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Dionysius: The Power of Synthesis

The people who lived in what we now know as late antiquity did not know they were living in late antiquity. They were living in their present, not in our antiquity, but it cannot be an accident that it is in this era that most of the myths and stories of dying and rising of Gods appear. Dionysius is interesting because he has two mothers, Persephone, and then Semele but only one father: Zeus. There must have been a sense that something was ending because of the emphasis on how the old could be reborn as the new, but it would still incorporate elements of the old – the father. It would be a synthesis.

The days of my industry, the oil and gas industry, as it has been since the 1920s are numbered, so we must think about the future. Philip Morris no longer makes cigarettes, but they still make things that people are addicted to. Oil and Gas are not cigarettes, but their image is as the moment very much like the image of Big Tobacco. We will always need energy, but we need to shift to new kinds of energy. It is not a zero-sum game, and it will not be the activists that save the planet. It is a win-win game, and it is the market that will save the world. How? The way it has for the last 500 years – by changing identity but keeping the same father and the same God: profit.

In the structure of scientific revolutions, Thomas Kuhn introduced the idea of the paradigm shift in science. When this occurs, everything you previously thought to be true is turned on its head. The earth that you thought to be flat is, in fact, a globeThe earth goes round the sun; the sun does not go around the earth, and so on. This thinking is deeply embedded. But it does not transfer very well from one field to another, from the natural sciences to the social sciences. 

To believe that in human experience, it is possible to change everything entirely, to deliver a paradigm shift, is the category error a lot of environmental activists in the extinction rebellion are making. It is not either renewable or non-renewable, the car or the bike, the planet or consumption, chateaubriand, or lentils. The world needs to change, and we tend to think of change happening by revolution – the French, the Russian, and so on as we think of paradigm shifts in science, so we like to think of revolutions in human society. But actually, the creation of capitalism from mercantilism was not a revolution, even though it is often called an industrial revolution. It was a process of gradual change and compromise between old and new technology, between old social and economic systems like guilds and new methods of trade and manufacture. It did not happen everywhere at the same pace, much faster in the UK and northern Europe than in the south. But it was from these competing forces and clashes between emerging and older technologies and systems that the world changed. Perhaps rather than the paradigm shift, it is the dialectic that describes this moment in history. 

The idea comes from the German philosopher Hegel: there is a thesis – the world must become based only on green energy. There is the antithesis – the world must only use fossil fuels. Then there is the synthesis – we must manage the decline of fossil fuels by the rapid introduction of green technologies as the supplies of the older fuels run out. 

The key to the future is to harness the expertise, the science and the spirit of the oil and gas industry in partnership with green technologies – we are all in the business of creating energy first and foremost. The market will then make broader decisions, supported by government regulation in parts but mostly driven by consumer choice and the pursuit of profit. It is a mistake, therefore, for the oil and gas industry to dig in against renewables as some advocates for fossil fuels are doing. For example, traditional energy companies are making a huge mistake if they embrace renewable technology and energy sources. They should not concede to climate science but maintain the argument, the thesis, for the benefit of fossil fuel. This position is as wrong-headed as the antithesis form the extinction movement that unless we immediately abandon the entire apparatus of western civilization and consumption and transportation and capitalism tomorrow, they will again occupy a bridge or take a day off school. We should admire the drive and the logic of both these positions, but neither is going to happen. Mr. Epstein does not want to live with pollution, climate disasters, and congested cities. The many privately educated members of the extinction rebellion do not want to live without the necessities of everyday life in a western society, which for most people on the planet remain luxuries – fresh hot running water, mass transit systems, 24/7 electricity supplies. The human condition and the future of energy are in the Dionysiusian synthesis.

Francesco Mazzagatti is the CEO of Napag Trading

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