Alyssa Battistoni | On the Politics of Oil Abolition

By Alyssa Battistoni

Reinhold Martin’s call to abolish oil is a much-needed contribution to the discussion about the Green New Deal, one that clearly outlines the task that lies before us: not just an energy transition but a social transformation. I agree wholeheartedly that abolishing oil entails abolishing the social order built around it, from racially segregated suburbs to differential exposure to climate disaster. It is striking and heartening how much Martin’s call for the Green New Deal to take lessons from DuBois’s vision of abolition democracy accords with our vision in A Planet to Win: my co-authors and I looked to Black radical movements following in the tradition of abolition democracy, like the Freedom Budget for All Americans’ call for full employment, a guaranteed adequate income, decent housing and medical care, improved transportation, and the end of air and water pollution. We tried to envision the Green New Deal as a path not only to decarbonization but towards greater freedom, and to articulate why these were inseparable. Rather than elaborating on a more detailed vision of the world beyond oil, however, I want to use this brief reflection to consider what abolishing oil would require politically.

As Martin suggests, it is a daunting challenge. The “Carbon Empire” stretches around the world; and although the position of oil has been weakened over the past year of price crashes and travel prohibitions, we should not underestimate its staying power. Nor should we forget that its imbrication in daily life means that many people—not just the oil industry workers perpetually invoked by the industry as a shield against regulation—are likely to come to its defense. Many middle-class progressives who claim to support the GND may sing a different tune if it threatens their property values; as Martin rightly notes, “democratizing oil infrastructures will require breaking the alliance of white suburban homeowners with fossil capital and the petro-state.” But here I want to focus on the struggle against fossil capital itself.

As I have argued elsewhere, Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth is at first glance surprisingly promising as a guide to thinking political struggle in the age of climate change. I say surprising because although Latour is a deeply political thinker he has often been skeptical of much of the actual stuff of politics—programs, slogans, policies, ideologies, and so on. Yet in Down to Earth Latour spins out an (admittedly conspiratorial) fantasy of climate change as class war; muses on the question of “how to replace capitalism by some other regime”; and wants to help socialists and ecologists resolve their differences.

Alas, in his still more recent book, Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres, Latour seems to be returning to a more familiar mode: reflecting on what it is to be human; on how we are all responsible, to some degree, for changing the planet around us (as far back as his 2004 “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?,” he was more comfortable considering STS scholars’ possible role in climate denial than that of oil companies); on how in doing so we are like termites. If Latour has rarely engaged in explicit political analysis, however, he has long argued that politics are inescapable. “We would like science to be free of war and politics,” he wrote way back in 1993, in The Pasteurization of France. “At least, we would like to make decisions other than through compromise, drift, and uncertainty. We would like to feel that somewhere, in addition to the chaotic confusion of power relations, there are rational relations” (5) But this, he claimed, is wishful thinking. We cannot solve our problems through appeals to the higher authority of science. Although a self-proclaimed liberal, he consistently returns to Carl Schmitt’s question: who is your friend and who is your enemy? Yet Latour dislikes it when people name abstractions like capitalism or the rich or even Emmanuel Macron as enemies—these, for him, are not specific enough; not descriptive enough; not truly “down to earth.” For all of his insistence that power goes all the way down, that is, he often seems curiously naïve about who holds it and how it operates.

A striking demonstration of this comes in Leah Aronowsky’s fascinating and illuminating research on the origins of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, long an object of fascination for Latour and the subject of his published Facing Gaia lectures. Royal Dutch Shell funded James Lovelock’s research, which figured the Earth as resilient and agential; able to respond to disruptions (like the burning of petroleum), and maintain stable conditions for life. The Earth and its lifeforms could adapt to the emissions resulting from combustion—a welcome message for a company whose profits relied on the continuation of those emissions. Pollution itself might be natural, Lovelock suggested—a claim that collapsed the distinction between industrial emissions and the waste products of organisms. Gaia theory, which posited nonhumans as agential “forces of natural historical change,” (315) decentered human agency in rising concentrations of CO2, conveniently letting oil companies off the hook for the anthropogenic effects of their products. Thus Aronowsky argues, Gaia originated as a “corporate tool for forestalling the threat of anthropogenic change from becoming fact.”

So yes, let’s name an enemy: oil; Royal Dutch Shell; fossil capital. How do we fight it?

We are in need of a way to think political struggle in relation to the material forces of the world which Latour has long studied. Timothy Mitchell’s influential argument in Carbon Democracy, cited by both Martin and Latour, suggests that the material differences between coal and oil shaped the political struggles of the age. Coal miners were able to shut down coal mines by striking, forcing concessions from capital and, Mitchell argues, helping to bring democracy itself into being. But the replacement of coal with oil set worker power back: it was harder to interrupt oil’s flow. Oil extraction required less human labor, and oil was lighter and easier to ship around the world. The historian Andreas Malm offers a similar story about the previous transition from water and wind-based energy to coal-powered steam engines: while relying on wind and water rendered capitalists dependent on specific geographies, coal made it possible for capital to move to towns where an abundance of labor made it possible to discipline workers and drive down wages.

So if the material form of energy shapes the political struggles that emerge around and about it, what might the politics of the next energy transition look like? There is much to think about with respect to the politics of the renewable energy transition, and the geopolitics of the post-oil world that (I hope) is to come. But I want to return to the specific problem before us: abolishing oil. Martin draws briefly on Mitchell’s story in suggesting that protests against the pipelines which carry oil from the point of extraction to refineries—a journey sometimes spanning much of North America—might be forces for democracy: perhaps we might call them forces of “zero-carbon democracy.” Although oil is less easily bottlenecked at the point of production, its circulation via pipelines renders it vulnerable to activist disruption. Anti-pipeline struggles, most lead by Indigenous people, have thus become the centerpoint of climate activism in the global North. These struggles have been at the heart of the radicalization of climate politics in the United States and Canada in recent years; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez credits her participation in the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline as the inspiration for the Green New Deal resolution (which, it must be said, did not insist that oil must be abolished).

The pipeline is also at the heart of Andreas Malm’s recent call to intensify the struggle against the Carbon Empire, in his polemic How to Blow Up a Pipeline: it is time, Malm argues, to declare “war on the oil barons.” If oil must be abolished, let’s start by abolishing the infrastructures and devices that extract it and use it. The climate movement itself must “announce and enforce the prohibition. Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed” (67). Malm’s call for sabotage posits direct action as way to spur the state to clamp down on fossil capital: only the state, he argues, can enforce a prohibition on the use of fossil fuel infrastructure at the necessary scale. In fact, the state must not only stop issuing permits for new fossil fuel infrastructures, but prohibit the continued use of existing infrastructure which, under ordinary circumstances, would continue to operate for a long time into the future. That is to say, in order to abolish oil, the state must effectively destroy private property rights. This is a high bar to clear, to say the least. But even leaving aside other strategic considerations, there is, of course, a glaring problem: namely, that at the moment the state seems far more inclined to wield its coercive power against those who would abolish oil than against oil itself. The consequences for any protesters engaging in sabotage of oil infrastructure are likely to be severe.

As Ted Hamilton details in his forthcoming book Beyond Fossil Law: Climate, Courts, and the Fight for the Future, protests against fossil fuels already face severe state repression. After Standing Rock, for example, 837 protesters faced criminal charges; most were dismissed or resolved before trial but 26 people were convicted at trial. Five Water Protectors were sent to federal prison. In the 1990s, environmental activism was named the primary domestic terror threat; amidst the “Green Scare” environmental organizations were infiltrated by the FBI and surveilled using practices pioneered by COINTELPRO, while legal penalties for protest increased drastically. In the aftermath of Standing Rock and other anti-pipeline protests, a number of U.S. states have instituted particularly harsh penalties for people who interfere with “critical infrastructure,” i.e. oil and gas infrastructure. To be clear, under these laws one need not blow up a pipeline or even contemplate it to acquire a significant jail sentence. One might simply be walking in the vicinity of a pipeline or exercising free speech rights nearby.

Nor is repression limited to the United States. In Canada, the Indigenous land defender Stacy Gallagher was sentenced to 90 days in jail just this week for performing a peaceful ceremony at a protest against the Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia. Nor is state repression of oil abolitionists confined to pipelines alone: the Indian climate activist Disha Ravi was recently arrested and jailed (she has now been released on bail) on charges of sedition and conspiracy for nothing other than disseminating organizing toolkits using common digital tools.

So I want to argue that the struggle to abolish oil must join forces with other abolition struggles: namely, those aimed at policing and prisons. Abolishing oil requires fighting fossil capital; which in turn requires rolling back the repressive force of the state which protects fossil capital’s investments.

Some are already making these connections. The Red Deal, the Indigenous vision for a climate platform, calls for a moratorium on oil, gas, and coal extraction, but also demands divestment from police, La Migra, prison and military, drawing on “Black abolitionist traditions to call for divestment away from the caging, criminalizing, and harming of human beings and from the exploitative and extractive violence of fossil fuels.” The Black Lives Matter movement’s challenge to state repressive capacities are likewise a crucial part of the project of directing the coercive capacity of the state away from people and against fossil capital. In calling to defund the police, Black Lives Matter protesters have called instead for investment in public goods like education and housing; the Red Deal likewise calls for public investment in free housing, education, healthcare, transportation, and multispecies caretaking. In this we see glimpses of the project of abolition democracy which Martin rightly argues must be part of a Green New Deal, part of the project of building a world beyond the one that oil has made.