Expropriating hydrocarbons in the 21st century: Lessons from history

As oil and gas firms make ambitious announcements to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, we should not take these pledges in good faith. Given the intensifying climate crisis, and the sheer inadequacy of market-based mechanisms designed to nudge capital in the right direction, it’s becoming clearer we need a politics that confronts the property rights of the fossil fuel industry. In other words, we need a politics of expropriation. While there is much expanding literature in political ecology on what I’d call the negative forms of expropriation or dispossession – particularly of indigenous and others who rely on land directly for their livelihoods – it’s worth remembering the positive form of expropriation that Marx outlines where “the expropriators are expropriated.” This might sound too radical in our neoliberal era, but there is a rich history of energy and the expropriation of private property during the 19th and 20th Centuries. From the abolition of slavery (property in muscle power) to the series of expropriations of the very capitalists at the heart of the climate crisis (oil and gas), the climate movement should study these historical examples to imagine a 21st Century politics of expropriation.