What kind of activist are you?

Misc on January 20, 2013 | Make a Comment

The Oil Road

Misc on January 10, 2013 | Make a Comment

My review of The Oil Road has been printed in today’s Independent. Here’s the original 600 word version that I submitted:

The Oil Road by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello (Verso Books, £16.99)

In the same way our culture has become largely ignorant of the journey our food takes to get to our table, we are also ignorant of the route fossil fuels take to power our high-consumption, energy-intensive lifestyles. It’s the way both agribusiness and the energy companies like it – the less we know about the far-flung impacts of their enterprises the better.

Marriott and Minio-Paluello are two campaigners with the London-based oil watchdog Platform – an organisation that has bred a kind of activism that, while based in hard research, experiments with creative ways of communicating its findings. In The Oil Road the pair take one continuous trip along the route by which oil from the Caspian Sea arrives at the rate of a million barrels a day at the refineries of Western Europe.

The project is reminiscent of last year’s Extreme Rambling – Walking Israel’s Barrier for Fun by comedian-activist Mark Thomas, but comes after 12 years of visits along the route as part of an ongoing exploration of the impacts of BP’s controversial $25 billion investment in drilling platforms and pipelines. Here too we get to meet vicariously the people shaping and shaped by the route in question and reconstruct a more accurate picture of what is otherwise a hotly politicised, and therefore deliberately obfuscated, reality.

The journey starts at the Caspian oil wells in Baku, Azerbaijan where the familiar rusting landscapes of Soviet era ‘nodding donkey’ oil derricks are being overshadowed by the shiny steel and glass of a corrupt construction boom. The authors meet Sabit Bagirov, who led the state oil company during the negotiations that culminated in the signing of the ‘Contract of the Century’ in 1994, with a consortium of oil companies headed by BP.

Bagirov argues that the oil companies used the backdrop of the Azeri-Armenian conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory (1988-1994) to argue for a greater share because they would be operating in an environment of high-risk. Indeed over the course of the negotiations from 1989 to 1993, the proposed Azeri share dropped from 50% to 20%. Bagirov shows them the unpublished contract that includes a $90 million sweetener payment to the Azeri government, $30 million of which was delivered personally by Baroness Thatcher.

Once on the road we meet refugees from the now “frozen” conflict as well as householders under whose properties the pipeline runs and farmers still awaiting compensation for loss of income during the laying of the pipe. The ubiquitous BP public relations representatives are generally diverting and evasive but occasionally unwittingly frank. “The ultimate goal of community investment is to have good relations with communities – ultimately to secure BP’s assets,” says one about the corporation’s token social projects.

“We closed it down to the media,” says another when asked about the Russian bombing of the pipeline that BP had dismissed as “fanciful”. Our narrators had been able to confirm the reports of the attack by locating the site and standing in the surviving craters which ran up to four metres deep.

It’s a personable and lovingly-crafted narrative, a rich tapestry of first-hand anecdote and historical reconstruction with a political and social excavation of the geography that weaves in the region’s changing fortunes, from the Tsarist through the Soviet to the current pro-western repressive regimes.

Along the way there are important lessons for investors about how oil companies manage and disguise risk; for policy makers about the real meaning of “energy security” in the 21st century; and for activists thinking about where and when to intervene in a complex system.

Tate faces members revolt over BP

Misc on December 14, 2012 | Make a Comment

Kevin Smith of Platform on new developments in the campaign to end fossil fuel sponsorship of the arts. Cross posted from New Internationalist.

Tensions ran high at the Tate Modern on Friday 7 December. At the members’ AGM, the Tate Members Council and Director Nick Serota were met with yet another barrage of criticism over their longstanding sponsorship arrangement with controversial oil giant BP.

For some time campaigners have argued that BP sponsorship is not an act of art-loving philanthropy, but a shrewd business deal contributing significantly to BP’s construction of a ‘social licence to operate’.This helps them to evade public or political pressure even though its operations involve such terrible consequences to communities, ecosystems and the climate. In the last couple of years, this has driven art-activist collective Liberate Tate to use Tate gallery spaces to carry out a series of dramatic, unsolicited performance interventions that contextualize the reality of BP’s operations.

The Tate Members Council isn’t really a decision-making body, but it is there to represent the views of over 100,000 fee-paying members. It is the largest membership body of any cultural institution in Britain, generating more than £5 million ($8 million) annually. This year, some members sent a letter to the council laying out a number of concerns about the sponsorship relationship, and came along to the AGM to flag it up in person.

At the very start of the meeting, the council’s chair, Channel 4 News’ Jon Snow, acknowledged that space would be given to discuss the BP issue, but I don’t think he or Nick Serota or deputy head Alex Beard were expecting the tricky questions to come so thick and fast as they did, and not only from those representing the letter-writers.

Tate’s Ethics Policy states that Tate will not accept funds in circumstances when: ‘The donor has acted, or is believed to have acted, illegally in the acquisition of funds, for example when funds are tainted through being the proceeds of criminal conduct.’

Earlier this month, BP agreed to pay a record $4.5 billion settlement for criminal charges regarding the Deepwater Horizon Disaster, on top of a number of similar court cases in recent years. Serota defended the stance, saying that BP’s operations aren’t ‘fundamentally’ criminal – but it seems like an awful lot of criminality is stacking up as part of the whole picture.

The meeting’s discussion kept returning to the sum of money that Tate is getting from BP. Despite being a public body, and having been the subject of numerous Freedom of Information requests, Tate refuses to disclose the actual sum, saying that it would be ‘harmful to commercial interests’. It seems that this might be a convenient strategy to cover up how little the sum might actually be.

The dominant discourse that Tate likes to maintain is that ‘terrible things will happen if we don’t have the BP money’ – but not disclosing the amount of money prevents any real debate from taking place about what those ‘terrible things’ may be, and whether there might be any alternatives. Under information law, the ‘commercial interest’ defence can be outweighed by the ‘public interest’ argument – so what Tate is effectively doing is prioritizing BP’s commercial interests in the sponsorship arrangement over the public’s interest in discussing how Tate could find alternatives.

At the end of 2011, BP made a sponsorship deal worth £10 million ($16 million) over five years with four different cultural institutions, including Tate. If you divided it equally, and if this is the only money that Tate is getting from BP, you’re talking about just £500,000 a year. That’s a tenth of what Tate raises from its membership scheme, prompting one woman at the AGM to exclaim, ‘is that all?’ In the 2011/12 financial year, Tate’s incoming resources were £113 million ($182 million). So this possible contribution from BP represents less than half of one per cent of Tate’s total income. Could  Tate really not accommodate a budget shortfall of less than half of one per cent?

Here are a couple of ideas for starters – how about holding a referendum among Tate members to see if people would be willing to increase their membership fee by a couple of pounds to accommodate the shortfall? Why not aggregate a bunch of smaller, but more ethical, companies to co-sponsor Tate in a co-operative fashion?

Tate seems to be making excuses for institutional inertia after having received BP money for more than 20 years. With an increasingly climate-conscious public, and the certainty of more disasters like Deepwater waiting to happen, it’s high time it took concrete steps to disentangle itself from Britain’s most controversial corporate sponsor.

Bringing the cuts home

Misc on December 9, 2012 | Make a Comment

Still great. This is Steve Price‘s winning entry to the 2011 TUC 60 second ad competition.

Shakespeare Reclaimed?

Misc on November 19, 2012 | Make a Comment

Thespian activist collecitve Reclaim Shakespeare Company are claiming victory as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s short-lived association with BP comes to an end. In a statement issued to The Independent the RSC said: “We have no further sponsorship [with BP] confirmed ” The activists claim that the RSC’s programme for 2013 has been announced and that none of the productions appears to be sponsored by BP.

Yesterday four playlets were performed inside the Great Court of the British Museum in protest at BP’s sponsorship of the Shakespeare exhibition the space currently houses. Alongside the principal performers, the Reclaim Shakespeare Company estimate another 200 “actor-vists” participated in a chorus of:

Double double, oil is trouble

Tar sands burn while greenwash bubbles

Double double, oil is trouble

Let’s reduce BP to rubble.

On 15 November BP admitted it was guilty of 14 criminal charges in relation to the Deepwater Horizon disaster and accepted fines totaling $4.5 billion – the biggest combined fine in US history. The charges include lying to Congress. The increased police and security presence at yesterday’s event would appear to suggest that BP’s public relations largesse comes increasingly not just with a reputation and credibility cost to the recipient but with a financial one too.

Performer Richard Howlett said:

“As the reality of climate change becomes ever clearer, the case for ending oil sponsorship of the arts is gathering momentum. The RSC seem to have seen sense, and decided to no longer act as a figleaf to hide BP’s destructive activities. The British Museum, Tate, National Portrait Gallery and others must now do the right thing and follow suit.”

Climate action in London continues tomorrow as activists gather to shut down a conference hosted by the Canadian Embassy in partnership with Shell and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office aimed at increasing investment in the Canadian tar sands. Shell is the subject of a legal action brought by the Athatbascan Chipewyan First Nation over the threat posed by the company’s tar sands developments to their traditional ways of life. The UK and Canadian governments have been effectively colluding to delay European legislation which would effectively prohibit importation of tar sands oil into the EU due to it’s relatively high carbon footprint. Professor James Hansen has said that “exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts.”

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