Imagining a World Without Fossil Fuels

The commercial, from 2021, starts with a typical prelude to a 21st-century first date. There’s a young woman, with pink-streaked hair and a teal smartphone, swiping on dating profiles as upbeat music plays in the background. She fixes her hair, puts contacts in her eyes and applies lipstick in the backseat of a car on her way to the restaurant to meet her date. The date, a guy in glasses, appears in front of his bathroom mirror, smearing gel in his hair. The camera zooms in on his white sneakers as he approaches the girl, and they stop on the sidewalk, staring at each other and smiling.

“That connection was brought to you by petroleum products,” the commercial’s narrator informs us. “But what if we lived in a world without oil and natural gas?” The video rewinds, reversing to the first scene of the girl in her apartment. Her phone distingrates in her outstretched hand, melting away into nothing. “Life would be very different, because oil and gas are part of just about everything you touch,” the narrator says. 

The guy’s hair gel vanishes. So do her contacts and his clean white sneakers. When the car’s tires disappear, she smudges her lipstick across her face as the backseat lurches suddenly to the ground. They sit down at the restaurant and her hair dye and make-up evaporate, along with his glasses, a beer glass, the TV on the wall and a football jersey.

“Our world would be unrecognizable if the products we rely on just disappeared,” the narrator concludes, snapping his fingers. “Better luck next time,” he says to the guy, who looks unhappy. In this petrochemical-free universe, the date doesn’t work out. The screen fills with the blue logo of Energy Transfer, a Texas-based company that builds natural gas and propane pipelines. 

I thought about this commercial—which I’ve seen multiple times on TV in the last few weeks—as I read Mark Stoll’s new book about the environmental history of capitalism, “Profit.” Stoll’s book offers the opportunity to better understand how the world depicted in the commercial came to be. 

From the smartphone to the car, the sneakers, contacts and hair gel, to the commercial itself and the televisions it’s playing on, Energy Transfer’s 59-second ad is like a primer for tracing the ways that capitalism fuels climate change and environmental degradation—and why it seems so intractable in contemporary life. Stoll’s book gives historical context for the ubiquity of plastics and disposable products, the rise of fossil fuels, the concept of planned obsolescence and corporations’ powerful tools of propaganda.

“Profit” begins in the ancient past, with humanity’s earliest impacts on the environment. Mining, we learn, dates back more than a million years, to the first-known flint quarry, in Morocco. Early humans dug open-pit and subterranean mines, searching for red ocher, leading to the “earliest known demand for consumer goods.” The presence of human beings affected populations of large animals, introduced new species into ecosystems and altered the land with fire. Even thousands of years ago, the ingredients of capitalism, from the manipulation of resources to trade, consumption and competition, were already in place around the world. “Humans had carried fundamental elements of modern capitalism to the ends of the inhabitable earth,” Stoll writes. 

Eight thousand years ago, agriculture, herding and deforestation led to mild global warming, Stoll writes. Chopped trees released carbon dioxide and cattle and rice crops released methane, “derailing the natural climate cycle that would have turned colder and taken the world into another Ice Age.” Farming and cattle herding are also at the root of the inequality and conflict that persist to this day. “Agricultural surplus fueled war and unfree labor,” Stoll writes. Capitalism and its antecedents created wealth disparities and fostered brutality and injustice. 

Stoll takes readers through a tour of transformative inventions that led to the birth and then the flourishing of capitalism: money, writing (which originally evolved from Sumerian accounting symbols), plantations, steam engines, steel, the assembly line, advertising. Each would have consequences for the environment. Innovation and resource exploitation spurred population growth, meaning that more resources and more innovation were needed to sustain society. This is a cycle that we haven’t yet escaped. “The population grows and then people come up with some clever way to support more people,” Stoll said, in an interview. “That requires us getting more out of a given set of resources. This goes back to the beginning of the species.”

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As capitalism destroyed ever-larger swaths of the natural world, conservationists like George Perkins Marsh and activists like Rachel Carson fought to protect plants, animals and people from the excesses of industry. Despite their efforts and hard-won victories, after 1970, the “Great Acceleration,” which began after World War II, reached dizzying heights of global waste, production, consumption and pollution. After thousands of years, the bill for humanity’s long exploitation of the Earth is finally coming due, and at a scale that our ancestors could have never imagined. “The environment,” Stoll writes, “can no longer bear the cost.” 

For Energy Transfer and its commercial of hypotheticals, that cost is still worth paying. Other petrochemical companies, like BP, would seem to agree. After making $27.7 billion last year, the company announced that it would scale back its targets for an eventual transition away from fossil fuels. Shell, Exxon and Chevron also reported record profits for 2022, and in November, Energy Transfer reported a $371 million increase in revenue over the same third-quarter period last year. Continued investment in oil and natural gas, in the face of worsening global warming, only further supports the argument of scholars who contend that the climate-change age of the Anthropocene should be rechristened as the Capitalocene.

“What, then, can be done?” Stoll asks, near the end of the book. How do we get off the treadmill of consumer capitalism, when so much of modern life as it’s currently configured depends on it? How do we design a different future, when capitalism’s greed seems so embedded in human nature? “The best we can do is to focus on the people who are trying to come up with solutions,” Stoll said in our interview. 

For ideas about how to exit what Stoll calls “the accelerating merry-go-round,” we might look to reformers, visionaries, inventors, philosophers, Indigenous leaders and artists of the past and present. We might also remember that adaptation, compassion and creativity are deeply ingrained in human nature, too. Maybe oil companies can’t imagine a world without an endless supply of petroleum products–but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

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