The Energy Transition: Let’s Call Folks on “Unnecessary Moralizing”


A dip into the universe of moral philosophy re: the energy transformation.  (There, Anonymous, I know you like moral philosophy discussions!).  This new opportunity for peace-making and departisanizing of the transition reminded me of this Atlantic piece by an energy scholar named Daniel Yergin. He tells this story:

To appreciate the complexities of the competing demands between climate action and the continued need for energy, consider the story of an award—one that the recipient very much did not want and, indeed, did not bother to pick up.

It began when Innovex Downhole Solutions, a Texas-based company that provides technical services to the oil and gas industry, ordered 400 jackets from North Face with its corporate logo. But the iconic outdoor-clothing company refused to fulfill the order. North Face describes itself as a “politically aware” brand that will not share its logo with companies that are in “tobacco, sex (including gentlemen’s clubs) and pornography.” And as far as North Face is concerned, the oil and gas industry fell into that same category—providing jackets to a company in that industry would go against its values. Such a sale would, it said, be counter to its “goals and commitments surrounding sustainability and environmental protection,” which includes a plan to use increasing amounts of recycled and renewable materials in its garments in future years.

But, as it turns out, North Face’s business depends not only on people who like the outdoors, but also on oil and gas: At least 90 percent of the materials in its jackets are made from petrochemicals derived from oil and natural gas. Moreover, many of its jackets and the materials that go into them are made in countries such as China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, and then shipped to the United States in vessels that are powered by oil. To muddy matters further, not long before North Face rejected the request, its corporate owner had built a new hangar at a Denver airport for its corporate jets, all of which run on jet fuel. To spotlight the obvious contradiction, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association presented its first ever Customer Appreciation Award to North Face for being “an extraordinary oil and gas customer.” That’s the award North Face spurned.

Northface customers, of course, as well as other outdoor recreation folks,  predominantly use fossil fuels to reach their recreational destinations. So there’s that.

He goes on to add:

The coming energy transition is meant to be totally different. Rather than an energy addition, it is supposed to be an almost complete switch from the energy basis of today’s $86 trillion world economy, which gets 80 percent of its energy from hydrocarbons. In its place is intended to be a net-carbon-free energy system, albeit one with carbon capture, for what could be a $185 trillion economy in 2050. To do that in less than 30 years—and accomplish much of the change in the next nine—is a very tall order.

Here is where the complexities become clear. Beyond outerwear, the degree to which the world depends on oil and gas is often not understood. It’s not just a matter of shifting from gasoline-powered cars to electric ones, which themselves, by the way, are about 20 percent plastic. It’s about shifting away from all the other ways we use plastics and other oil and gas derivatives. Plastics are used in wind towers and solar panels, and oil is necessary to lubricate wind turbines. The casing of your cellphone is plastic, and the frames of your glasses likely are too, as well as many of the tools in a hospital operating room. The air frames of the Boeing 787, Airbus A350, and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet are all made out of high-strength, petroleum-derived carbon fiber. The number of passenger planes is expected to double in the next two decades. They are also unlikely to fly on batteries.

Oil products have been crucial for dealing with the pandemic too, from protective gear for emergency staff to the lipids that are part of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Have a headache? Acetaminophen—including such brands as Tylenol and Panadol—is a petroleum-derived product. In other words, oil and natural-gas products are deeply embedded throughout modern life.

And, of course, fire suppression and prescribed fire.

And that leads to an interesting moral question. It seems like only producers, and not consumers are judged morally, at least by North Face. But then does that become a slippery slope? If oil and gas companies are bad, are oil refineries bad? OK, then, propane fuel deliverers? Gas station employees? Where exactly along the production/consumption chain would the moral responsibility start and stop?

Stone-casting (or what we might call, in the spirit of football, “unnecessary moralizing”) has been a facet of human culture perhaps as long as their were humans. Let she who does not use fossil fuels cast the first stone, indeed.

And of course,  similar arguments could be made about moralizing with regard to the forest products industry.  SPI bad, Home Depot/Lowes, not, me not.  And so on.

19 thoughts on “The Energy Transition: Let’s Call Folks on “Unnecessary Moralizing””

  1. Maybe the moralizing is directed more towards oil and gas companies’ decades of lobbying and campaign funding designed to slow walk the US transition to renewable energy, greenwashing ads, funding disinformation to create doubt about the science behind climate change, etc, etc. Oil and gas companies don’t exactly have a stellar moral history. It is easy to look this up yourself.

  2. Humble changed its name to Exxon in 1972. So, as far back as (at least) 1962 #ExxonKnew they were melting the glaciers because their advertisement bragged about melting 14 trillion pounds of glaciers every single day.

    By the way, 33 years ago today, the Exxon Valdez oil spill killed an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, as many as 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.

  3. “Overall, plastics represent a fairly small sliver of oil demand. Annually, the world consumes around 4,500 million tonnes (mt) of oil but only around 1,000 mt of petrochemicals (oil and natural gas used to make chemical products), and of that 1,000 mt, only about 350 mt are plastics.”

    So the “plastics” argument against reducing oil and gas production is not a great one, since we could make most of the progress we need by just changing our energy habitats (and there will substitutes for plastics in some cases). Also, we don’t usually burn plastic, so it doesn’t contribute as much to atmospheric carbon (it’s more like wood products).

    There’s a link to an earlier article (on Biden’s view of “energy transition” that includes this (I don’t know if it’s “moral philosophy” or just psychology): “Asking people to imagine an alternative future calls upon their thinking and imagination — their frontal cortex. Asking people to fear change calls upon something much deeper and older, their brainstem sense that it’s a dangerous world, they’re lucky to have what they have, and any disruption threatens it. The latter, when invoked, tends to drown out the former. That’s why progressive change is so difficult to muster and so easy to reverse.” Add to that the fact that the losers know much more clearly who they are now than the future winners. This all does support the idea of pushing the positives as much as possible.

    • Jon, that’s fascinating… I wasn’t making a “plastics argument” against reducing oil and gas production. My point was “are we going to hate on and blame on these people for the time it takes to transition?.. like the next 30 years? Sounds exhausting and not productive.
      We ARE transitioning.. that’s a fact.

      And you could make the same argument that people who generate “climate despair” are also calling upon fear.

      I think it is legitimate to ask the question “of all the ways to decarbonize, let’s get everyone on board and analyze who will win and who will lose( a bunch of alternatives), and try to adjust the pain for those who lose. ”

      I don’t think hating on/blaming the current oil and gas people (human beings who also care about the planet) is a substitute for being open and honest about the trade-offs and likelihoods.

      Finally basically calling people who disagree with you “reptile-brains” is not helping to understand their point of view.

      • Sharon, it seems like you keep pointing at the enviros as the groups that are being unreasonable. I agree, many of these groups are over the top with their apparent hatefulness towards the oil and gas industry, but the industry has brought this upon themselves with their disinformation campaigns, lobbying efforts to thwart legitimate environmental regulations, disregard for human health issues near oil/gas fields, and the list goes on and on. How can different sides come to the table without trust? How can for-profit mega-corporations who answer to oligarchs, investors and shareholders with the primary desire of maximizing profits be trusted to work in good faith to transition to a carbon neutral world? I agree it would be a wonderful thing for everyone to sit down and do some collaborative problem solving, to come up with a solid transition plan, to put real money towards the transition efforts, and to persevere to stay the transition course, but I don’t see it happening without the heavy hand of government. The oil and gas industry has a long history of dangling shiny objects in front of the public (and politicians) while doing everything they can to keep on doing just what they have always done. I personally prefer more measured, thoughtful dialogue, but it seems the shrillness of environmental groups is required to get people’s attention to put pressure on politicians to do what is needed to minimize (a relative term) extinctions, loss of entire ecosystems, and human suffering moving forward. Per your “reptile brain” comment. I’m not fond of name calling, but in my experience the name calling goes in both directions.

        • Jon, you didn’t say it, but this essentially says it.. it’s one of the creepier things.. “if you don’t agree with me about how the future should be, you’re not only wrong, you’re not using the advanced part of your brain. ”

          For me I’d like to stay on the topic “what’s the best choice and why do you think so?” not moralizing or psychologizing, which seem to me like distractions and also not particularly helpful. Or as someone said in an organization I belong to, “weaponizing” ethics or psychology. Here’s what you said previously and the quote:

          “There’s a link to an earlier article (on Biden’s view of “energy transition” that includes this (I don’t know if it’s “moral philosophy” or just psychology): “Asking people to imagine an alternative future calls upon their thinking and imagination — their frontal cortex. Asking people to fear change calls upon something much deeper and older, their brainstem sense that it’s a dangerous world, they’re lucky to have what they have, and any disruption threatens it. The latter, when invoked, tends to drown out the former.”

          Here’s an example of how people write about different brains within us, without the “you’re wrong” part..

          “The human brain includes many regions that evolved long ago. Our older “lizard brain” parts keep our bodies working and provide basic survival motivations, while our newer “mammal brain” regions improve our emotions and memory. Our “primate brain,” with its large, wrinkly cortex, helps us plan, predict, and use language. All these regions work together. So while ancient urges still drive our behavior, we constantly think up new strategies for achieving these goals.”

          • Thanks for that clarification. I guess I missed the “your wrong” part of what I quoted (and don’t see any difference between it and your quote). But carry on against moralizing.

  4. Maybe its not “moralizing”, that won’t change the world, maybe its just making a statement like “Look at me”, at least I’m paying “Lip Service” to this awful situation our planet is in. Truth be told, we are most likely so screwed we won’t even be able imagine the conditions our children & grandchildren will face in the rest of this century and beyond. The Human Race has gone “stale”, Even though we are capable of such great Love, seems like all we can do is Hate each other for various reasons (mostly because we are not exactly the same). War, pestulance, hunger, and pollution reign supreme, and we seem loathe to do much about it.

    • Tom- I don’t think that that’s true. Perhaps I am optimistic by brain chemistry, and I have also studied history. Of course, those of our age also remember people impacted by the Great War, the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II, not to speak of the lingering threat of nuclear war. Duck and cover, and the Civil Rights movement. And we have Covid but also vaccines. In general, I’ve found many things to be better than they were, but not as good as they could be. And I’d expect that to continue into the future, past the time we remain on the planet.

      You might want to check out the Solutions Story Tracker at the Solutions Journalism website if you want to find out more about people working toward positive goals.

    • Hi Tom: Sounds like you are more of a pessimist (and likely more realistic) than me, but I completely agree with your statement that “we won’t even be able imagine the conditions our children & grandchildren will face in the rest of this century and beyond.” I knew kids with polio when I was a kid, and no one had a TV at that time and no one came close to predicting we would all have one in a few months or years after discovering them. Remember Dick Tracy’s “two-way wrist radio?” Science fiction from the 1960s and ’70s? Orwell seems to have come closest, and that was from the 1940s. No one predicted Internet, and even the inventors greatly underestimated its power and utility. How about smartphones? No way to predict the future, but hopefully wars, starvation, pandemics, and mental illnesses will be kept to a minimum. There are a lot more of us than during WW II, but I definitely think things have generally got much better in the intervening years — with some exceptions.

  5. Might hit a paywall, but very related to the overall point:

    Key excerpts:

    “it also feels like more and more people are preoccupied with morality lately, or at least have become more willing to talk about it, to frame their preferences as principles, to make of morality an interpretive lens. Our collective discourse has become deeply concerned with goodness.”

    “This trend is perhaps most visible in marketing. If you go to the About page of, you will find the company’s mission statement, which cites “building a creative and diverse global team” and “making a positive impact in communities where we live and work”, but does not mention selling shoes.”

    “A whole generation of college-educated people has learnt how to frame basically anything in moral terms, whether it’s their Cheetos marketing strategy or migrant labour or their date not responding to text messages.”

    “What we have here is a morality that sells snacks but doesn’t feed the hungry. That’s partly because it is a fundamentally negative apparatus. By making this morality the lens through which we interpret the world, we have become intensely conscious of how things can go wrong and, by extension, less willing to try to do right. Just navigating the minefield of complicity in immoral systems seems like the most any of us can do, and so those systems abide, with any plan to collectively overthrow them replaced by individual acts of symbolic disapproval.”

    “But there is also the problem that this morality is easy to understand — much easier than the nuances and contradictions of an ethics based in action — and, therefore, easy to use disingenuously, as an instrument. “

    • A. thanks much for this. I was feeling envious as a former co-worker of the legal persuasion recently became an adjunct prof at a nearby law school… where he can probably read all these things on the university dime. (university folks FWIW..I’d be happy to become an adjunct :))

      I don’t like the idea of a two-tiered information system, at the same time I recognize that outlets need to make money. Seems like there’s a possibility that those folks with access will continue to see the world differently and reinforce the “otherness” of those without access.

      Perhaps that’s an unjust system I should be moralizing about? Doesn’t seem particularly helpful to frame it that way.

  6. One more thing.. moralizers, in my experience, tend not to have too much of a sense of humor (nor humility). That’s what I have noticed having spent time around and reading some professional moralizers of the religious persuasion. Which reminds me of this dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu on joy..where they seem to come down on a different side:

    “As our dialogue progressed, we converged on eight pillars of joy. Four were qualities of the mind: perspective, humility, humor, and acceptance. Four were qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity.”

    Perhaps oddly, our secular moralizing seems to miss many of these points (humility, humor).. or manifest them for some people and not others (compassion) and hence perhaps leads ineluctably from “unnecessary moralizing” toward a joy-free world (what I call the alchemy of despair).

    Here’s a link (free to all):


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