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Marlboro man moment for the car and oil giants

The Marlboro Man was the iconic advertisement campaign that ran through the second half of the 20th century to popularise smoking. Its heritage, says Chris Chatteris SJ, is lung disease, something that the tobacco campaigns already knew as they were promoting their toxic product. He says that today’s oil and automotive industries face a similar legacy, unless they are able to cut carbon emissions drastically and transform the way we consume energy.

It’s time to put oil companies and auto manufacturing bosses on notice that they’re facing their Marlboro Man moment.

The Marlboro Man advertisement, the ultimate expression of how cool it was to smoke, is now regarded as one of the more ghoulish — after the death of many Malboro men from cancer or emphysema  —  and Orwellian marketing endeavours of any industry. Ever. It is not something that anyone would want to be remembered for, especially because  it has come to light that the tobacco industry knew that smoking kills even before they launched the message that it was cool.

The strategy by  oil companies to green-wash messages of ‘better energy’ and express concerns about sustainability and the environment is belied by the fact that they continue to drill, to prospect and to expand. Car companies, with the exceptions perhaps of Tesla, Nissan with its all-electric Leaf and VW, who had their Marlboro Man moment during their false emissions scandal, blunder ahead, bringing out more and more models of larger and larger fossil-fuelled vehicles while paying lip service to electrification.

Scientific evidence that climate change is real

Perhaps they should pay attention to the fact that in Norway, where almost 50% of all new vehicle sales are electric models, the sale of diesel vehicles is in freefall, petro-car sales are declining and the aim is to end the sale of fossil-fuelled vehicles by 2025. Norway might be  a small country, but this is a movement which is taking hold in the powerhouses of the modern economy – large cities.

Scientists have been telling the oil companies something that they already knew – that they have to scale back their extraction of oil and gas if the planet is to have a decent chance of keeping the average increase in temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius according to a recent study. To meet the Paris Agreement on targets for greenhouse gas emissions, oil and gas companies must cut their production by an average of 35% by 2040.

To meet the Paris Agreement on targets for greenhouse gas emissions, oil and gas companies must cut their production by an average of 35% by 2040.

Some companies have more leeway than others, based on their record so far. Shell needs to cut down by 10% but ConocoPhillips has to cut by 85%. In a world in which infinite business expansion and every higher profits are the hallmarks of financial success, this is a hard message. It is not a message delivered by nutters as Greta Thunberg reminds us but by scientists. Ultimately, the planet which is delivering the message.

The oil companies are unfortunately trying to have their cake and eat it and this policy will have inevitable disastrous consequences if it is not changed and quickly. ‘Oil and gas companies’ investments are taking the world down a catastrophic pathway that threatens the planet and the global economy,’ commented Danielle Fugere, th president of As You Sow, the organisation producing the new study.

It can no longer be business as usual

The counter arguments of the oil companies (and the vehicle companies who burn most of the oil produced) are terrible. That if they don’t destroy the planet someone else will, notably nationalized companies such as Aramco of Saudi Arabia and Russia’s Rosneft. They also argue that burning oil is what consumers want. The second argument is simply not true and does not take the fate of the planet into account. Nor do the companies acknowledge their influence or responsibility.

These arguments seem to me to be devised to allow the oil (and car) companies to make as much money as they can while the going is good and the Thunberg generation is still voteless and then leave the mess for others to sort out. It’s what extractive industries do – rip out, mess up and move on.

The [industry] bosses […] could combine their global power and the wealth that they are currently putting into business as usual to plot a new clean, climate-friendly direction for transportation for our world.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The bosses, let’s name a few – Ben Van Beurden, Bob Dudley, Darren Woods, James Hackett, Akiyo Toyoda – could combine their global power, plus the wealth that they are currently putting into business as usual, to plot a new clean, climate-friendly direction for transportation for our world. In a word, they could show vision and leadership and atone for the past.

In this way they would dodge their Marlboro Man moment and go down in history as the men who changed their minds and changed the course of history. Your move, gentlemen!

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Chris Chatteris SJ
Chris Chatteris is a Jesuit priest who is the handyman at the Seminary in Cape Town, combining the tradition of the ‘worker priest’ with teaching and spiritual direction of seminarians. On the handyman side his current project is to ‘green’ the seminary and he has installed such things as heat pumps, rain tanks and recycling systems. He does some writing, last year authoring a book entitled Vocations and what to do with them, a handbook for vocations directors. He also writes a monthly column for the Southern Cross reflecting on the Pope’s intentions, plus occasional other articles elsewhere. Chris was born in Zambia and went to Jesuit schools in both Zimbabwe and Britain and, having been unable to beat them, joined them in 1968. He studied philosophy, theology, French and education, and spent a very formative time in France, part of which was at the L’Arche Community of Jean Vanier fame. Chris has taught in French and British schools and worked in British and South African parishes, including a mission in KZN at the time of the transition from apartheid to normality. He has also worked as the novice director of Jesuits, in the theological formation of young religious at St Joseph’s Theological Institute, Cedara and, briefly, at the Jesuit Institute.

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