, fossil fuel companies are now spending millions of dollars to obscure the dangers of climate change.

This is kind of ironic, since the same companies are currently building into their business plans the assumptions that temperatures will rise and extreme weather events will become more frequent.

The difference between multinational companies and regular members of society, of course, is that the former have billions of dollars with which to insulate themselves against the worst catastrophes. You and I don’t.

As a Canadian, I am ashamed to say that my government is currently working to promote confusion in Europe concerning tar sands oil, masking the existential threat their exploitation poses to humanity.

How can we fight the multimillion-dollar lies being disseminated by the world’s fossil fuel companies?

We need to play on our strengths. We have social media, through which we are all amazingly connected, and we have massive amounts of talent, intelligence and will. We need to leverage these tools to create clever messages that spread to every corner of the internet and make people understand the urgency of our situation.

I’ll end with three examples of such messages.

First, NASA’s updated ‘Blue Marble’ image, which shows just how finite and vulnerable our planet really is:

Second, an infographic that succinctly communicates the absurdity of the fossil fuel industry’s claims about climate change:

Image credit:

Finally, a clarifying video that compares our increasingly carbon-infused climate to a baseball hitter on steroids:

What message will you send?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 03/18/2012 5:24 AM

    Excellent summary, thanks Scott.

  2. Andrea permalink
    03/21/2012 5:47 PM

    Great analogy, Scott!

    When cancer patients undergo chemotherapy treatment to kill their tumours, they are accepting that short term pain is worth enduring for long term gain. In the same way, we should be willing to accept the side effects of moving away from fossil fuels, in return for a healthier and cleaner future. Hell, suffering withdrawal when giving up substances is another analogy that fits!


  1. History will likely look back upon fossil fuel corporations as a cancer. The question is, will we be able to beat it? | The 99 Percent - Occupy Wall Street

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