The People vs. Shell

Monday, 08 June 2015 00:00

By Emily Johnston, Truthout | Op-Ed

http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/31261-the-people-vs-shell

This week, if all goes well, I will probably commit a crime.

I don’t say this lightly, not at all: My mother is 88 years old, and though I expect her to live a good while longer, every day is a gift at 88, and I would always regret time I couldn’t spend with her if I were to go to prison. I also have a dog I’m deeply attached to, not to mention a whole life: not just loved ones (who could visit), but runs and walks and open windows; trees and birds; darkness and quiet and solitude; good coffee and homemade bread; dinners and poetry readings and the pleasure of building things with my hands.

I may not go to prison, of course – I fervently hope I won’t – but I know, too, that I may. I’m willing to take the chance, because the alternative is to let disaster unfold – for countless people, for other animals and for whole ecosystems. Given the scope of the threat, and given that we live in the country that is most responsible for it, sitting on the sidelines does not feel to me like a moral possibility.

Apart from walking my very mannerly and older dog off-leash around the neighborhood, I’m about as law-abiding as a person can reasonably be. But my respect for the laws of physics, in truth, has turned into a terror; I know that we have to heed them now to avoid disaster. If you’ve been following the science, you know what I mean; we are right at the edge of several tipping points, any one of which may bring harrowing, unmitigated disaster. Together they are unthinkable. If we keep on precisely as we are for even a few more years, we will likely have lost the chance to avoid a terrible future.

For years, I have used earnest, legal methods. They were inadequate to the task. Far better people than I am have used them for decades, to better, but still inadequate, effect.

Scientists told us in January that we can’t drill any Arctic oil if we want even a 50 percent chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Shell just kept coming.

Governments have failed us; the fossil fuel industry’s money and influence had too much weight. Scientists have done their best, but they are exceedingly cautious in their predictions, and only in the last few years have most of them accepted the hair-on-fire urgency of climate change. If ordinary people don’t force attention to this matter by making it very clear we’re willing to risk our own lives and liberty, we will all have failed the most important test humanity has ever been given.

So we have to change the world – now – or lose it.

What terrible act will I commit? I will continue to help plan, and, with any luck, execute a blockade of Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs as they attempt to leave Seattle. Along with many other people – some of them risking their careers, some of them in their 80s, most of them utterly new to something like this – I will paddle my small self in a 40-lb. plastic kayak in front of a 46,000-ton industrial monster to stop its progress. I don’t really believe we’ll be able to keep the rigs here forever, of course, but neither is it merely symbolic: By making a difference in the length of Shell’s (already brief) drilling season, we may buy a little time for the powers that be to shut this catastrophic project down; they have many reasons to do so. Alternatively, by making it clear that the company is exceedingly unwelcome in Seattle, we can deprive it of its desired, and bargain-priced, berthing option – which could make a material difference to its decision to proceed. Money is a language Shell understands; the only one, it seems.

Why pick on this one project, when we’re all still dependent on fossil fuels? In truth, we’ll have to pick on a lot of bad projects, but this one may be the worst. To say we can’t object to it if we ever drive or heat our homes is like saying we can’t object to someone going 120 mph on a 30 mph street if we’ve ever gone 45. The second is a genuine concern; the first is notably likelier to lead to tragedy, and soon. My family lives on that street; so does yours.

Scientists told us in January that we can’t drill any Arctic oil if we want even a 50 percent chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Shell just kept coming.

The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management told us in February that drilling in the Arctic has a 75 percent chance of a major spill within the first 15 years (and “hundreds” of smaller spills). Again, Shell just kept coming – despite the fact that a former US Coast Guard Commandant has indicated that, in the case of a big spill, “we’d have nothing” for cleanup capacity in the pristine but harsh Arctic environment and despite the fact that the Chukchi Sea has been called the “nursery of the planet” for whales, seabirds and polar bears.

Shell has also ignored permit requirements from the city of Seattle; mooring requirements in our state Constitution; problems in April with pollution-control equipment (that the company then tried to hide); and a spill record for one of its rigs that’s 2 to 3 times higher than the industry “norm.” It just kept coming.

It’s no secret why the company is so intransigent: Shell has invested several billion dollars in its Arctic campaign, engaging in a climate strategy called “narcissistic, paranoid, and psychopathic” by the UK’s former top climate envoy. This is a classic sunk-cost fallacy, but eventually, even Shell will understand that it’s throwing good money after bad; every other player has given up the US Arctic as too risky and too expensive.

It’s also no secret that this is standard operating procedure for Shell. Perhaps the best example of Shell’s idea of stewardship is its behavior in the Niger Delta, a haven of biodiversity and treasured wetlands that has been utterly devastated by Shell’s drilling operations. In 1995, the company supported the Nigerian military government in its sham trial and execution of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others, and after extracting many tens of billions of dollars in profit from the region over 50 years, Shell has left its waters so polluted with carcinogens that some drinking wells exceed World Health Organization standards for benzene by 900 times. In the three years since the UN Environment Program report on necessary cleanup, Shell has undertaken “almost no meaningful action” on its recommendations.

The future begins when people cease to accept the “inevitability” of a terrible reality, and rise up against it.

Shell wants us to believe that it has learned from the fiascos of its 2012 Arctic foray; these recent examples make it clear that it has not. It’s shown nothing but contempt for the human lives and ecologies of the places where it drills; nothing but contempt for local laws; and nothing but contempt for the overwhelming catastrophe of climate change, which its own scientists have indicated will inevitably result from any scenario in which Arctic drilling is economically rational (for the company only, needless to say: Your costs and mine will not be covered).

Being inside the “safety zone” of the rig is a crime – even if we’re paddling outside of the zone, and the rig starts coming at us. (No “safety zone” has been established around the Maldives, the Philippines, or the rest of us. No crime has yet been codified for destroying the livability of the planet.)

Let me be clear: I am not an especially brave person, and I’m deeply attached to my loved ones and my daily life. I have lost sleep over this. But climate change scares me far more than prison does. It scares most people that much, I think, but they don’t let themselves think about it.

If we value our lives – if we value any lives, it’s time to think about it.

I may be foolish to announce my intentions here – risking my ability to do what I intend to do, perhaps, and certainly abandoning all chance of pretending I didn’t know it was against the law – but it feels important to be completely clear and open about this: I am willing to risk criminal charges in order to help stop a monstrous project that threatens everything we hold dear. I do not believe that because we live in the modern world (and are thus in some measure culpable), we are forced to accept the devastation of everything, without question, outrage or action. I do not accept the lies of industry or the blandishments of politicians.

I do believe that there is another way and that we can find the imagination, the intelligence and the courage to follow it.

This week or next, that belief will be the star that guides me on the water: My friends and I will put aside our normal lives for a while, and use our bodies and our kayaks to express our commitment to this beautiful world: The buck stops here. The future begins when people cease to accept the “inevitability” of a terrible reality, and rise up against it.

Is 40 lbs. vs. 46,000 tons doomed to fail? Not even close. It’s not about plastic or steel. Sitting there staring up at the monstrous rig – maybe through the night, maybe cold, and stiff and hungry – all of us will sit with the knowledge that we’re one group among countless others taking shape around the world, filled with this passion and resolve.

Love doesn’t make us invincible, of course. But I wouldn’t bet against us, if I were Shell.

About Martinez Environmental Group

We are a community health and environmental group located in Martinez, CA.
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