Ex-BP boss John Browne: ‘It’s going to take a long time to take oil and coal out of the energy system’

(The Guardian, 8 Jun 2019) The energy executive talks about squaring his business dealings with his personal convictions – and what he would say to Greta Thunberg.

Before standing down in 2007, John Browne was CEO of BP for 12 years. In 2015, he returned to the global oil business as executive chairman of L1 Energy. Since leaving BP, he has written five books; in the latest, he argues that engineers will save humanity from the threats such as disease, artificial intelligence and global warming.

You say that civilisation is founded on engineering innovation and technology. Do you equate human progress with machines?
Absolutely not. It is the combination of the machines, the engineering and humans that makes progress. Without engineering, there will not be progress, but machines without humans will go nowhere.

Do you understand the widespread public fear of unfettered technologies?
Yes. Some engineering advances are not good for humans until they are confined in the right way.Some have really bad, unintended consequences. There are plenty I fear. The uncontrolled use of fissile material to make bombs is terrifying, so too [the release of] pathogens. There are problems with poisonous gases used by dictators, materials getting into the hands of rogue states.

Modern technology has given immense wealth and power to the very few and has allowed global surveillance and the erosion of privacy. Is that acceptable?
These are worrying. But they lead back to the control of the technology and the question of the expression of values. So, surveillance and face recognition are something heavily controlled in the west. In China, they are not. Stanford University has developed a technology that can recognise, to a probability of 80%, gay people from straight. This is not a good thing to have. I say that as a gay man. I find it objectionable, too, that in China facial recognition technology is used to identify certain ethnic peoples and keep them under control. That is wrong.

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The Guardian, 8 Jun 2019: Ex-BP boss John Browne: ‘It’s going to take a long time to take oil and coal out of the energy system’