What grave goods should we bury with big oil execs?

The Elkington Report

What grave goods should we bury with big oil execs?

ShutterstockGreenBiz collage

Yes, I knew that oil giant BP had sponsored the British Museum’s stunning exhibition on the Scythians, an extraordinary — and long-forgotten — nomadic people who held sway across Siberia from 900 BC to 200 BC. But only when I read BP CEO Bob Dudley’s foreword to the accompanying coffee table book did the irony hit me full force.

Thanks for the sponsorship, Mr. Dudley. But isn’t it slightly dissonant that, on a timescale radically shorter than the 700-year one covered in "Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia," your industry is creating a world in which millions of once-settled people will be turned into new forms of nomad — environmental refugees?

Indeed, I scratched my head on reading the British Museum’s original media release for the exhibition. It noted, "Life in the Siberian landscape was tough and there was heavy competition for survival. The Scythians developed a fearsome set of weapons: pointed battle-axes and short swords for close combat and powerful bows for long-distance archery. Painted wooden shields, armour and a helmet have survived from the ancient tombs."

Compound bows and horse masks are fascinating, but for me the key point was this: The Scythians, skilled horsemen, "took their beloved horses with them to the grave so that they could carry on in the afterlife."

Knowing that some modern people have insisted on being buried with their TVs or cell phones, it’s not hard to understand why Scythian chiefs might want to be entombed with their weapons, utensils and the odd handmaiden or two.

But I promptly found myself wondering how today’s world should set about burying fossil fuel executives, when dead, to prepare them for a suitable afterlife?

It goes without saying, almost, that we should insert their distinguished corpses into the biggest available SUVs, with electrically charged door handles, armor plating and impenetrably tinted windows. Plus, of course, an executive assistant or two at the ready in the reclining passenger seats. But what other artifacts might we want to include to illuminate the day-to-day realities of these executives’ own "heavy competition for survival"?

Apart from mega-memory sticks of scientific papers, reports and books that they either didn’t read or chose to ignore, their dashboard screen should display the latest computer models and plots showing the accelerating build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And, for when the batteries run out underground, we should ensure they have stacks of printouts close at (mummified) hand.

Then, as a reminder of the newsfeeds currently considered to be so much background noise in the global C-suite, let’s tape some NASA images of multiple hurricanes, taken from space, to the inside of the windscreen. Oh, and let the sacrificial SUV be surrounded by a carefully curated selection of rafts and lifejackets used by those escaping from climate disaster zones.

Nor is this just about the hydrocarbons Big Oil helps us burn. Given the modern alchemy used to transform fossil hydrocarbons into polymers, we would be in dereliction of duty if we failed to fill all the remaining luggage spaces with oozing scoops of plastics from the great, clogged gyres of today’s oceans.

Finally, for a little light reading in the afterworld, let’s cherry-pick some of the riper phrases from the "we want to make a difference" speeches these executives have made in life, and from their dazzlingly illustrated annual sustainability reports.

Cognitive dissonance

In the same way that archaeologists decode the world pharaohs thought they lived in from the paintings on their tomb walls, so the words and images contained in such publications nicely capture the cognitive dissonance haunting many such corporations. Exactly the same spirit as captured in Augustine’s long-ago prayer: "Lord make me chaste [read sustainable] — but not yet!"

Perhaps such thought trains suggest why I have shrugged off invitations to provide forecasts for 2018. Unwittingly, they force us to think in immediate timeframes, not the decade-long and even generational timescales that true sustainable development demands. But, like most of us, I binged on the end-of-the-year summaries and predictions that have become such a prominent feature of our Decembers.

As I write these words, I resonate with Umair Haque’s conclusion that 2017 was the year when we were all "Trumpnotized" and wonder how we might now click our collective fingers. And, like many others, I wondered when an artificial intelligence would replace me — or when I would have a self-taught robot co-worker.

Meanwhile, having sensed the "techlash" era coming, as indicated in our Project Breakthrough interviews with innovators at the bleeding edges of change, I have been fascinated to learn that the energy consumption of mining bitcoins and other crypto-tokens is predicted to increase tenfold in 2018, maybe rivalling Italy’s total energy consumption by the end of the year.

And I was genuinely startled to see that Saudi Arabia has become the first country to award citizenship to a robot. She is called Sophia — and, intriguingly, may be advocating human rights.

All of this even before we get to the truly racy predictions. For example, that 2018 will see the first human head transplant, albeit with the patient surviving less than 48 hours. If this proves doable, and patients survive, perhaps some well-heeled CEOs can delay the day when they finalize their purchase orders for the grave goods needed to set them up for eternity.

But in the generous spirit of this brave new year of ours, and as someone who often enjoys art, cultural or science exhibitions sponsored by energy companies, let me end by thanking BP for ensuring that at least some of its unsustainable gains go to good causes. It’s also encouraging to see Dudley’s company moving back into renewable energy, having not so long ago turned its back on the sun and the wind.

All of that said, one thing that I’m definitely not predicting for 2018 is that leading fossil economy CEOs will explain why it still makes civilizational sense to ignore the writing on the gas station walls — and on the polar ice sheets. But, until the new year beats it out of me, I live in hope that this, finally, will be our breakthrough year.