Obscene profits announced this week by two oil giants underline two important messages. One, governments can neither regulate nor influence the activities of the global corporations. And two, if we leave our energy future to companies operating within the capitalist profit-driven framework, we might as well abandon hope now.
Royal Dutch Shell announced a 71% increase in profits, up £6.6bn for the third quarter of this year and BP posted a rise of 148%. Shell’s chief executive, Jeroen van der Veer, called the results "satisfactory" (no, really?) because Shell is "robust across a wide range of oil prices".
In other words, Shell pumped crude oil and sold it at inflated market prices – up to $150 dollars a barrel at one point. Then, as a refiner and retailer it passed these same inflated prices on to the consumer. They give a whole new meaning to the term “double-entry bookkeeping”!
On hearing the news Alistair Darling, henceforth to be known as the Jelly Chancellor, whined: "I want to see that reduction passed on to the pumps as quickly as possible, because people are entitled to see the benefit of the falling [oil] price reflected in what they actually pay when they fill up the car." He had no suggestions as to how this is to be achieved.
Trade unions and some Labour MPs renewed their call for a windfall tax on the oil companies – which Brown/Darling has already rejected and in any case entirely misses the point. The real question is, why are the oil companies allowed to keep their grip on world energy supplies? Why, when peak oil is around the corner, are we told there is no alternative to the drive to extract the last ounce of profit from the last drop of oil?
More and more people are asking this question. Many are attracted to the growing Transition Town movement which aims to find local answers to energy problems. The fact that Transition Towns are self-motivating and self-organising is their strength. But their “ideology” of handing over politics to others leaves them stranded with unrealisable utopian dreams.
This anti-political approach is challenged in a new pamphlet by Paul Chatterton and Alice Cutler, from the Trapeze Collective, entitled The Rocky Road to a Real Transition. The authors insist:
“Being against climate change does not have to be a political position. But the analysis of how we got into this mess and the best way to move on, does bring us back to politics. It involves taking on power and those who hold wealth and influence....Responding to climate change could mean new niche markets for capitalism, greater social inequality, closing borders and strengthening state power. An agreement ‘not to rock the boat’ will not help Transition Town’s long-term viability, as it would mean not really changing anything.”
The question of state power, and who controls the corporations, cannot be evaded if the energy crisis is to be averted. As the Charter launched at A World to Win’s Stand Up For Your Rights festival states: “The existing system of government fails to represent the interests of the vast majority of people and is democratic in name only. Instead, the state’s primary purpose is to promote business interests at the expense of ordinary working people.”
We would encourage Transition Town members to support the Charter, and join the debate about climate change in its wider socio-economic context. That has to include the project of building alternative democratic forms of government that can remove the power of the corporations to determine our energy fate.