The great gaslight

In his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell coined the term “doublethink” to describe a form of indoctrination that requires subjects to simultaneously accept two conflicting ideas as the truth.

Doublethink means “to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it”.

There can be no clearer contemporary example of doublethink than the increasingly strident attempts by the oil and gas industry and a cohort of co-opted politicians to convince us that oil and gas must be part of a “just energy transition” in Africa.

The industry and its lawyers, consultants and communications advisers preface everything they do by insisting that they really care about climate change, and that they recognise that Africa is among the most vulnerable regions to its impact. Then they go on to describe their plans to extract billions of barrels’ worth of climate-destroying fossil fuels for decades into the future.

This climate doublethink was on glorious display last week at the simultaneous hosting at the Cape Town International Convention Centre of Africa Oil Week (AOW) and the Green Energy Africa Summit (both by event organiser Hyve).

The conferences shared several speakers and sponsors. Illustrating the increasingly surreal nature of corporate climate rhetoric, Sasol joined its fellow top global carbon emitters TotalEnergies, Chevron, Equinor, ExxonMobil and Eni in sponsoring AOW, as well as the green energy event, where a Sasol senior vice-president gave a keynote address, “Sasol leading the just energy transition in Southern Africa”.

While both agendas included sessions dedicated to the energy transition, you would be forgiven for thinking that the events were dealing with two different planets.

The predictable, rational theme of the green energy summit – “The acceleration and adoption of renewable and low-carbon energy” – appeared at face value to nicely complement the AOW theme, “Sustainable growth in a low-carbon world”.

But the sustainable growth referred to at the latter event was sustainable growth of the oil and gas industry, with the programme aimed at providing “both strategic and technical insights to ensure the continued growth and development of the African oil and gas market”.

The nub of the message emanating from AOW, and the oil and gas PR machine in general, is that transitioning to a low-carbon economy is a Western trick, carefully crafted to slow African development by denying it the glorious fossil fuel-based future it deserves.

Several AOW speakers made stunningly false assertions about renewable energy, including claiming that it is not the cheapest form of energy, and is not “viable” for Africa.

This fact-free narrative, with its irresistible combination of anti-imperialist rhetoric and glimpses into a fantasy future of unlimited oil and gas profits, is proving a major hit with the AU and politicians in the energy ministries of fossil fuel-based economies across the continent.

Rank hypocrisy

There is no doubt that the developed world is guilty of infuriating hypocrisy in this arena – not least in relation to its decades of broken promises on climate finance and Europe’s response to the energy crisis caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine.

But the irony is that if “the West” really did want to screw Africa, it would do so by advocating exactly the path that the oil and gas industry is pushing: huge investment in soon-to-be stranded assets — investment that will never translate into broad developmental gains for ordinary Africans, but that will ensure the vast enrichment of politicians, multinational corporations and developed world shareholders.

The continent has some of the best renewable energy potential on earth, but is lagging far behind swathes of the globe in capitalising on this to provide widespread energy access, a goal that all the oil and gas politicians claim is their priority. What they are in fact doing is deliberately delaying or preventing the rollout of cheaper renewable energy at a scale that could quickly and dramatically increase energy access and power economic growth across the continent.

The joke is on us, but it is not being perpetrated by Western governments. It’s our own leaders, and their cronies in the oil and gas industry, who are intent on keeping Africa in the dark.

By Tracey Davies

This article was first published in the Financial Mail on 13 October 2022.

IMAGE: 123RF / wllad

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