Forty years ago, in 1983, the film Local Hero was released. The director, Bill Forsyth, won a BAFTA, its red telephone box became an icon of Scottish cinema, and its theme, by Mark Knopfler, still echoes, especially when Newcastle United run out on match day. I visited some of the locations used this September in Scotland.
The film tells the story of an oil executive sent from Texas by the billionaire owner of the company to buy a seaside village in the Scottish Highlands and turn it and its beach into an oil refinery.
The executive finding happiness in the local community (happiness that the Porsche and penthouse back in Houston that his oil salary pays for don’t buy him), and the company owner finding answers to his questions about the emptiness of his life (where all the therapy has failed) in the beauty of nature and the skies, have connotations forty years on.
The same Newcastle United fans who cheer the Local Hero theme at home games have also been asking themselves questions about oil money. Does it matter to them that their return to the Champions League this season comes off the back of Saudi oil money? To the members of NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing, it clearly does.
Jordan Henderson was a local hero at my club, Liverpool, for years. Not just as the captain who led the team to Premier League and Champions League wins, but for the moral and political leadership he showed during the pandemic and as an ally of the LGBTQ+ community. His decision to join Saudi club Al-Ettifaq this summer (for a reported £700,000 a week) generated a significant backlash. One of the less-asked questions in this is how much money does he (or anyone) actually need?
Money matters, and in a cost-of-living crisis, most people would find it difficult to turn down opportunities to earn more. But there are plenty of well paid people for whom the question, ‘How much is enough?’ is a fair one. Henderson (and I’m sorry to use someone I’ve had a huge amount of admiration for as the example) was believed to be earning £190,000 a week on his Liverpool contract. At these sorts of levels, the answer to the question ‘How much is enough?’ is all too often ‘More than that other guy’ (and it normally is a him).
Even if the £700,000 a week figure has been exaggerated, it’s still a staggering amount of money. But is it worth it? Is it worth the criticism he’s come under from all sides—damaging a reputation as a decent, principled leader? Is it worth what he feels about himself? Maybe. But these are questions he may wrestle with for the rest of his very rich life.
Oil money is difficult. We all use fossil fuels—knowingly or not—in our daily lives. Yet the IPPC, the world’s most authoritative scientific body on climate change, stated in its 2023 report that we must rapidly shift away from burning fossil fuels if we’re to limit global warming to 1·5°. That means global use of coal falling by 95 per cent by 2050, oil by 60 per cent and gas by 45 per cent.
Oil money doesn’t just fund handsome salaries for footballers, of course. The oil companies need to demonstrate that they understand these climate change imperatives and that they’re helping, not hindering, the move to decarbonize. Which means hiring people who understand sustainability—what needs to be done and how to talk about it.
And while the oil companies are making moves in renewable energy, their ongoing commitment to fossil fuels is creating dilemmas for those sustainability people. Just like the executive in Local Hero.
Earlier this summer, the UK advertising watchdog (the ASA) banned a series of ads from Shell promoting its green credentials, warning the company not to oversell its environmental initiatives as long as it remained a major polluter. For while the company did indeed spend $4·3 billion on low carbon projects in 2022, the vast majority of its $25 billion capital expenditure was spent on extracting oil and gas.
One of the messages of Local Hero is that looking after the environment and putting society first (the sort of things we’d call sustainability today) aren’t just a tax imposed by the fun police; they provide rewards in terms of community, fulfilment, inner peace and even happiness. That’s also the message in George Marshall’s brilliant book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. That if we are to drive the mass changes in behaviour we need to avoid climate and social disaster, we have to focus on these individual (and often immediate) benefits.
In the film, the oil company owner and executive reveal themselves to be good people. And the truth is that companies and employees aren’t, by and large, bad. They just sometimes get pulled into actions and decisions (or non-decisions) that they wouldn’t necessarily choose if they felt they had a choice. Companies make choices because of the fear of the markets—the ‘invisible banks’ of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath with their monster-like hunger for money at all costs, regardless of human feelings. ‘It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it.’
And just like the leaders of companies can feel like they have no choice but to feed the monster, so employees can feel they have no agency to change things either. But companies aren’t invisible monsters. They’re just groups of individuals, coming together in common purpose. Individual executives—like the oil executive in Local Hero—can find agency. The talented sustainability people being hired by oil companies—who want to do the right thing, who decided they could do more good if they were on the inside, who believe that these hugely successful companies who fuelled the world’s energy requirements with fossil fuels have the capability to do the same with renewables—do have agency. They retain their power to make choices.
The companies and the people in them know the science; they know what the IPCC is saying about the urgent need to make serious cuts in fossil fuel use. These are expert companies and expert people. We need the individuals in those companies to be braver in what they demand of their leaders—and the leaders to be braver in what they demand of the financial markets. As the oil men in Local Hero found, the bigger the salary, the bigger the opportunity to feel good about doing the right thing.
If we are to avoid climate disaster—and the social chaos that will precede it—we need more local heroes in the energy companies. Who knows, it may make them happy.
Header photo by Tetyana Kovyrina