by Paul Edmunds
In one of 60s activist Abbie Hofmann’s most spectacular pieces of street theatre during the Vietnam War, participants attempted to levitate the Pentagon. In order to do this, Hoffmann and his merry band required a permit from the General Services Administration. They proposed to lift the building 90 metres. When this was refused, they revised their application, reducing the proposed height, doing this repeatedly until a permit was granted for a modest three metre levitation. Hoffmann, with charisma and canny skills, had drawn his opponents into a quarrel about one thing when they thought they were arguing another.
All the noise from civil society and the public about Shell’s proposed seismic exploration of the ocean floor off SA’s Wild Coast reveals that we too have been drawn into the wrong debate. Firstly, we have been fooled into identifying Shell as the villain, notwithstanding that any other energy giant would gladly take their place. French company Total has been conducting such surveys nearby for some time, after all.
More importantly, though, in objecting to this particular company prospecting in this particular way in this place, we tacitly accept that a case can be made for extracting and burning more fossil fuels on a planet perched on the precipice of catastrophic climate events.
In 2015, the UK’s Carbon Tracker Initiative estimated that fossil fuel companies currently held in their reserves 2795 gigatons of carbon. That same year 350.org founder Bill McKibben’s groundbreaking piece published in Rolling Stone suggested that in order to limit global heating to 2 degrees C (more recent estimates suggest that 1.5 degrees C is a safer target), we can only afford to burn 565 gigatons of carbon before 2050. Even then, fossil fuel giants held nearly five times that amount in their reserves! And yet we find ourselves debating who can prospect where, and how they should do this. Not only have we drunk the Kool Aid, but we’ve gone back and asked for another glass! In quibbling about the trees, we’ve lost sight of the wood.
To be clear, Shell is not without sin. In 2009, they paid $15.5m to settle a claim in an NY Federal court by relatives of the ‘Ogoni Nine’ who were executed in Nigeria, apparently for their opposition to Shell’s operations there. The company faced another claim about the same issue in a Dutch court in 2017. And, earlier this year, the UK Supreme Court ruled that communities from the Niger Delta could sue Shell for environmental damage caused there in Engish Courts. Also, earlier this year environmental groups in The Netherlands secured a ruling against the company, in which Shell has been ordered to reduce its carbon emissions by 45% by 2030.
PS: To be fair to Abbie, he protested against coal-fired electricity generation way back in 1967, and would be on our side here! And I do believe we should quibble about the trees, and that Shell’s proposed actions should be opposed on all counts.