Doomed by Indecision?

Doomed by Indecision?

Artist and filmmaker Oliver Ressler’s latest project is the film Carbon and Captivity. For decades, nation-states and politicians have proven unable to decarbonize the economy. Oil corporations have funded climate-change denial for a quarter-century, while their scientists plied them with proof of disaster. Now that most people feel the effects of climate change in their lives, oil corporations have changed their strategies. They push for the use of technologies that would allow them to continue extracting oil while claiming to be sustainable.

An interview by Johannes Grenzfurthner

This conversation took place in April, 2020.

Johannes: Carbon capture and storage, CCS in short,  is presented as a technological fix to prevent catastrophic climate change. A friend of mine, who worked in the chemical industry for years, once told me that he considers it to be “almost as deceptive as recycling plastic bottles.” You can feel good about it, but it doesn’t change anything. Do you agree?

Oliver: The solution to the climate crisis is simple and easy to understand. Leave fossil fuels in the ground. Taking this seriously means massive negative growth for one of the richest and most influential sectors of the capitalist economy. Most of the fossil-fuel assets need to be written off. The oil that’s easiest to pump needs to be used to fuel building the infrastructure for global decarbonization. The rest has to stay in the ground. For the biggest losers of this necessary transition, the fossil-fuel corporations, CCS is a trick to allow them to continue extracting oil. The technology won’t work. But it will delay the transition to renewable energy and bring humanity closer to ecological collapse.

Johannes: Does this model have an economic breaking point, even in the most conservative, free-market sense? How long can the fossil-fuel industry postpone the inevitable?

Oliver: Measures taken against the coronavirus pandemic created a situation that will lead to a systemic change in the coming years in most countries. The question is, what direction will it go? Will transnational corporations lobbying for bailouts transfer another round of public funds into their pockets, driving hundreds of millions of people into poverty and destroying their livelihood? And will representative democracy, already more representative of capital than of people, be replaced by fascist systems to perpetuate crony-capitalist power relationships? Or will those who resist establish a democratic form of governance that also takes ecological boundaries into consideration?

Instead of our returning to “normal,” which is climate crisis and massive inequality, I hope uprisings and social movements all around the world can force governments to build back better. If we lose this struggle, in the case of a fascist scenario, the decarbonization of the global economy could be delayed for several decades. More walls could be built to keep out future climate refugees. Also, forms of ecofascism are imaginable.

Oliver Ressler, Carbon and Captivity, 33 min., 4k, AT/CH/NO 2020; Courtesy of the artist, A Ngels Barcelona, The Gallery apart, Rome
Oliver Ressler, Carbon and Captivity, 33 min., 4k, AT/CH/NO 2020; Courtesy of the artist, A Ngels Barcelona, The Gallery apart, Rome

Johannes: How likely is change through social movements? Isn’t 2019-nCoV another crisis of capitalism? It unfolds contradictions of capitalist production according to their internal relations, but will it mean change? Market forces prey on the weak and the powerless, be they companies or people or ecosystems. Little energy might be left for struggle.

Oliver: Social movements are our only chance. Without pressure from climate-justice movements, European governments would never have declared a climate emergency. That, for example, influenced a court rule that stymied plans to build a third runway for London Heathrow. Without climate-justice movements, the end of coal in Europe would be further away than it is today. It is true that much more is needed to avert climate catastrophe. We are at the beginning of the struggle.

Johannes: Back to oil. Our civilization still runs on it and is made out of it. Plastic, paint, fertilizer. Thirty liters of oil are part of every car tire. Oil supplies the energy to convert itself into those byproducts. Hybrid and electric cars need engines, tires, and batteries. Solar panels and nuclear power plants require oil to build. How do we escape this deadlock?

Oliver: Tackling the climate crisis requires tens of thousands of initiatives to bring down emissions, and these must be implemented in a short time in a democratic framework. I read books about global warming while going to high school, more than 30 years ago. The knowledge about climate breakdown has been accessible for a long time, even for schoolboys. If the transition started in the 1980s, we would have had more time for a smooth transition. But our governments consciously decided not to act. So, carbon emissions increased instead of decreased. Not acting has to be seen as a crime against humanity.

The only option left is a radical, quick change. This change needs to involve all aspects of our lives—how we live, how we produce and consume energy, what we eat, how we work, how we travel to workplaces, which products we produce, and where and how we produce them. Central is the right to repair and to design products that can be recycled. And some products and activities need to be banned. I have never owned a car. I don’t drive. For those living in cities, I see no need for private ownership of cars. And electric cars are not much better than cars powered by petroleum.

I assume the world we need to develop needs to require only 2 to 3 percent of the cars we have on the planet today. All this ecological transition must go hand in hand with a global redistribution of wealth. I’m not naive. I’m not saying this process will be easy. It is the most challenging thing humanity has ever done. But the alternative is a planet that’s uninhabitable for hundreds of millions of people in the global south in a few decades. Problems resulting from doing nothing will be so severe that the problems related to the coronavirus pandemic will be a walk in the park in comparison.

Oliver Ressler, Carbon and Captivity, 33 min., 4k, AT/CH/NO 2020; Courtesy of the artist, A Ngels Barcelona, The Gallery apart, Rome
Oliver Ressler, Carbon and Captivity, 33 min., 4k, AT/CH/NO 2020; Courtesy of the artist, A Ngels Barcelona, The Gallery apart, Rome

Johannes: Food is also a major concern. Every calorie of food consumed in the industrialized world takes ten calories of hydrocarbon energy to produce. How will we be able to feed the world without this enormous energy waste?

Oliver: The direction is clear. We need to move away from industrialized agriculture that requires lots of fossil fuels. We need to produce more locally and eat primarily what grows locally. Of course, much less meat. Consumption of meat on a daily basis has to become something of the past. The large agribusinesses need to be phased out, and local farmers, primarily organic farmers, need to receive the subsidies given to large entities. In the northern hemisphere, many more people will work in food production and agriculture again than is the case today, since food production on small farms without chemical fertilizers is much more labor-intensive.   

Johannes: It seems the average person’s knowledge of science is poor enough that viruses and 5G are like magic to most people? How do we teach change if no one wants to listen or grasps what’s going on?

Oliver: People spend a lot of time at their workplaces, and that doesn’t leave them enough time to think about complex things. The ecological transition has to be a social transition, as well. A lot of things will change, many people will lose jobs, and people will need to be trained for different jobs. Is there a better argument and better time for universal basic income? Once the economic pressure lessens, some people will use the time to inform themselves better. But the main problem today is not people lacking information, but criminal and destructive corporate behavior. Business as usual.    

Johannes: How do you, as an artist, approach such enormous topics? How do you start such a task?

Oliver: I started focusing on these topics 25 years ago as an artist. Often, I consume information, and then an aspect comes across that I find interesting. I intensify my research and develop a new project. Most of my projects go beyond a translation of topics into artistic work. My works relate to activism, ways of organizing, social movements, and utopian thinking. It’s too boring to replicate the depressing reality for the art context. My main drive for production is to assemble ideas of what can be done. We’re not doomed unless we decide not to act.

Johannes: By what criteria do you judge or assess political art?

Oliver: That’s a hard one. Many different criteria. I check out a lot of artwork to learn what is being produced in the fields I’m active in. I find aspects I’m interested in within many artworks. It might be the way the argument is laid out, formal methods, how the piece communicates with the public. But I only rarely come across artwork that brings together all these aspects in one work. Maybe that’s a reason why I became an artist, to try doing it myself. I have an agenda with every piece I work on. There is no one way of doing political art. I might fail. Probably, I fail frequently. I change some parameters on the next project and try again.

Johannes: Are there any movies, books, or other art you recommend in our current situation?

Oliver: Among the really great books I’ve recently read are Nick Estes’s Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (2019) and Dahr Jamail’s The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption (2019). It’s never a waste of time to check out Ursula Biemann’s work. And more than thirty of my films are available for free viewing on Vimeo. It’s a huge body of work on mapping protests and ways of organizing.


Oliver Ressler is an artist, filmmaker, and writer who produces installations, projects in the public space, and films on issues such as economics, democracy, climate change, resistance, and social alternatives. He brings the issues of globalization and the “movement of movements” to the heart of the visual arts. Each work has its own mode of distribution. Films screen in cinemas, postcards travel through the mail, and billboards stand on the street. Oliver had comprehensive solo exhibitions at Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo, Seville; Wyspa Institute of Art, Gdansk; Lentos Kunstmuseum, Linz; National Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest; SALT Galata, Istanbul; and Cultural Centre of Belgrade. He has participated in more than 400 group exhibitions.

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