At the recently-concluded COP 26 talks in Glasgow, there were so many representatives of fossil-fuel companies that together they constituted a larger delegation than any nation.1 What is it like to work for one of these companies, to keep doing business as usual in the knowledge of the terrible damage that it is doing to us all?
Business As Usual
At the recently-concluded COP 26 talks in Glasgow, there were so many representatives of fossil-fuel companies that together they constituted a larger delegation than any nation.1 These companies are actively contributing to the destruction of our world. Their ‘business as usual’ is on track to push the world far beyond the 2.4 degrees which would be the outcome of current COP pledges. And there they were, over five hundred of their staff at COP26, keeping business as usual going. What is it like to work for one of these companies, to keep doing business as usual in the knowledge of the terrible damage that it is doing to us all?
Last summer I was reading Rebecca West’s Greenhouse with Cyclamens I,2 an account of the Nuremberg trials, which West attended as a journalist. In the ruined landscapes of the end of the Second World War, people can’t buy food and other necessities because “the war [has] burned trade off Germany as flame burns skin off a body”—but a gardener who has lost a leg in the war labours with intense dedication, skill, and care to raise beautiful potted cyclamens for sale to the journalists attending the trials. He is finding a way to do business as usual. The image keeps coming back to me: it speaks of obsession, making a living, and awful damage, but also of beauty in the ruins, and of someone doing what they know how to do because they don’t know what else is possible.
The phrase ‘business as usual’ is poignant, then, as well as terrible. Do people working in fossil fuel companies feel the awful damage, do they live the obsession, do they feel caught up in only knowing how to do one thing? How do their organisations manage these business-related feelings?
The etymology of the word ‘business’ carries something of these poignant and terrible aspects. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it derives from the Old English bisignis, “Anxiety, solicitude, care; distress, uneasiness”. The sense “state of being busy” was used from Middle English down to the eighteenth century, but is now differentiated as busyness. The use “appointed task” dates from late Middle English, and from it all the other current senses have developed.
Anxiety and its defences: the busyness becomes the business
At the heart of the definition, then, are multiple connections between a task, the care associated with the task, and the anxiety that it carries. The task of care brings anxiety; care for the task brings anxiety: think of a new parent, setting up routines of care to manage the flood of anxiety created by caring for a baby. In an organisation, when the levels of anxiety related to the appointed task—the business—reach catastrophic levels, the members may similarly need to use rituals, routines— “busyness”—to defend against the overwhelm. Like new parents, they may not be able to ask why the tasks are needed, because this risks opening up to the overwhelm. If containment is not available, the defences become the work. The busyness becomes the business.
So what about the anxiety, and the care, in the task of fossil fuel extraction? We tend to imagine that the catastrophic anxiety about its effects is located in organisations campaigning to stop such extraction. But we might wonder whether this anxiety, denied and projected, also affects organisations involved in the activities that cause global warming. The primary mechanism underlying climate change denial is disavowal, where knowledge of reality is split off from feeling in a way which enables the subject to “turn a blind eye”. This is the kind of perverse relation to reality that academic Susan Long has written about in relation to turning a blind eye to climate change.3 Long reminds us that fossil fuel extraction requires high levels of technical knowledge and powerful machinery. It is also a dangerous task both for individuals—mining accidents still kill hundreds every year—and for the immediate and planetary environment. Long argues that these companies now advocate negative emissions technologies like carbon capture and storage because of,
the fear of being in a state of uncertainty and “not knowing”; a fear of being, and being seen to be, powerless. The fear of not knowing drives the subject into a conscious perverse and rigid certitude. The state of not knowing becomes feared and hated (pp. 252–253).
Such perverse dynamics may include a disconnect from the impact of one’s work. Dan Gretton’s book I You We Them4 shows how for every Jew or Roma butchered directly at the hands of a German soldier there was literally another ten thousand whose death was the responsibility of the bureaucrats and specialists who designed and built the gas chambers, organised the transports, ran the factories which used the slave labour, and so on. The key message of his book is that the perpetrators are people just like you and me, but that “something is closed down in the journey from home to work”. Loving fathers and considerate husbands go to work and with little thought devote their working lives to following the conscious and unconscious rules in organisations engaged in the practice of killing. This is what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” and Germans after the Eichmann trial in the 1960s began to call Schreibtischtäter, “desk killer”. The fossil fuel companies can be thought of as providing the organisational enabling for today’s ecocidal desk killers, horrifyingly mirroring the structures that enabled the genocidal death camps.
Organisational culture may unconsciously involve acting out the anxiety, care, not-knowing and powerlessness that individuals close down. Gretton interviewed some former oil company executives and his findings echo those of George Marshall5: that the headquarters of many of these companies practise a culture which is the opposite to what one would expect: a fanatical obsession with cleanliness, health and safety in a company which was busy destroying the planet.
An extraordinary contradiction, that the companies responsible all over the world for the poisoning of people, communities, animals, plants, land and water – particularly in the global South – should be run by headquarters staff obsessed with cleanliness, purity, and safety. By summoning its opposite, the organisational culture seeks to keep out of consciousness what is known but cannot be thought about, the secret in the corporate family, the history of racialised shame, dirt, damage, and abuse that arises directly from the business of the organisation and haunts the collective unconscious.
Cyclamens: Photo Credit: https://www.rhs.org.uk/garden-inspiration/plants-we-love/fearless-flowers-cyclamen
As some fossil fuel workers escape the industry and seek ways of caring, of redressing the damage they have contributed to,6 will the anxiety these escapees are aware of become more and more fiercely denied among those who remain? Will the decision-makers among them retreat to the bunkers to complete their destructive project? Will we need a Nuremberg trial, based upon a new Law of Ecocide,7 to document and convict the desk killers of today? And will there be injured gardeners who try to make a living in the ruins of the city as the trial takes place?
Written by Rebecca Nestor8 - an organisational consultant, facilitator and coach, based in Oxford, UK, who specialises in helping people process the feelings that are evoked by working on the climate crisis. She is a board member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, leads the CPA’s work on climate cafes, and recently submitted her doctoral thesis at the University of Essex/Tavistock Centre on leadership in climate change organisations. www.rebeccanestor.co.uk
2 West, R. (1955). Greenhouse with cyclamens. In: A Train of Powder. London: Macmillan.
3 Long, S. (2015). Turning a blind eye to climate change. Organisational & Social Dynamics, 15(2): 248–262.
4 Gretton, D. (2019). I You We Them: Journeys Beyond Evil: The Desk Killers in History and Today. London: Heinemann.
5 Marshall, G. (2014) Don't Even Think About It: why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. London: Bloomsbury.
8 This article is based on Hoggett, P. and Nestor, R. (2021). First genocide, now ecocide: an anti-life force in organisations?, Organisational & Social Dynamics, 21(1), pp. 97–113.
Lead image: An outboard motor found on the Dorset coast, in an almost fossilised state. Photo Credit: Wendy Hollway