How is the fossil energy industry like the circus?

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus just announced that it will cease operations forever this May. It will hold its final performance in New York where I saw it in the mid-sixties as a young child.

As I read the reasons offered by circus owners to end after 146 years, I was struck by the similarities to the fossil energy (oil, coal, gas) industry. Both were born in this country around the late nineteenth century. Coal had a head start, but it was the first successful oil drilling and refining in Pennsylvania in 1859 that really got things going.

The parallels in reasons for calling it quits between the circus and fossil energy are compelling. Here are reasons given by the circus owners coupled with the fossil energy equivalent:

  • Declining sales combined with high operating costs

Fossil energys’ aging business model, particularly for oil, is getting harder and harder to justify. We’ve gone from concern about peak oil to chatter about peak oil demand in just a few short years due to a variety of economic factors and the added effects of efficiency, renewables, and the rise of the practical and affordable electric vehicle.

  • Changing public tastes

Survey after survey shows that the public wants clean power. The U.S. consumer has simply lost its taste for petroleum, be it sweet or sour.

  • “Prolonged battles with animal rights groups”

Substitute “climate and clean energy groups” – carbon tax advocates, fossil energy divestment movement, or the scientists who still try to argue the case on its factual merits. And actually, considering what is going on with coral, polar bears, frogs, and other critters, you can keep the animal rights groups in there.

  • Technological changes including competition from “movies, television, video games and the Internet”

Replace those four items with efficiency, renewables, electric vehicles, and energy storage, and voila, there you have it.

The bottom line is that there isn’t any one thing, but several factors combined that made the circus an unsustainable business that could no longer compete. Like the circus, there is no single factor that will be the nail in the coffin for fossil energy; it will be a combination of factors combined to spell the end. But it is not something that we should just sit back and observe. In the case if the Circus, it was mostly just the animals arguably suffering. In the case of the fossil energy circus, the whole planet is in peril by its continued operation.

The fossil energy industry is a dangerous and risky endeavor that has always been supported by investors, who are beginning to flee, and by massive subsidies – the equivalent of the invisible wires in a trapeze act.

The elephant in the fossil industry boardroom has always been that the end of fossil energy is inevitable given that fossil resources are finite, so their days have always been numbered. But we cannot wait for that finiteness to save us given the terrifying math explained by Bill McKibben five years ago. It would be far better for everyone – from the highest paid executive to the oil soaked drill rig worker – to carry out a planned transition out of the fossil era than to allow it to careen into whatever ugly end that might transpire if allowed to continue unabated.

We do need good leadership to help guide such a transition. Regrettably, a big problem that we currently face is that our incoming ringmaster is a fossil energy proponent. But, just like the circus, that won’t be enough to stop the inevitable decline and fall of fossil energy.

There was a time when coal, oil, and gas were wonders that transformed society in miraculous ways. That time was the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The fossil party is over. The 21st century marks the dawn of the clean, sustainable, renewable energy era.

In its prime, the circus was an awe-inspiring marvel whose slogan, perhaps valid, was “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and maybe for a time the fossil industry was as well. Now, with the climate crisis blowing strong winds in our faces, that industry has become the Greatest Foe on Earth.

Woody Hastings
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