This is a draft paper due to appear in Fueling Culture: Politics, History, Energy (forthcoming). Imre Szeman, ed. New York: Fordham University Press. By Mika Minio-Paluello and Anna Galkina

We need to de-fossilize our energy systems in the immediate future. To anyone paying attention, this is obvious. That requires shifting away from oil, coal and gas usage for power, transport, food and heat generation (cf Shackle 2012).

Fossil fuels have shaped our daily lives, our political structures, and thus also our thought processes and parameters of discourse. So de-fossilizing means more than replacing gas-fired power stations with solar panel farms or SUV trucks with electric cars. The coming transition will need to encompass everything from culture to academia and from language to investment portfolios. How can we transform our perception of oil addiction being inevitable into a new way of imagining our world beyond this deathly lifeblood?

One small but important step on the way along the path to a post-carbon world is the refusal to grant oil companies a ’social license to operate.’

We can identify institutions and centers of cultural power, that are wedded to the fossil fuel industry, that actively prop up a worldview in which BP, Shell and others play a constructive role in society. Despite widespread public concern about the fundamental threat of climate change, oil money still greases the wheels of many high-profile cultural institutions. Almost imperceptibly, the idea that it is inevitable that we continue burning fossil fuels subtly seeps into our imaginations. Oil and gas are invited into public culture as contested symbols but nonetheless essential elements of society, without which we couldn’t survive and civilization would collapse.

In London, these institutions include universities like Imperial College, galleries like Tate, museums like the British Museum and cultural spaces like the Southbank Centre. All four take sponsorship from major oil corporations and in the process normalize a fossil fuel-driven society. Oil is seen as fuelling culture. The companies are purchasing social license and so strengthening their grip over our future.



How does this work? Oil companies use sponsorship as a technology to drill for and extract political support, public legitimacy and financial resources from cities like London and New York, Washington DC and Calgary. The role of sponsorship increased significantly in the mid-1990s, when several high-profile scandals undermined public perception of the industry. In November 1995, Shell collaborated in the execution of Nigerian environmental rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (The Guardian 2009). This followed an intense battle over Shell’s plans to sink offshore oil facility Brent Spar in the North Sea, with Greenpeace activists occupying the structure (BBC 1995 ). The next October, BP was revealed to be financing paramilitary “death squads” in Colombia (Human Rights Watch 1998).

With their reputation and staff morale seriously damaged, British oil giants BP and Shell changed their strategy. PR specialists understood neoliberal structures of power. Oil companies did not need to advertise their product (petrol): customers would buy it anyway. The aim was to reach “special publics”–key elites including civil servants, financial investors, journalists, academics, politicians, NGOs and cultural commentators–in order to convince them that, on balance, BP or Shell is necessary, and that they should either actively support the company’s interests or at least not challenge them. A public relations case book states:

While reputation management ultimately impacts on the bottom line through consumers and business audiences, it is opinion-formers that grant the licence to operate and often set the tone for how the general public hears about and assesses companies. Shell … identified three [special publics]: (a) those with a commercial interest …; (b) those with a public interest, such as lobby groups, NGOs, politicians and the media; (c) those with a personal interest: employees and their families, future employees, and past employees and pensioners. (Henderson and Williams 2001:16)

Association with high-profile cultural spaces earns the company recognition and gratitude amongst these opinion-formers. Amongst the special publics, “BP” and “Shell” come to represent theater, opera or paintings, rather than oil spills or violence. In Not If but When, art collective Liberate Tate write:

Oil sponsorship of the arts is an act of anaesthesia, something that numbs us, stops us perceiving the reality of fossil fuel extraction. It is the opposite of an aesthetic act, since aesthetics should enable us to feel the world, to sense what it truly happening deep within our guts (Liberate Tate 2012).

Alongside arts sponsorship, the same strategy drives public association and joint programs with universities. Honorary degrees bestow respectability on industry leaders; former BP CEO Tony Hayward, disgraced during the Deepwater Horizon spill, received such degrees from Aston University, the University of Birmingham and Robert Gordon University. Research centers like the BP Institute in Cambridge (UK) bestow academic prestige on the company, as Professor Gillian Evans presciently argued:

That would be bad enough in any case, even if the connection were merely financial, but it is surely much worse if BP is engrafted into the academic fabric of the institution (Times Higher Education 2010).

Current energy systems are maintained with force. Up close, the pain is all too real, whether the experience is one of US drones chasing small Somali boats in the Indian ocean to enforce tanker routes (Hughes 2012), death squads assassinating union members in Colombia (Gillard et al 1998), Shell’s outsourced “security teams” ripping up Niger Delta villages (Smith 2011) or Canadian Mounties shooting at the indigenous resistance in Elsipogtog (Canadian Press 2013). Social license launders the public perception of this violence, rendering it legitimate.



Shell’s list of special publics above includes “future employees.” University education forms tomorrow’s workforce, and cutting-edge research embodies our technological and cultural future. Universities allow oil companies to mine their resources–students and staff, prestige and credibility, research labs and entire departments–enabling them to drill for ever riskier fossil fuels.

For oil companies, this is partly about accessing the special publics of the future: politicians, journalists, investors, and employees. At Oxford University, BP funds 10 science, technology, engineering and mathematics students, 33 Masters of Public Policy, 19 students in the recently wound-up “BP Bursary” and the annual Department of Earth Sciences prize. These schemes aim to “increase the existing strong links between BP and the University” (University of Oxford 2013).

Funding research within a university is also cheaper than recruiting staff, and better suited to longer-term, riskier and more exploratory projects (Lander 2013: 38). Long term partnerships include Manchester’s 64 million pound BP research center (University of Manchester 2012), Cambridge’s 25 million pound BP Institute (Hakatenaka 2003: 108) and Imperial’s 17.3 million pounds in research sponsorship from BP and Shell (Lander 2013: 18). Considering that by conservative estimates two thirds of already discovered fossil fuels need to be left in the ground for a 50 percent chance of avoiding climate catastrophe (IEA 2012: 6), research into breaking open new fossil-fuel frontier zones is a planetary dead end.

Sponsorship and social license is not only about individual corporations improving their profile. The cultural and academic institutions that should be helping us construct new futures are instead keeping us trapped in the past, fossilizing our minds, restricting our ability to think big and different. We start to believe that a world without Shell and BP is untenable–a world without art, education or pensions. The reality, of course, is that a world with Shell and BP is untenable. Despite the science staring in our face, we remain unable to prefigure a world without oil. In maintaining this perceived dependency on fossil fuels, BP’s sponsorship of the Tate is as dangerous as a thousand climate deniers. Hence, former BP CEO John Browne’s genius in publically recognizing climate change as a reality while increasing the company’s grip on cultural institutions.

Oil sponsorship fuels a refusal to face the future. When questioned on BP sponsorship during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, one of the worst oil spills in history, Tate Director Nicholas Serota, arguably the most senior figure in the British cultural sector, said of BP, “You don’t abandon your friends because they have what we consider to be a temporary difficulty” (Weiner 2010). Like many of us, Nick Serota’s brain has been fossilized. Our perceived dependency on fossil fuels frightens us away from experiments and freezes our imaginations.


Beyond oil

Nothing is inevitable. The headlong rush to lock our societies into further fossil fuel dependency can be prevented. Bulldozers will be stopped in their tracks, drill bits halted, investment diverted.

Changes in society over the past 150 years led to dramatic shifts in the structure of the energy system itself, and vice versa. A society fuelled by community-run renewable energy systems might look very different from one dependent on gas controlled by private and state corporations. But getting there means changing how our vehicles, our economies, and our cultures are fuelled.

Climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows argue that the catastrophic and ongoing failure of market economics to deal with climate change predicates a paradigm shift. They urge us to

leave the market economists to fight among themselves over the right price of carbon — let them relive their groundhog day if they wish. The world is moving on and we need to have the audacity to think differently and conceive of alternative futures (Anderson and Bows 2012).

But how do we think beyond oil? We can take some inspiration from the authors of After Neoliberalism: The Kilburn Manifesto. Doreen Massey, Stuart Hall and Michael Rustin have begun a process aimed at transcending conventional thinking on what it is “reasonable” to propose or do. They argue that social settlements like social democracy and neoliberalism are “crucially founded on embedding as common sense a whole bundle of beliefs – ideas beyond question, assumptions so deep that the very fact that they are assumptions is only rarely brought to light” (Massey et al. 2013).

Today, we are faced with the need for rupture and a fundamental break with the pragmatic calculations that disfigure most political thinking. By generating new concepts and thinking, ranging from gender to generational politics, and from welfare to the imagination, Massey and her colleagues are opening debates that look beyond what elections or the “market” will tolerate (Massey et al. 2013).

To paraphrase C.P. Snow, universities and cultural institutions have the future in their bones (Snow 1959). When sponsorship ends, when we refuse oil companies their social license to operate, fossil fuels will be increasingly transfigured into holdovers from the past. Breaking the existing relationships between energy corporations and iconic producers of culture is both about ending their social license and about de-fossilizing our minds. In the process, we create space to construct whole new ways of powering society.