Exxon Makes Its Priorities Clear

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The great muck-raking American novelist Upton Sinclair once wrote that it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

Sinclair’s trenchant observation sprang to mind when I came across the astonishingly revealing statement by Exxon Mobile’s CEO to a shareholders meeting this week. Responding to a proposal to reduce the company’s greenhouse gas emissions, Rex Tillerson laid down a marker by demanding “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”

Perhaps Mr. Tillerson’s salary depends upon his not understanding the imperatives of global climate change. Perhaps the gleam of their dividends make it difficult for Exxon shareholders to grasp what the future might hold for their grandchildren: they agreed with Tillerson and voted nearly 3-to-1 against the proposal.

If quoting Upton Sinclair seems a tad cynical, consider that Exxon Mobile was the second most profitable company on the planet last year and posted its second highest profit ever.

Tillerson couched his statement as concern for lifting the downtrodden of the world out of poverty. He then then fell back on simple climate change denial-ism, asserting that the world’s temperature “hasn’t really changed” in the last decade. But what really pegged the absurdity meter is the Hobson’s Choice he created between “saving the planet” and preventing human suffering. Poaching humanity in a stew of carbon emissions seems like plenty of suffering. As  Ryan Koronowski and Joe Romm point out at Think Progress, heat waves, conflict, food insecurity, Dust Bowl-like drought, extreme flooding, sea level rise, increasingly destructive storms, and worsening refugee crises are the inevitable results of staying on the current emissions path.

More than anything, Tillerson’s risible dichotomy reminded me of that infamous declaration from the Vietnam war: “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Sinclair’s most famous work, The Jungle, was a stomach-churning look at the meat packing industry at the turn of the last century. I wonder what he would make of this century’s oil industry.

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