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‘Fake It ‘Til You Make It’ Won’t Cut It on Climate
Oil and gas companies can either cut emissions or cut corners. They haven’t been making the right choice so far.
It only dawned on me a few days ago that one of the more annoying catch-lines I’ve ever heard could be at the root of the problem with getting carbon emissions, particularly fossil industry emissions, under control.
I can’t remember when I first tripped over the phrase “fake it ‘til you make it”. I just know that I’ve never liked it. It expresses a casual, almost proud disregard for the truth that should bother anyone who thinks facts and evidence matter. And it speaks to a disinterest in sweating the details that has to be a no-go zone for anyone who wants to get real about climate solutions.
But I’d missed the memo on how the phrase became a philosophy, or how widely it has spread. Thanks to a late February column in the Washington Post, I now know that it largely traces back to a 1970s-era pyramid scheme huckster who managed to turn “fake it ‘til you make it” into a recipe for rip-offs.
You’ll want to reach your own conclusion on whether that makes it something avoidable or irresistible for today’s fossil fuel executives.
Just Another 1970s Con Man
Post columnist Helaine Olen attributes “fake it ‘til you make it” to two streams of thought, one innocent and helpful, the other incredibly damaging.
Psychiatrist Alfred Adler tried it out in the early 20th century, encouraging his clients to adopt an “act as if” strategy to change their habits and learn new behaviours that might eventually become real.
But Glenn W. Turner, a 1970s con man who eventually drew the attention of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, took it to a whole other level.
“When newly minted salespeople found it impossible to make a go of it, they were told to ‘fake it until you make it’ by wearing expensive clothes and waving around $100 bills to lure in others,” Olen writes. Decades later, the phrase “has come to represent the scrappy, optimistic mindset of American hustle culture,” pulling would-be winners into an industry “where studies show few earn a profit and deception is rife.”
“It’s inherently manipulative, deceptive, fraudulent, inauthentic,” author Robert L. FitzPatrick told Olen. Yet “it’s just entered the culture, and it’s completely normalized.”
In the fight to change out our energy systems and get the climate crisis under control, “fake it ‘til you make it” is normalized in a culture where one of the world’s biggest fossil companies, ExxonMobil, can learn the science of global heating in the 1970s, then spend decades pushing climate denial rather than pitching in on a solution.
Where the gas industry can spend millions hawking its product as “natural” while frying the atmosphere with methane, a climate pollutant about 85 times more potent than CO2.
Where banks and pension funds repeatedly pour investment dollars and their beneficiaries’ retirement savings into schemes that speed up fossil fuel development, then piously insist they’re trying to “engage” with fossils to encourage better behaviour.
Where Texas developer Kinder Morgan, a company born out of the scandal that destroyed another pyramid scheme, Enron Corporation, sells investors on a pipeline built on the false hope of a decades-long rise in demand for Alberta oil. When construction costs start to skyrocket, the company hands federal politicians an ultimatum—either they nationalize the pipeline, or the project folds. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could have said as much in the speech he never gave.)
But instead, Ottawa buys the line, and the cost of the Trans Mountain pipeline has now hit $30.9 billion, a nearly six-fold increase that makes it “the most expensive industrial project in Canadian history,” as Dogwood B.C. pointed out in an e-blast earlier today.
Each of these is a story of industry players trying to fake it ‘til they make it. But do any of us really feel we’re making it yet on climate change and the transition off carbon?
No Time for Speculative Fiction
Let’s get a couple of the biggest fakes out of the way right now. No one is seriously claiming we can shut down all fossil fuel production tomorrow. And calling the industry on its dangerous deceits is not about trashing or blaming the communities and work forces that have dedicated themselves in good faith to building the prosperity many of us have enjoyed due to the fossil fuel era.
It's about helping them survive and thrive as that era draws to a close.
About really making it, rather than faking it to score cheap political points.
It’s easy enough to imagine a grown-up, responsible fossil industry that genuinely accepted the science, embraced the twin realities of the climate emergency and the energy transition, and committed to an honest, constructive role in building a low-carbon future.
It’s a happy fantasy, and I like speculative fiction as well as the next person. My family will tell you I can get pretty nerdy when I’m given half a chance. But out here in the real world, we need evidence, because the Starship Enterprise isn’t showing up to save us.
This is the industry that blithely refuses to do its part to help Canada meet its 2030 emissions targets, putting all its formidable lobbying clout behind carbon capture technology that has been in development for 50 years and still isn’t nearly ready for prime time. Declaring that it’s working hard to reduce its emissions per barrel of oil, but pushing to increase production enough that actual emissions keep on rising.
And yet, “faking it ‘til you make it” dictates that these and many other flights of fancy are taken seriously. They consume most of the available bandwidth for public dialogue—while practical, affordable solutions like energy efficiency, heat pumps, renewables, and energy storage have to scramble for attention and dollars.
Poisoning Our Democracy
But wait, as the pyramid scheme huckster would say—there’s more. These days, “fake it ‘til you make it” is also about poisoning our politics and undermining our democracy.
When fossil lobbyists formed the biggest delegation at the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021, then sent an even bigger group to COP 27 in Sharm el-Sheikh last year, you know they weren’t there to accumulate travel points or see the sights.
When Canadian fossil executives call for more “clarity” on the policy environment for emission reductions, you can be sure they’re looking for faster subsidies and slower targets, not a copy edit.
And when you see an Ottawa convoy occupation leader showing up in an “I Love Oil and Gas” sweater, carrying a manifesto demanding the dissolution of a duly-elected government, it’s hardly a surprise to see news outlets connecting the dots from fossil industry funding to the occupation, and to the pro-pipeline United We Roll protests a few years earlier.
Then there was the embarrassing moment a couple of weeks ago when denizens of the Calgary Petroleum Club had to apologize after their facility hosted a talk by a neo-Nazi politician from Germany, alongside the three members of the federal Conservatives’ “unofficial conspiracy caucus”, as described by the Globe and Mail. It showed how the non-stop “fake it ‘til you make it” of groundless online conspiracy theories becomes a political strategy, at risk of mutating into official policy.
We can safeguard our democracy, advance climate action, and take back the civil dialogue our society needs by pushing back on the assumption that facts don’t matter, that spin can substitute for substance. And by remembering that, if a huckster pitches us on an idea that sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
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Mitchell Beer traces his background in renewable energy and energy efficiency back to 1977, in climate change to 1997. Now he scans 1,200 news headlines a week to pull together The Energy Mix and The Energy Mix Weekender.
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