Susan Griffin - 'Out of Silence, Sound. Out of Nothing, Something - A Writer's Guide'
A brilliant little book that packs a lot of humanistic and powerful advice for all writers.
This is not only a book about the kleptocracy of petroleum companies, how they mismanaged everything except the consequences of greed; it involves human stories.
On a drizzly September day in 2019, Joanna Sustento showed up to Shell’s headquarters in Bonifacio Global City in greater Manila. Around the world, climate groups were organizing a coordinated climate strike that was predicted to bring millions of young people into the streets of New York, London, Montreal, Mexico City, Nairobi, and countless other cities. But with the tropical rain coming down, Sustento stood all alone in a square outside Shell’s building. She had only a loose idea of how things might go. She was holding a sign that said “climate justice” and she had a written message to Shell’s CEO: “My community is demanding justice for the thousands of lives killed, for the hopes and dreams of a better future lost to greed, apathy and deceit that the fossil fuel industry supported.” Before Sustento could deliver that message, dozens of police officers showed up to arrest her. “It was ridiculous,” she said. “They surrounded me and took me to the precinct.” In Sustento’s earlier life, before the disaster that killed her family, she never could have imagined being hauled away by police. Her dad had been in the military, and he often made it known that he saw activists as troublemakers who couldn’t hold down a real job. “He didn’t have the nicest things to say about them,” she said. Sustento internalized those views. “You get influenced by your family,” she said. “I viewed protesters as people who don’t do anything but complain.”
Dembicki’s book shows how petroleum companies gathered science over many decades, science that told a clear story: the production of petroleum would most likely cause the end of humanity, unless extremely fettered.
The book also shows how petroleum companies not only attempted to bury this science but also created lies to mask the truth simply because of greed. They built an entire industry to make people believe what they were doing simply didn’t affect humanity.
Dembicki weaves both fact with stories of everyday people to make this book both highly engaging and strong. His stories of the Koch brothers, their climate–denial factory the Cato Institute, Robert Dunlop, oil executive and early oil capitalist, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and some of the extreme amount of victims, for example, the denizens of Kivalina, an Alaskan coastal village, who had to be relocated due to rising oceans.
The book starts at the beginning of the booming oil industry, showing how it grew in the USA.
A century after the industry’s founding, Dunlop projected confidence about the decades ahead. “To me, the future appears to hold great opportunities for the oilman,” he said in New York. However, Dunlop hinted cryptically at challenges to come: “There are aspects of the future which are clouded by the penetration of noneconomic forces into the functioning of an industry which has always performed best in an atmosphere of economic freedom.” Dunlop didn’t say what storm clouds specifically threatened the expansion of oil and gas. But the next Energy and Man speaker did. That speaker vividly described a new and unexpected threat to the industry: its vast and growing emissions of a greenhouse gas called carbon dioxide.
Edward Teller was no back-to-nature romantic. The scientist who took the podium after Dunlop was known primarily for his lead role in creating the world’s first weapons of mass destruction. Teller was part of a secret government team at Los Alamos, New Mexico, that during the 1940s developed atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing the deaths of over 200,000 people. Yet Teller began his talk at Columbia by warning of a threat that was potentially greater than nuclear destruction. “And this, strangely, is the question of contaminating the atmosphere,” he said. Teller tried to ease his audience into a concept many of them were likely hearing for the first time.
“Now,” he explained, “all of us are familiar with smoke and smog and all of us know about it as a nuisance.” Teller went on, “I would like to talk to you about a more hypothetical difficulty which I think is quite probably going to turn out to be real. Whenever you burn conventional fuel, you create carbon dioxide. It has been calculated that the carbon dioxide which has been put into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution equals approximately 10 percent of the amount of carbon dioxide that our atmosphere contained originally.”
This was a fairly avant-garde statement for the time, but not unprecedented. Scientists had first described the ability of gases in the atmosphere to trap planetary heat during the 1800s, and in the early 1900s Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius was one of the first scientists to link this warming to human activity, calculating the greenhouse gases released by burning coal. By the 1950s, the science was becoming more precise through the work of people like Roger Revelle at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who along with Hans Suess of the U.S. Geological Survey showed the oceans are limited in their ability to absorb carbon dioxide. Most of the gases released through our use of fossil fuels, they calculated, end up in the atmosphere.
Depictions of global warming’s impact on human society were also starting to enter popular culture. Several years before Teller attempted to alert his New York audience, an article in Time magazine warned that CO2 building up in the atmosphere could by the early 2000s “have a violent effect on the earth’s climate.” It’s no coincidence that Teller was aware of the latest climate science. During the same period when it was funding early atomic research, the U.S. military was also looking closely into earth sciences. This included Project GABRIEL, a classified study of the impact of nuclear weapons on weather patterns launched by the U.S. Weather Bureau in 1949. In subsequent studies, military scientists sought to figure out through models the best weather conditions for explosions and how detonating nuclear weapons could affect the natural world. It was during the course of such research that these scientists first coined the term “environmental sciences.”
While Exxon hid Teller’s research results from the population—to continuously increase their revenue and not let their business be curtailed by anything other than last–stage human extinction—they expanded their business to Canada, where they’re known as Imperial Oil. Dembicki shows how Exxon/Imperial illegally hid information and used their powers to, together with people like Justin Trudeau, Canadian Prime Minister, abuse lands and indigenous peoples as much as possible for the sake of monetary profit.
Celina Harpe of the Fort McKay First Nation—which includes Cree and Dene speakers, along with the Métis descendants of Chipewyan people who’d intermarried with French and Scottish fur traders during the nineteenth century—was just a child when she sat beside the Athabasca River with her grandfather. “Look at the beautiful river, the way it looks now,” her grandfather said on a spring day sometime in the years following World War II. “I see it, what’s going to happen in the future. All the trees will be gone. They’re going to dig big holes, and they’re going to dig up all that black stuff. You know that tar? That’s what they’re after … I won’t see it. I’m too old … But if you have children, you’re going to have to tell them not to drink this river water.” By the time Celina Harpe was grown up, predictions like that were coming true.
The book is not gloomy; it’s realistic.
It tells stories of people who fight against oppression, and inspires action.
[In 1994], Mississippi attorney general Mike Moore filed litigation against Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds, Altria, British American Tobacco, and nine other top cigarette companies for knowingly sickening the state’s citizens and burdening Mississippi’s health care system with the costs. Though few predicted it at the time, this legal action would eventually bring Big Tobacco to its knees and result in one of the largest corporate settlements in history.
If ‘big tobacco’ could be brought down (or, at least downward), why couldn’t big oil?
Dembicki deftly paints a picture of how deep climate denial has gone, especially when focusing on certain individuals who have spent many millions of USDs on trying to make people think the climate crisis is imagined.
Beginning in the 1990s with the early Cato Institute conference featuring Patrick Michaels and other professional deniers, Koch Industries contributed heavily to groups that spread disinformation about global temperature rise. From 2005 to 2008, a Greenpeace report calculated, charitable foundations linked to the company gave $24.9 million to more than forty “climate denial and opposition organizations.” “This is only part of the picture,” the report noted, “because the full scope of direct contributions to organizations is not disclosed by individual Koch family members, executives or from the company itself.” But even if the funding sources were opaque, the impacts of all that spending were clearly visible. During Obama’s first month in office, Americans began seeing a TV advertisement featuring a rich young man next to a plate of canapés. “Hey there,” he told viewers, “I’m Carlton, the wealthy eco-hypocrite. I inherited my money and attended fancy schools. I own three homes and five cars, but always talk with my rich friends about saving the planet. And I want Congress to spend billions on programs in the name of global warming and green energy. Even if it causes massive unemployment, higher energy bills, and digs people like you even deeper into the recession. Who knows, maybe I’ll even make money off of it!” That $140,000 advertising campaign was paid for by Americans for Prosperity, a far-right political organization founded and funded by the Koch brothers. At the time, the organization was helping organize and coordinate a series of spontaneous-looking grassroots rallies across the United States in opposition to Obama. David Koch denied he had anything to do with this burgeoning “Tea Party” movement, but a speech he gave in October 2009 at the Crystal Gateway Marriott hotel in Arlington, Virginia, suggested otherwise. “Five years ago, my brother Charles and I provided the funds to start Americans for Prosperity, and it’s beyond my wildest dreams how AFP has grown into this enormous organization,” Koch said. “We envisioned a mass movement, a state-based one, but national in scope, of hundreds of thousands of American citizens from all walks of life standing up and fighting for the economic freedoms that made our nation the most prosperous society in history.”
Dembicki also focuses on how Justin Trudeau sold out, well, everyone, not at least the indigenous peoples of Canada, by first promising to lift Canada out of climate darkness and then by completely giving himself away (for good money) to the petroleum companies. This shows in how he kept company:
One of Trudeau’s top policy advisers leading up to the election was Cyrus Reporter, a lawyer with the public relations and lobbying firm Fraser Milner Casgrain who had previously lobbied on behalf of BP and the oil sands producer Nexen. Trudeau’s campaign cochair was Dan Gagnier, who even as he worked on the Liberal campaign was providing strategic advice to the pipeline company TransCanada, the potential builder of Keystone XL. TransCanada was also at that time trying to win federal approval for a 1.1-million-barrel-per-day oil sands pipeline from Alberta to Eastern Canada. Days before the 2015 election, Gagnier resigned from the Trudeau campaign after it was revealed he’d “sent a detailed memo” to TransCanada “advising officials there how to deal with a new government,” Maclean’s magazine reported.
First, Trudeau approved a $1.26 billion liquid natural gas plant on the west coast of British Columbia. “The ardent environmentalists who supported Trudeau, and who passionately oppose the project, are still shaking their heads,” journalist Michael Harris wrote at the time. “There’s good reason for environmentalists to feel betrayed.” Months later, Trudeau signed off on the Trans Mountain pipeline, which would result in nearly 600,000 additional barrels of oil sands being exported from the West Coast of Canada each day. “The decision we took today is the one that is in the best interests of Canada,” the prime minister said. “It is a major win for Canadian workers, for Canadian families and the Canadian economy, now and into the future.” Members of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation didn’t see it that way. Its traditional territories include the area of Burrard Inlet in Vancouver where oil sands tankers would pass by each day—an oil spill, if one someday occurred, would paint the coastline black. “[We are] still of the mind to say no to the expansion of Kinder Morgan,” chief Maureen Thomas said at the time. “For me, it means the survival of Tsleil-Waututh Nation for many years to come.” Greenpeace, which had cautiously celebrated Trudeau on election night, now argued that the pipeline approval “has broken his climate commitments, broken his commitments to Indigenous rights, and has declared war on B.C.” Berman came to believe that the country’s environmental movement had let down its guard at a crucial moment. “You don’t build a major piece of infrastructure for a year or two, you build it for thirty or forty years,” she said.
Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson (Exxon CEO), the Kyoto agreement, the Paris climate treaty, all of these areas are covered in the book.
Ultimately, Dembicki boils down action to starting with just one person, as in the Big Tobacco trials, as in how Joanna Sustento decided to take sole action against oil companies, all to the benefit of the world.
This is an inspirational and informative book and there’s currently no other subject as acute nor as important to act on in the next handful of years; IPCC state the precipice is reached by year 2025, which is no sci-fi number. Others think the precipice is now. Dembicki’s book will, at the very least, point you to the kind of people you do not want to trust.