A business model for bankrupting the oil companies

Incentives matter (and that matters).

Cory Doctorow
11 min readJun 6


A mirrored office tower bearing the Exxon logo. One face of the office tower is a graffiti-covered ATM. Before the tower is a giant pile of bricks of oversized US $100 bills in paper wrappers. The ATM screen depicts a smouldering Deep Water Horizon oil platform. Image: Flying Logos (modified) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Over_$1,000,000_dollars_in_USD_$100_bill_stacks.png CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en — Joe Shlabotnik (modified) https://www.fli

Today (June 6), I’m on a Rightscon panel about interoperability.

Tomorrow (June 7), I’m keynoting the Re:publica conference in Berlin.

Thursday (June 8) at 8PM, I’m at Otherland Books in Berlin with my novel Red Team Blues.

When a giant company wrecks your life, what are you gonna do? They can afford more and better lawyers than you can, and they have people whose full time job is fighting off lawsuits — are you really gonna beat those people by pursuing your grievance as a side-hustle? Do you really wanna be a full-time, professional litigant?

For some people, the answer is yes: some people are angry enough, or sufficiently morally offended, to make suing a giant company their life’s mission. Sometimes, they succeed, and force companies to cough up gigantic sums of money. Obviously, this makes the plaintiff better off, but it can also make things better for the rest of us. Money talks and bullshit walks, and once it becomes clear that 300% of the profits from harming people will be sucked out of the company by a lawsuit, shareholders will revolt and force the company to clean up its act.

Shareholders don’t invest in companies that ruin our lives because they are committed to an ideology of cruelty. Ideology only gets you so far: the pursuit of profit incentivizes far worse conduct than mere sadism ever can:


Incentives matter. Companies above a certain size become too big to fail and too big to jail. They capture their regulators and ensure that any damages the government extracts are less than their profits — a fine is a price.

Juries, on the other hand, can and do really whack a company for its bad conduct. They understand that incentives matter. They understand that a company that saves $1,000,001 by cutting back on workplace safety can’t be driven to improve its behavior by a fine of $1,000,000 after it kills a bunch of workers. If profit outstrips penalties, penalties aren’t effective.

A dirty $1m profit needs to be met with a $100m judgment. As the Untouchables MBA teaches us, this is…



Cory Doctorow

Writer, blogger, activist. Blog: https://pluralistic.net; Mailing list: https://pluralistic.net/plura-list; Mastodon: @pluralistic@mamot.fr