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Dear Fossil Fuel, I want a divorce!

Dear Fossil Fuel,

There is no easy way to do this, so I’ll just say it: I want a divorce!

Writing this letter is very painful for me, but the contents will not come as a great surprise to you. Our relationship has been wondrous at times, with ups and downs like every marriage. But you’ve been abusive for too long and pushed me to the limit. It’s taken decades of counselling to build up the courage to leave you, but after 300 years together I’ve decided it is time I grew up and faced the future as a responsible adult.

Let me start by saying: I don’t think you ever had evil intentions at heart. Your character flaws are in your basic chemistry, and that’s not your fault. You’ve had a difficult life, unloved by all except me. Your parents – Sun and Earth – were ashamed of you. Having conceived and given birth to you by accident millions of years ago, they locked you away in the cupboard under the stairs, out of sight and out of mind. So full you were of harmful chemicals, they probably felt they had no choice, to give their other offspring the best possible chance to thrive.

But once I released you from your geological tomb, how you made up for lost time with your fiery character! We achieved things together that I could not have imagined before we met. Side by side, we reshaped the landscape; we built great cities and connected them with infrastructure that spanned continents; we fought and won epic wars (admit it, you were often the cause of them!); we created a vast empire that left no corner of the globe untouched. Put simply, we lived tens of thousands of lifetimes in three short centuries. I owe virtually all of my success to you, which is why I write these words with such a heavy heart.

My parents were uneasy about our union from the early days. Oh, they could see how much fun we were having together – how your intensity captivated me! – but they worried that our relationship was growing at the expense of everything else in my life. It’s easy to see it now: I was becoming dependent on you, even addicted, blind to the damages we wrought, losing sight of what was important. Because of you I lost all respect for my mother, Nature.

With you egging me on, I became lazy and conceited. I didn’t stop to worry how I was growing, only that I grew. And I grew! As time passed, I hardly noticed how overweight I had become. No, morbidly obese! I’d developed this habit of consuming unnecessary stuff in vast quantities, more wants than needs. So wasteful of mother’s inheritance – much of it gone, forever – such regret … gradually I lost all interest in my appearance, as together we created such waste! I’ll admit, at the time it was childishly good fun, but I realise now, as I spend more and more of my energy cleaning up your mess, it must stop!

Frequently – and this is my greatest shame – I also lost sight of my duty to take care of my father, Society, who has long struggled with episodes of ill-health. On the surface he appeared OK, but underneath the neglect was evident, as his recent violent outbursts testify. (In fact, I would be surprised if our relationship were not the direct cause of much his sickness, though I know you will protest your innocence!) Of course, I would not even exist were it not for mother and father. I’m determined to make up for lost time and place their needs first and foremost from now on.

I know what you’re going to say: “I can change!” I’ve heard it so many times. Yes, I know you’ve become more efficient over the years, and tried to clean up your act. But everything is relative – you too have grown so much larger (OK, it’s partly my fault) that all your efforts to improve yourself have been trumped! And you’ve become so risky lately. You used to be dependable, easy-going – I liked the sense of security that you gave me. But over the last 30 or 40 years you’ve become so volatile and unreliable. I can see the writing on the wall: you probably are going to change, but not for the better! It’s only a matter of time before you blow up again, and set me back another few years. I just can’t take it any more.

And now for my confession: I’ve met someone else. He’s not as powerful as you – not at the moment – but he’s got some really interesting ideas how we can develop together in totally different ways. He’s very smart, not all brute force like you – he thinks you’re incredibly primitive, and I’m coming to realise he’s probably right! He doesn’t smell (oh, your awful smells!), never leaves any mess lying around, refuses to draw us into debt (he doesn’t know the meaning of the word!) and he gets the job done so much more efficiently than you ever did. Granted, he’s not always there by my side (he travels the world), but he has a wonderful network of like-minded friends that are always hugely supportive.

I know this will come as a bombshell for you: he’s your younger sibling, Solar Flux. Sun and Earth are so proud! My parents love him, too – he’s got big plans how we can attend to their needs and make up for all my past misdemeanours. Mother wonders why I left him in the first place for you all those years ago. But as I keep reminding her, our marriage was not all bad. Some of the amazing things we accomplished have made me what I am today – without that, I couldn’t begin to imagine a successful future with Solar Flux. Thanks to you, I’ve learned so much. But I was a child when we met. I’ve grown up, come through a tricky adolescence, and now I’m ready to move on.

I realise this divorce is probably going to cost me, in the short-term financial sense. But in the long-term, I know that I will grow even stronger in this new relationship and lead a much more vibrant and meaningful life without you. No doubt, this will be one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced, but it is one I can no longer postpone. If I avoid this decision now, I may harm my relationship with my parents beyond repair, and I’ll regret that for the rest of my life.

Yours no longer,

The Economy


  • Gary is Deputy Director at the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership. He has been working with the Cape Town office since January 2011, having previously led SustainAbility's London-based think-tank function. He has advised several leading companies on how to approach and tackle sustainability challenges, including Coca-Cola, Ford, Nestlé, Novo Nordisk, Rio Tinto, AP Møller-Maersk and Shell. Previously, Gary spent two years working in WWF's Global Climate and Energy programme, where his main interests were the causes of -- and solutions to -- the challenges associated with society's addiction to hydrocarbon fuels. This followed nine years in the oil industry with Mobil and ExxonMobil, spanning diverse roles from research and product development to sales, marketing and business development. Working across Europe, the US and Asia offered Gary first-hand insight to the strategic and day-to-day sustainability challenges posed by one of the world's most problematic sectors. Gary is the author of the WWF publication Plugged In: The End of the Oil Age. He holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry and a season ticket at Liverpool FC.


  1. Enough Said Enough Said 22 September 2012

    Coal and oil are killing us and Fracking for natural gas (methane) is much worse than even fossil fuels such as oil and coal. Methane is a much more dangerous fossil fuel.

    “The newest evidence here is discouraging. NASA climate scientist Drew Shindell’s work, published in the prestigious journal, Science, shows that methane – natural gas – is 105 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a global warming contributor over a 20-year time horizon, and 33 times more powerful over a century.

    Unfortunately, unconventional gas drilling techniques actually leak more methane than conventional ones.

    Leaks happen routinely during regular drilling, fracking and flowback operations, liquid unloading, processing, and along pipelines and at storage facilities.”



  2. nguni nguni 22 September 2012

    Methane is also biogas, used to produce electricity when animal waste is recycled.
    If you read the German press you will find a lot of complaints about the cost of the heavily subsidized renewable energy sources, they are being subsidized by the fossil fuels, so Germany’s energy bill is high. Same with Spain, which has borrowed heavily to subsidise it’s renewables but is now broke.
    I usually agree with you on energy issues Enough Said, but one should try to show the whole picture.

  3. Gary Gary 22 September 2012

    @ Enough Said

    Thanks for your observations – I couldn’t agree more. Our fire-based economy needs to be recognised as what it is: incredibly primitive. Economic progress is currently measured by the rate at which we dig stuff out of the ground and burn it. My article is obviously whimsical but hopefully makes some serious points about the abusive relationship between the economy and fossil fuels. Sure, it’s been good to (some of) us for a couple of hundred years, but not without huge external costs. Let’s take our advancements in science and materials engineering – made possible by this one-off hydrocarbon bounty – and do something truly outstanding with it.

  4. Enough Said Enough Said 22 September 2012


    Methane is a greenhouse gas, which is stored in vast quantities in the earth, and it is also produced by animals, so we need to eat less animal products. So Science magazine is wrong when they say fracking for methane is worse than CO2?

    And renewables made Spain go broke. You are trotting out regular fossil fuel industry spin.

    Despite what you have read in the German press, they are committed to phasing out dirty energy and switching over to renewable energy as soon as they can. The renewable energy industry in Germany has created hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the last decade.

    Subsidizing renewable energy is money well spent.

  5. Enough Said Enough Said 23 September 2012


    The Spanish economy suffered a severe property bubble burst in 2007, huge unemployment resulted, and the high costs of importing fossil fuel also played a role in the finacial crises. To claim the finacial crises was due to borrowing for renewable energy is false. The Spainsh economy has huge borrowings which is a maijor problem, but only a very miniscule proportion of that is spent on renewable energy.

    Please stop propagating fossil fuel industry propaganda.


  6. jandr0 jandr0 23 September 2012

    @Enough Said: You said “To claim the financial crises was due to borrowing for renewable energy is false.”

    I don’t see that nguni EVER made that claim. What nguni did claim, was that subsidisation cannot continue to the same extent since the financial crisis.

    So, you set up an argument that nguni never made, then prove that argument (that he never made) wrong, and then extrapolate that nguni was “propagating fossil fuel industry propaganda.”

    PS. On the whole, I find many of your arguments and logic well constructed. This time you did not live up to your better standards.


    I support a divorce from fossil fuels, but acknowledge that I am increasingly captivated by the thought of marriage to thorium nuclear power. Very alluring prospect, hasn’t got the radio-active issues of uranium / plutonium nuclear power, much more abundance in raw thorium than uranium / plutonium, hasn’t got the high pressure cooling requirements, etc. The problem is that people have become emotionally and psychologically involved with the word “nuclear,” and now instinctively react to anything with the term “nuclear” as bad, whereas the bad things were really the radio-active waste and other negative side effects of the uranium / plutonium reactors.

    Feel free to investigate, but only if you have the maturity to not be emotionally undermined by any wrong negative psychological connotations you may have with the word “nuclear.”

  7. Enough Said Enough Said 23 September 2012


    You fly the same dirty energy industry spin doctor colours as @nguni

    If you support nukes you are deluded. The world is rejecting nuclear energy. Read what happened in countries around the world this last week.

    If you are captivated by “thorium nuclear power” you are either totally deluded or paid to talk absolute crap.

    If you want I can post some authorative reports on thorium. Thorium is the last recourse for nuke energy spin doctors to try and justify the nuclear energy delusion to the public.

  8. Rory Short Rory Short 23 September 2012

    The irrefutable fact is that drawing on any energy source other than the sun is unsustainable in the long term, they will run out, and that does not include the environmental damage the use of fossil fuels and nuclear causes. Right now we have got the technology to utilise renewable energy with minimal to zero environmental costs. There is absolutely no good reason why as societies we are not going for renewable energy 100%. The only reason why are not doing so is because of the obfuscations deliberately created by the people who profit from non-renewable energy sources even though the continuing use of now-renewable energy is going to see us all off the planet.

  9. Richard Becker Richard Becker 25 September 2012

    @Rory Short There is one very good reason why we are not going for renewable energy 100% right now. It is simply because it is not yet feasible. Forget about your conspiracy theories, there are many countries and companies that would love to get into that business, but the cost per kilowatt hour is just too expensive. If you don’t agree please tell us which systems can produce the gigawatts needed right now. If you are not an engineer or physicist, please have your answer validated by an engineer or physicist – too many dreamers make unsubstantiable claims here and there is a lot of nonsense on the web about weird and wonderful schemes which produce huge amounts of energy. When one looks into them they are still pie in the sky.

  10. Richard Becker Richard Becker 25 September 2012

    @Enough Said. I am not disagreeing that renewables will eventually become economically viable, they will have to, because fossil fuel is becoming more expensive to extract and will one day be depleted. I am saying we are not there yet, and it will take a lot more than two to five years. Solar heating in SA is a great and payable solution. I designed and put my own system in and can’t stop smiling at the great results and savings. Do I have solar electricity? – No, because despite what all sorts of academics and sharp salesmen say, it is still very expensive and the panels and batteries (lots of horrible lead and/or other poisonous substances), have to be replaced every few years and that is not costed into their propaganda.
    Also don’t knock nuclear, it is about to make a huge comeback and the Americans, French and Chinese will be laughing while the Germans kick their own backsides.

  11. Brent Brent 25 September 2012

    Enough Said natural gas, fracking gas is mostly methane, correct but it is not pumped into the air as is, it is burnt/used for energy the CH4 going to CO2. It is not dumped into the air as methane. Renewables will take over from gas/oil in 20/25 years at best, read all the technical papers/literature not just the ones supporting your view.

    Gary you have your timing a bit out, hydrocarbons as the main source of energy only started happening towards the end of the 19th centuary when kerosine was used extensively for lighting city streets, the 300 years becoming closer to ±120


  12. Zeph Zeph 26 September 2012

    And if Yellowstone burps we all die!

  13. Enough Said Enough Said 26 September 2012


    I never said methane from fracking is pumped into the air, my quote read “Unfortunately, unconventional gas drilling techniques actually leak more methane than conventional ones.

    Leaks happen routinely during regular drilling, fracking and flowback operations, liquid unloading, processing, and along pipelines and at storage facilities.”

    It seems very stupid to destroy the water with toxic chemicals used during fracking AND release methane into the environment at the same time when it is is 105 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a global warming contributor over a 20-year time horizon.

    The CEOs of fossil fuel and nuke corporations and government officials that endorse these processes should be charged in international criminal courts for genocide and crimes against humanity.

    Then who would pay the dirty energy industry industry spin doctors, they would be out of work, he, he… :-)

  14. Enough Said Enough Said 26 September 2012

    @Richard Bekker

    ‘Nuclear making a comeback’, boy are you out of touch…..

    “The Worst Week for the World’s Nuclear Industry


    By all signs, it appears that the whole of planet Earth has at once decided to shun nuclear energy. The popular sentiment was definitely negative towards the use of nuclear power, and now it seems that governments have had to bow to people’s wishes.

    Within one week, the industry has been dealt such a severe body blow that it will have to struggle hard to even survive. Let us take a look at the week’s news:

    Sorry to burst your bubble!!!


  15. Gary Gary 26 September 2012


    Thanks for adding to the thread with thoughtful remarks. My timing is spot on: the first commercial-scale steam engine came into service in 1712 – in September, by all accounts – in the English Midlands town of Dudley to pump water out of flooded coal mines. It was the first time in human history that we were able to turn heat into motion, therefore it was the moment that we departed from the solar income constraint on our ability to move.

    Up to this point, we could only move – people and stuff – by using our muscles (or animal muscles) or by catching wind in sails and falling water in water mills, all bound by solar income. It was a profoundly important moment in Earth’s history, and the moment that our economy became married to the burning of fossil fuels.

    In fact our relationship to burning things goes back much further, as we consumed wood and peat and coal long before 1712, but only to liberate heat in order to drive high temperature processes, not to move things around. In many respects, the economy is nothing more than the movement of people and things, facilitated by a medium of exchange (money).

    Your point about kero for lighting is correct (we also displaced whale oil from lamps with kero from crude) but it picks up the story 160 years or so *after* the steam engine profoundly altered the course of history.

    With our solar income constraint breached, the only practical limit on our endeavor has been our success in finding and…

  16. Yaj Yaj 27 September 2012

    Peak Oil is here, believe it or not. Deal with the reality before reality deals with you.
    The end of perpetual growth is here.

  17. Brent Brent 1 October 2012

    Enough said, the reality is that the next wave (just before green renewables take over in ± 20-25 years) is natural/fracked gas. The worldwide reserves are much bigger than Saudi’s oil reserves and China to date has spent a wopping +$15 billion on developing fracking/natural gas in Canada. China has possibly the biggest natural gas reserves in the world but is spending those billions in Canada to get the fracking technology as well as the product – no Greenies are allowed to disrupt China’s march to energy independence. The amount of gas coming out of Dakota in the US is huge and growing by a big % each year, this is un-stoppable (better than causing wars to get oil supplies) and will go on for another 20-30 years. This allows the entry of ‘solar/wind’ renewables as the technology progresses and thus become better and more cost effective ie an engineering not a political solution.

    Gary agree your comments but the ‘fossil fuel’ age (excluding wood/trees) only became the main energy source just over 120 years ago. What you guys also omit is that the chemical industry is also ± 80-85% based on oil and virtually every single item we use for food/housing/clothes/education/transport in its widest sense, in fact our total civilisation uses chemicals based on oil full stop. We need the next 20/30 years to engineer replacements to oil based chemicals.


  18. Gary Gary 1 October 2012

    @Brent – I fully agree with you on the chemical stuff. For my sins, early in my career I spent 2 years selling all sorts of process chemicals and materials (essentially an attempt to upgrade fuel & lube refinery side-streams) for the biggest oil company in the world. My customers were making tyres, rubber, polystyrene, paints, paper, candles, construction board, cleaning products, water treatment chemicals, cosmetics, you name it. So I got a really good sense of how crude oil impacts our lives. I think we’ll wake up one day and think “Why the hell did we set 1 trillion barrels of this stuff on fire? – that’s so much value up in smoke!”

    As for the beginning of the fossil fuel age, I maintain that the critical moment in human history was our ability to turn heat into motion (wood and peat and – prior to 1712 – coal, had only been used for heat, not motion). So I wrote this article to mark that moment’s 300th anniversary. I think your 120 year time frame more closely dates the beginning of the oil age, which kicked off in 1859 with the discovery of “rock oil” in Pennsylvania. Standard Oil – the company I worked for – was formed 4 years later. The motor car really picked things up in the late 1890s and from there we didn’t look back.

    Shale gas may buy us some time (and energy), provided we use that time (and energy) wisely to invest in smart rather than dumb infrastructure. My fear is we’ll carry on regardless.

  19. Wes Wong Wes Wong 3 October 2012

    @ Enough Said

    Renewable energy is only part of the answer. In Ozzie Zehner’s Green Illusions, he points out that renewable energy projects are dependent on oil for its production and transport.

    Renewable energy can never support our current lifestyle. Without a reduction in our consumptive behavior it doesn’t matter where we get our energy because there just won’t be enough.

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