I grew up in North Carolina. Tobacco was everywhere (it was the 1960s and everybody smoked) and a mainstay of the state’s economy and prosperity. Farmers grew tobacco in fields not far from where I lived, and the tobacco plant and its cultivation were supported by the state’s extension services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Tobacco was integral to the culture, along with the companies that grew and produced it, made it into products, and then sold it to consumers — significant industries that were well regarded as recognized consumer brands. The cigarette brands Winston and Salem were named for towns in the state, a firm identification with a place. Likewise, those who had great success in the tobacco industry created many of the state’s more august institutions, not least Duke University, named for Washington Duke, through donations by his son, tobacco giant James Buchanan Duke. Of course, tobacco’s influence extended beyond North Carolina. As a child I listened to broadcasts from the Met in New York, sponsored each week by Philip Morris.
When the reckoning for tobacco came due to its impacts on the nation’s health and, importantly, the industry’s denial of the actual effects their products had on people’s lives, the retribution was swift, public, and, in a business sense, devastating. Tobacco companies were forced to make huge restitutionary payments, which were used to fund health programs and care for those affected. I don’t think anyone will willingly name a university for a tobacco magnate now. Yet somehow those companies live on, and they still manage to sell their products — particularly abroad, where governments seem be less concerned about the health ramifications or are just too addicted to the tax revenues. Most Americans know that consuming tobacco products is unhealthy and to use them now is clearly an informed choice, something akin to Russian roulette, knowing full well that your health is in danger.
More recently, the opioid crisis has put focus on some important pharmaceutical companies and their willingness to profit through the addiction their products created and the human destruction that resulted from their widespread use. Many of these companies, most notably Purdue Pharma and their owners, the Sackler family, assuaged their guilt by becoming staunch supporters of the arts and related institutions. Thanks to the Sackler family, many museums throughout the world had galleries — even entire buildings — named for various Sackler family members, their largesse an important part of the art world’s finance and philanthropy. To be clear, not all of them were engaged in the development and sale of opioids, but if they owned company shares, they were all able to profit from them.
Recently I watched “Dopesick,” the Hulu series that was a dramatic re-creation of the Sackler family’s leadership of the opioid industry, revealing the blockbuster fortune that was made from their products. Despite knowing the damage the products were causing and the climbing human toll, the company continued to manufacture and sell them, to the detriment of a great number of American individuals and the communities in which they lived. Once the magnitude of the crisis became known and, more importantly, once the Sacklers’ culpability became clear, the museum world began to consider them tainted donors, and a number of arts institutions made the decision to no longer accept donations from the Sacklers (although they wanted to keep what the family had donated so far). Other recipients of funds will take down the Sackler name, and still others will go so far as to “erase its public association,” as did the Louvre Museum in Paris.
So it has been hot this summer here in Texas, and once again California and much of the West is on fire. Droughts continue across extensive areas of the country, and water levels of the nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, are lower than they have been since its initial creation. Three states and parts of Mexico are dependent on the water stored there. In some ways this would suggest life might be untenable in these regions if this course of rainfall scarcity continues. If human-influenced climate change ever gets the sort of acceptance we need and hope it will, there may come a reckoning similar to what hit the tobacco and pharma industries for those who lead the companies we associate with impacting the climate. In Texas, where the petroleum industry has been an indivisible part of the state and how it has grown, that reckoning may be more painful and potentially more devasting than in any other place in the country.
Is it possible we might get to a place where we see donations from oil and gas companies and their founders and executives as tainted? Do we take down their names from buildings, remove them from institutions, erase any good they did in the name of the damage they are perceived to have wrought? Do we cease to see the oil and gas industry’s impact on the growth and development of our state as good? Is all its history evil? These seem like valid questions that may have even bigger ramifications than opioids or tobacco due to the existential global threat hydrocarbon use may have fostered.
As an individual, I know that I willingly abet petroleum’s ability to wreak havoc on our environment. I understand (and to some extent prefer to ignore) my relatively large footprint on the globe and its resources. I am fully aware that my lifestyle is not by any means minimal. My wife and I have four children, all of whom drive cars, went to college out of state, and commuted back and forth to home on weekends and for holidays. I live in a single-family house, drive a Suburban (most of the time by myself) to commute to my office each day. I travel by planes to meetings and vacations. I can hardly ridicule or even critique anyone for their lives or choices when I live the way I do.
As an architect, I am increasingly curious about my role in climate change and haunted by the choices and decisions I make about the projects my firm designs. We do highly bespoke work for people and businesses that are firmly lodged in what is branded as the one percent. We do large single-family homes, upscale retail stores, and bespoke offices and commercial buildings. All are over-large, filled with expensive materials and systems, and rarely sustainable by any certifiable measure. We are not cavalier about this — our projects strive to be energy conscious, are well insulated and airtight, and operate efficiently on well-designed systems. We have had LEED-certified projects, and when the clients are not interested in such certification, we use those guidelines to make sure the buildings are as responsible as possible. But at the same time, we use stone, marble, and tile from Europe, all shipped into the United States and then transported to our sites. We use lighting systems designed and manufactured in Europe and China — again, all imported via ocean-borne shipping and the miracle of containerized freight. This reliance on the global supply chain extends to things like wood products, specialty metals, technology, and even the newer heating and cooling technologies. I am a person making glass houses (literally) who has no right to throw stones.
But I am also a citizen of this rapidly warming world, and I do have two grandchildren, and chances are they will still be alive at the end of this century. They will know firsthand if all the dire predictions for warming that are pegged at 2050 or “the end of the century” come true. They will be living with those constraints on lives and communities and, perhaps, the economy, and I wonder if their world will provide them with the same promise and opportunities that mine did. Will the modest (but oh so wonderful) life I have lived and provided for my family be available to theirs? I don’t know — and I can’t — but I do know the coming century is going to suck for a lot of people, not just in developing countries but in the United States too. Consider how it is right now for our fellow citizens in the paths of wildfires and those dealing with flooding and the breakdown of infrastructure that warming has caused. Consider those in agriculture trying to raise livestock and crops in an endless drought, counting on water resources that seem to be failing, like aquifers and reservoirs that aren’t filling back up. My sense is that the real change is upon us, and it is the catastrophe we are all hearing about — it’s just not fully real yet for us.
So, who will we blame when it all becomes intolerable and the world is a struggle to inhabit? (And by “we,” I mean all of us collectively because as a group we try to find culprits for our problems even if we willingly participate in their making.) My guess is we will go after those who most clearly profited from the hydrocarbons we used to fuel our wealth, mobility, and lifestyles. Coal, oil, and gas companies — as well as those who built and ran them — will be easy and visible targets for our anger, scorn, and, perhaps, retribution. Based on how we have gone after tobacco and pharma, we will want them to pay for the problems and make restitution for it all. In turn they will fall back on the fact that what they were doing was legal and that science couldn’t really prove that humans and their dependence on fossil fuels were causing these changes. We know that some oil companies funded research into climate change and carbon emissions and found the effects were negative — then quickly shut those programs down. Perhaps those studies will be used against them in future plaintiffs’ lawsuits. My guess is that we will collectively forget those times when we enjoyed the benefits of petroleum products and the fun we had doing things like cruising in our cars, sleeping under down comforters while running the AC at crazy-low temperatures, and specifying Italian marble and Scottish slate.
In our disappointment and anger, will we blame them for the problems of our world? Our diminished possibilities? Our ill health? If we do, will we be inclined to forget about the jobs those companies created, the collective wealth we all realized, their largesse and philanthropy, the institutions they endowed, and the amenities they provided? Like the pharma and tobacco companies before them, what we once saw as indispensable we will see as actually killing us, and perhaps industry leaders’ names will be removed from the things they gave and provided to society, in large part, because the negative balances against that good will be so crushingly large.
Michael Malone, FAIA, is the founding principal of Malone Maxwell Dennehy Architects and an adjunct assistant professor of architecture at The University of Texas at Arlington.