Shell's stance on wind power reveals a profound truth of capitalism

2012. május 2. 13:49

Andrew Simms
Guardian
When pushed to choose between profit and survival, the oil giant chooses profit – irrespective of collective consequence.

„They couldn't »make the numbers work«. There's something so blithe – and enormously telling - about the excuse offered by the oil company Shell to explain why they were not investing in wind power in Britain. Presented with an accounting fact – that, on Shell's terms, wind power is deemed insufficiently profitable – observers are expected to automatically understand their logic, nod in agreement and move on. With the Conservative party casting aside its green overcoat, Shell must feel even more comfortable than usual with a business decision diametrically at odds with the preservation of a habitable planet.

And they have, of course, been able to »make the numbers work« for heavily polluting tar sands. The high and fluctuating price of oil has gifted Shell massive, windfall profits from an asset which could be seen as a common global inheritance, one whose use carries an equally high cost. What makes the need for one set of numbers to »work« trump all other considerations, even the ultimate one of a climate fit for civilisation? How did we get to the odd state of affairs where a company citing extreme and narrow self-interest, can make investment decisions with profound negative decisions for the rest of society, while expecting and receiving impunity? With George Osborne as chancellor, they even get an understanding, indulgent pat on the shoulder to accompany the new tax breaks given to the oil sector in the budget.

Take one small step away from the detached, insulated and self-reinforcing cultural sphere of elite business and the situation quickly appears deeply strange. Global energy companies like Shell are few and massive. The process of rapidly liquidating humanity's once-off fossil fuel inheritance is both eye-wateringly profitable, nicely protected, and cushioned by public infrastructure investment and the afore-mentioned tax breaks. Even though they are private companies, at one level the operations of players like Shell and BP are elaborately interwoven with the workings of governments (wars being fought and governments changed with their interests in mind) and frequently collude on issues of national energy security. They are not fully separate entities.”

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