Saturday, December 12, 2009

New Energy Future

I was listening to the nonstop rain this morning and reading about the climate talks in Copenhagen in the Times when I found the most perfect combination of online journalism and internet advertising.

You have to click it to see it large enough to get the joke.

OHHH! that's what's Shell, the world's largest corporation, is doing to tackle the phenomenally horrifying euphemism of the ensuing state of geo-politics: "new energy future."

What I first chuckled at was the irony of Shell advertising on this particular page -paying to be associated with an article about resistance to them. Then I was laughing at the "tackle" joke. Then I wasn't really laughing anymore because I was awe-struck, fully jaw-dropped by the phrase "new energy future."

The "new energy future" is meant to bring to mind the promise of green energy, the hope in plant-based zero-emissions technologies. There is no requirement of actual reduction of consumption in any real sense. Living in San Francisco, I can take a short walk to Mission Bay and see the future that this promises. An overly orchestrated zone of the city with horrible Ikea architecture made of recycled materials that visually emphasize that they were recycled, rather than minimize the energy and resources required to manufacture them. You can live in a refabed loft and trade in your old car to drive a new Prius to buy free-range meat at the Whole Foods with a clean conscious. I don't mean to make my complaint sound like it is about lifestyle choices. I am talking about the denaturing and glamorization of what used to be called environmentalism and self-satisfaction offered by these kinds of faux-conservation efforts. The concept of consumption is only furthered. Don't fix the old muni stops, build totally new ones. Don't consider living without a car, buy a totally new one regardless of how massive the amount of energy and resources that production requires. Somehow, in this new future, the problems of class and access get erased. How can this green consumption future be for everyone? Don't make -only buy. The modes of production are just as obscured as ever. The earth is still ours for the pillaging. It's a future where the earth is just as dead but our consumption looks green.

For along time, I thought it was just spin, an advertising campaign effort. For instance, clean coal isn't a thing. There is no way to make the mining or burning of coal "clean." But by calling it that we all feel better about our over use. You can read a lot more about that on the very media savvy Reality Coalition website (good pun). I remember noticing this "greenwashing" for the first time when BP changed from 'British Petroleum' to 'Beyond Petroleum.' It's not that they were going to have anything other than gas at the gas stations. It's that their gas stations in my area were being revamped with a more contemporary ergonomic design. The problem with the new energy future for all its "this is not a plastic bag" totes is that it is really the old energy past. And the problem with announcing the status quo as a new-found freedom is that people will believe it.

The man is this photo is Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian writer and activist. In 1995, he was murdered at Royal Dutch Shell's behest, hanged along with eight others on trumped-up charges. Saro-Wiwa became the leader of the grassroots organization Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) which sought to give the ethnic minority Ogonis increased independence, including political clout in the face of Shell's crushing force. Shell had been terrorizing the Ogoni people and their land since the mid-1950's. As the Ogoni began to resist the destruction of their mangroves to build pipelines, the pollution of the air from gas flaring, the toxic dumping, the theft of their farms and the revamping of viable land into oil fields, Shell as many other multinational corporations do, made the most of an unfortunate political situation and enlisted the help of a military government.

Here is a short introductory video made after Saro-Wiwa's death.

Last June, Shell paid 15.5 million dollars to settle a lawsuit originally brought in 1996 by the families of Saro-Wiwa and the other eight people executed as a result of the falsified charges as well as other victims of Shell-related autrocities. Interestingly, the trial happened at a federal court in New York. Under the 1798 Alien Tort Act, a non-citizen can bring suit for extra-judicial killing and human rights abuses no matter where they occur.

According to the Guardian article announcing the settlement , the court documents included "a letter from Shell in which it agreed to pay a unit of the Nigerian army for services rendered. The unit had retrieved one of the company's fire trucks from the village of Korokoro – an action that according to reports at the time left one Ogoni man dead and two wounded. Shell wrote it was making the payment 'as a show of gratitude and motivation for a sustained favourable disposition in future assignments'."

Shell continues to operate in Nigeria. It continues to dump waste and use gas flares in the Niger Delta.
Shell's revenue last year was 458.361 billion USD and is the world's largest corporation. It operates in 140 countries. Ken Saro-Wiwa's death like the complete destruction of his community is not an isolated incident.

This is how you "tackle the new energy future."

Here are links to more information on Ken Saro-Wiwa
the website of the plaintiffs in the case
letter from Chinua Achebe, Susan Sontag and more for the PEN society on behalf of Saro-Wiwa after his arrest.
wingnuty Shell watchdog website

I hope there is some thought of Ken Saro-Wiwa at the talks in Copenhagen. In writing about this, I am struck by the aspects that hit me as "realities." There are realities to consumption. The horrific realities in the fact of the post-colonial corporate empires. Ones where we have to confront the chain of events and more complexly, the passivity and complacency that allow these kinds of things to happen. There are realities to recognized also in that video in where people achieve a sense of agency through organizing, speaking out and declaring themselves worthy of rights. Environmentalism is to think about the earth dynamically. It is so much more than "go green." Somehow the popularization of green consumption overshadows the real issue at hand: misery and destruction- of people, of land -for the gluttony of just a few.

"The writer cannot be a mere storyteller, he cannot be a mere teacher; he cannot merely X-ray society’s weaknesses, its ills, its perils, he or she must be actively involved shaping its present and its future.”
-Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1993.

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