Design a site like this with
Get started

**Assuming petroleum companies knew about the potential damage from climate change in the early 1970s, how should it have been handled? Shut down all their refineries and collapse the world’s economy? Was there an alternative? **

**Assuming petroleum companies knew about the potential damage from climate change in the early 1970s, how should it have been handled? Shut down all their refineries and collapse the world’s economy? Was there an alternative?  **.

One  John Sawyer published the study *Man-made Carbon Dioxide and the “Greenhouse” Effect” in 1972. He had accurately predicted the warming rate to 2000.  By 1982 internal oil company documents were confirming that the oil companies knew what the consequences of their actions were likely to be

The question suggests that the “world’s economy” would have gone into “collapse” if serious action had been taken by Big Oil.  While the pattern of industrial development and consumption would certainly have different, “collapse” may be somewhat alarmist.  Indeed it may well have been far better in terms of human health and longevity in overdeveloped countries and a much more even spread of development worldwide might have been attained.

For example, to illustrate what can be achieved  Cuba today has a “high” human development for an Ecological Footprint which would be sustainable if uniformly spread across the continents. That would indeed be a sensible target for the rest of the world to emulate and shows what might have been achievable of we had focused resources differently in the 1970s.  

So we need to unpick this idea of the “collapsing” economy. . Obviously if we define the “economy” as the bits of our activities which depend on fossil fuels, by definition the “economy would drastically reduce – but would a controlled change of direction really count as collapse? Would unravelling energy dependent supply chains and substituting locally appropriate technology have been such a disaster?

Developing countries have a claim on CO2 emissions for urgent practical reasons which the West no longer does.  Yet a little goes a long way – the most benefit to HDI is gained in the first few hundred kilograms of CO2 per capita.  There is a  “…..positive and time dependent correlation between the Human Development Index (HDI) and per capita CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion…….. In particular, we estimate that at least 300Gt of cumulative CO2 emissions between 2000 and 2050 are necessary for the development of developing countries in the year 2000. This value represents 30% of a previously calculated CO2 budget yielding a 75% probability of limiting global warming to 2°C” 

What does that mean?  It means that starting today it is feasible to avoid or mitigate the worst AGW by intelligent development.  300 Gtonnes of Co2 spread over 3 billion people in the developing world is 2 tonnes per capita per year: In 2020 the world’s happiest country,  emitted that amount.  Is it not possible or desirable to suggest that perhaps we should aim for happiness above other targets.  What purpose is there in life if we are unhappy?

For readers in the “over developed”  countries in the top right hand quadrangle of the info-graphic above, for a sense of scale, 2.0 tonnes of CO2 would resemble twice the emissions of an average UK household but which typically has other emissions associated with heating and transport.

We’d have to imagine a pattern of development since 1970 which would have reduced our overall consumption fossil fuels drastically. 

Highly insulated housing was already technically possible in 1970 – as demonstrated by this superinsulated house built in 1975 using established technology and designed to be heated by occupants only.

Much reduced travel powered by electricity – an electric scooter  for example will travel  around 100 km on one unit (while public transport, (say buses which can deliver 100kms for 0.5 units).  So bearing in mind this technology, which existed even back in the 1970s it is fair to say that with a will, transport infrastructure  could have been developed capable of delivering mobility within a globally sustainable.

The World’s economy means different things to 7.4 billion people.  Despite the heavy dependence on fossil fuels by the most developed countries (96% in the UK) in 1970, the vast majority of people had little dependence on fossil fuels, globally energy consumption was averaging 60gj per capita  (assuming that is derived from fossiul fuels vs the US’s 350

Energy alternatives existed at that point in time. WInd turbine technology was sufficiently developed to be practical in the 1920s in the US West off-grid https: High efficiency solar technology  had been established for 10 years in 1970. And hydro power had been a mature technology for decades as well a geothermal and the then promising Nuclear technologies.  

And OPEC in 1973 had sent a strong message to the overdeveloped countries that a “soft energy path would be strategically intelligent. It is surely the case that Big Oil was calculating return on capital at that moment and that is why it did not make the necessary navigational adjustments to avoid the loomimg AGW iceberg .  As the ERoEI of oil has decreased, ROI of alternatives has increased and concerns about AGW are ramping up and we are now seeing disinvestment in FF. But what would have been the consequences of early diversion of investment?  I’ll return to that, but first it needs to be pointed out that the financially described economy is not an accurate description of the real economy just a model built for the convenience of business and commerce. 

 The Non-monetary economy is far larger than realised – my own back of envelope calculations suggest that up to 90% of the real economy globally is outside of the GDP based this on the proportion of people engaged in monetised activity, and the proportion of their time devoted, and the proportion of the actual hours spent actually being productive. All the other value producing activities, people looking after themselves, enjoying life, domestic work, maintenance and housekeeping, personal interactions, subsistence farming and informal economies, black economies and many governmental production and interventions are ignored by GDP but comprise the great majority of the total value producing of any country.

Although FF economy has now penetrated to all corners of the world nearly all material economies are predominantly local and much of it is un-monetised.   But what could have been done in 1970 in terms of alternative investment routes ? FF use doubled in the 10 years from 1960 to to 1970 and doubled again from 1970 to 2017.

 Producing this massive increase was not cheap –  the Petroleum industry contributes about eight percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), assuming this proportion was similar in 1970, investing one quarter of that cash-flow in alternatives (2% gdp from 1970 and compounded over 50 years, and allowing for a lower yield per $ invested) would have brought the alternatives industry roughly into the dominant position FF occupies at the moment. We could have achieved zero carbon. We could have been well on the way to a sustainable culture……

 The FF industry, being capital intensive  has provided an accelerated transfer of economic power from individuals to corporations and Capital dependent production methods.  This may well have happened in circumstances of heavy investment of alternatives, of course. It was however far simpler to carry on on the same tracks using the same sunk costs than to diversify – less executive intelligence was required.  Had the Western Oil companies decided in 1973  at the time of the formation of the OPEC crude producers cartel, to fight back, change tack and go for a softer energy path, sufficient intellectual resources could surely have been found.   As it is, we have developed technology to address all the primary issues without any particular impetus (indeed in the face of resistance by) the oil companies. Big Oil did in fact diversify into Renewables, but hardly to the extent that would have been possible starting in 1973.  As a side effect the US and Europe may even have retained technological dominance because China’s emerging dominance was very much rooted in mastery of microelectronics production which could have been located closer to home with the right  investment policies.

The   big question is what technological relationship do heating, transport and industry have to fossil fuels emissions?  Could progress in these areas have been decoupled from emissions? At that time environmental campaigners such as Friends of the Earth were calling for “Local Production for local Needs” – a strategy which while basically taking root and is flowering superficially  in the movement to locally grown food, has produced little other material result due to the manifest advantages of internationalisation of supply chains. Most of these supply chains are heavily FF dependent today, but would there have been alternatives if we had changed direction in 1970s?  

At the time there was much discussion about the demise of UK industry – and this reflects what was happening in other parts of the over-developed world (particularly the USA).  There was a lot of work done by some Trade Unions on technical diversification – British workers were keen to be employed in forward looking technology such as the Lucas Plan Their Rail bus could have transformed commuting into city centres  by now. Decentralising planning strategies could have encouraged “reverse commuting“ from city centres to suburban workplaces  which effectively doubled capacity of the systems involved. That is something Governments could  have encouraged Industry and Capital to do by diverting a fraction of GDP into climate aware technologies.

In the USA The Solarex Corporation was ready to expand exponentially in the 1970s with “breeder factories” based in the south of the USA  which could scale up to the sort of transformation we are only seeing today driven by Chinese manufacture. They (Solarex) were pitching for big \defence contracts which would kickstart the process.  OIl money could have been pumped into that instead of refineries. In the southern states solar power was already becoming price competitive for a/c as it matched the loads well and could qualify for peak rates.   In other (non-US) warm climates a/c was a rare luxury.

However viable low energy alternatives for a/c already existed in architectural terms, such as the housing developed by Hassan Fathy and the traditional  Windcatcher forms which had been in use, and proven, for thousands of years. Passive technology works using natural energy flows –  Although they could perhaps not compete on sheer luxury value of 15 degrees indoor environments vs 40 degrees outside, in terms of comfort delivered per tonne CO2  they are far superior, infinitely so in some cases.

We could have seen an energetic  devolution of agricultural productivity – moving much of it closer to the (cleaner, less polluted) towns and making organic methods standard  much as Cuba has demonstrated today in its response to fule shortages generated by sanctions. Collapsing over-complex supply chains can also means job creation and is not at all an economic negative unless you measure your economy by the turnove of the lost networks. (Of course, with GDP we often do exactly that if thenew activity isnon-monetised.)

To understand a non-financialised economy  we need to look beyond the GDP concept to include non-financial metrics- although the Human_Development_Index  was only devised in 1990, the statistics it was founded on have been collected for decades.  But that does not account for biophysical resources, It was only in 1980s that concepts such as the “Ecological Rucksack” and Ecological Footprint were invented to describe the impact of goods and services on the world from this perspective.  Until that time the theory of geographic competitive advantage had been pretty much standard. It is still is, and has not been replaced by anything more sophisticated which includes energy, transport an distribution patterns  and waste streams. These concepts not only expand our perspective on the economy, if used they could be extremely useful for planning ahead. 


In The Green revolution was in full swing, and that depended on insecticides and fertilisers derived from fossil fuels. This lessened dependency on the land and encouraged migration to the cities. Without migration into cities food can be produced and consumed “on the spot” so to speak and this was the norm until 1820, less so through to 1940 or so when European Wars necessitated longer supply  lines. Post WW2 Military driven industrialisation was converted to peacetime purposes to maintain businesses and so forth, and urbanisation has carried on apace around the world.

Suddenly and dramatically reversing the process of urbanisation in 1970 was not a real option. It is even less so today.   But just as it is as today, it was possible to look hard for the opportunities for a true “Super-urbanisation” where the fabric of human life and industry is so tightly knitted into natural ecology so tightly as to be pollution free. 

Merely being a super-parasite on nature has no longer been an option since the 1970s when we first exceeded our biophysical planetary boundaries and started to consume natural capital. A genuinely superurban environment would have energy hyper-efficient dwellings integrated into a local ecology which is “groomed ” as “supported ” to produce food.  Soil biota would be maintained in condition optimal to the production of the appropriate crop. Victorian gardeners actually knew better how to do this than we do today – we have gone backwards in that respect due to the different skills needed to work with FF based chemicals. Nitrogen application has depleted soil carbon, which is a component of humus, once the sources of free fertiliser.  The need to move toward organically based systems was recognised in the 1970s and it is only the convenience and mechanical compatibility of alternatives which has -prevented the development of more high yield low input systems as demonstrated by Masonobu Fukouaka in his seminal “One Straw Revolution” first published in 1978

Perhaps we could have triaged the most damaging effects of reduced FFG dependence?  Do Fleece fabrics, heavy duty re-usable containers and mechanical components generated from crude oil count as “Fossil Fuels”? I’d suggest not. They are crude oil derived but are not burnt – indeed the added insulation value of fleece decreases the amount of oil needed for heating and some components engineered from plastic may have way less lifetime impacts than their metal equivalents

 So it may have been an idea at the time to divert resources from heavier carbon emitting technologies to chemical engineering tech aimed at energy conservation. This same principles could be applied to say adhesives and resins – these allow massive savings of timber if we are operating ion restoration and conservation mode rather than new building. All these products have economic value and turnover would have increased while actual combustible fuels would have been decreased. Stocks of recyclable plastics could have been built up to the point where circular economics becomes viable.

Given a forward perspective and the tool availability of today, oil companies could usefully have advised  government on strategy because the art of governance in democracies is necessarily reduced to being reactive.

But what was known of this in the 70’s ?  As well as the science on Global Warming, “Small is Beautiful” by EF Schumacher effectively pinpointed the economic problem of corporatism. The economic unit is most efficient at the the size appropriate to the technology. Larger organisations, paradoxically can become more financially inefficient while theor political and marketing muscle increases. 

And the ecological technologies which might have taken up the slack have a very different economic-ecological character. Basket making was never centralise in cities because both production and consumption was local. The Sussex Trug was used on local farms even to carry water. This beautiful object could have its entire life cycle within 10 miles (except for a few “imported items like copper nails and tools to make it.  Woven willow is an even more extreme basket case, but in clothing the natural fibres wool, silk, linen, cotton will take us only so far.  In 1970 the global fabrics trade was mainly based on these organic foundations but Nylon and other synthetic fabrics were making very rapid inroads at that point.  There is something inherently sustainable about artificial fibres – they massively relieve ecological pressure and are usually more durable.  Repair-ability, separability and recyclability are issue which would best have been addressed in the 1970s onward, but it would (I think, I am not a materials scientist) be hard to argue that that would be a technical impediment.

Oil companies could and should have taken initiative – they had the information and scientific resources plus (VERY importantly) the foresight and planning capacity. They chose to chase profit rather than sustainability – and although as private operations they are legally obliged to prefer shareholders interests, in the longer term those interests may very have been better served by winding down petroleum refining and increasing diversification.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: