Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/06/12/of-turmeric-and-truth-fuel-for-thought-and-the-struggle-in-ogoni/laztamana_turmeric/
  2. Fuel for Action: Activism & Climate Change’: http://www.artexchange.org.uk/event/fuel-for-action-activism-climate-change/
  3. ‘Fuel for Thought’ : http://www.artexchange.org.uk/exhibition/fuel-for-thought/
  4. Sokari Douglas Camp: http://sokari.co.uk/
  5. Nnenna Okore: https://nnennaokore.com/
  6. Alfredo Jaar: http://www.alfredojaar.net/
  7. Ed Kashi: https://edkashi.com/project/curse-of-the-black-gold/
  8. Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou,: https://www.jackbellgallery.com/artists/25-leonce-raphael-agbodjelou/overview/
  9. ‘Ken Saro-Wiwa Lives on!’: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxJtnP2OALHeWtfCJ5W22dw
  10. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/06/12/of-turmeric-and-truth-fuel-for-thought-and-the-struggle-in-ogoni/fuelforthought_window/
  11. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/06/12/of-turmeric-and-truth-fuel-for-thought-and-the-struggle-in-ogoni/fuelforthought_sdc_front/
  12. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/06/12/of-turmeric-and-truth-fuel-for-thought-and-the-struggle-in-ogoni/fuelforthought_sdc_behind/
  13. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/06/12/of-turmeric-and-truth-fuel-for-thought-and-the-struggle-in-ogoni/fuelforthought_edassoler_video/
  14. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/06/12/of-turmeric-and-truth-fuel-for-thought-and-the-struggle-in-ogoni/screen-shot-2019-06-07-at-17-52-39-2/
  15. https://platformlondon-org.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/VID-20190517-WA0007.mp4: https://platformlondon.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/VID-20190517-WA0007.mp4
  16. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/06/12/of-turmeric-and-truth-fuel-for-thought-and-the-struggle-in-ogoni/img-20190517-wa0002/
  17. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2015/11/05/release-living-memorial-to-ken-saro-wiwa-seized-by-nigerian-customs/free_the_bus_2/
  18. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/06/12/of-turmeric-and-truth-fuel-for-thought-and-the-struggle-in-ogoni/img-20190517-wa0011/
  19. Esther Kiobel, and three other widows: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/may/01/dutch-court-will-hear-widows-case-against-shell-over-deaths-of-ogoni-nine-esther-kiobel-victoria-bera-hague
  20. court documents have revealed: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/ken-saro-wiwa-was-framed-secret-evidence-shows-2151577.html
  21. report published two years ago, Amnesty International: https://www.amnesty.lu/uploads/media/NIGERIA_IN_THE_DOCK_EN.pdf
  22. a previous legal deposition,: https://www.scribd.com/document/409061190/Mark-Moody-Stuart-OCR-Part-1
  23. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/06/12/of-turmeric-and-truth-fuel-for-thought-and-the-struggle-in-ogoni/img-20190517-wa0010/

Everywhere is the city. And everywhere is not the city.

[1]

The tent at Stave Hill Ecological Park, 2019. Photos: Platform

A small congregation, just a dozen of us, are guided in careful-footed silence along the central path through the cathedral of Russia Dock Woodland in London’s former Docklands. It is 04.30 am on 5th May. Our guides, John Cadera and Richard Page-Jones, draw our attention to the calls of Blackcaps, Wrens, Blackbirds, Robins and Great Tits. There is a gentle atmosphere of quiet reverence on this Dawn Chorus Walk around the woods and ponds of the old Surrey Commercial Docks.

I am struck by how the walk reminds me of a religious service. We the attendees are expected to be quiet. John and Richard, binoculars denoting their office, are the priests, intercessors between us and the birds. They interpret, they explain, they guide us through the time they have been allotted. And we? We pay attention. We put aside our daily cares and attend to the world around us, to these companion species, to ‘Nature.’

The walk is part of Soundcamp 2019[2], the sixth in a series of extraordinary twenty-four hour long art & nature events, held with Stave Hill Ecological Park[3], London. The heart of the festival is a day spent listening to creatures of the Earth through a continuous dawn chorus. Around the globe are at least 75 participating groups – ranging from individual ‘streamers’, to a cluster of ‘amateurs’ or a university research project – who ‘live stream’ the sound of the dawn chorus as it begins to unfold in their woods or forest, their mountains or beaches. Sitting in The Shed at Stave Hill, Grant Smith, Maria Papadomanolaki and Hannah Kemp-Welch, co-ordinate the 24-hour broadcast on the internet, fading in a live stream from Queensland Australia as they fade out one from the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan, fading in Kathmandu as they fade out the sounds of dawn in Kolkata, India. And so on, hour after hour, as the sound moves around the Earth.

On the laptop screens arrayed on a table in The Shed, we see the locations of the different live streamers dotted around the Earth like stars in the firmament. The sound from each one floods into this small room as the suns rays opens up the day in Santiago, Chile or Tower Hamlets, London. The map on the screen shows a gently arcing band of darkness and light, this is the blissful curve of the sun’s light, the ‘grey line’ that comes just before the dawn and opens up this singing planet.

Screengrab of Locustream Soundmap during Soundcamp ‘Reveil’ – with Goodluck George live streaming from Mtwara, Tanzania

The event is titled ‘Reveil’ – meaning ‘wake up or alarm clock’ in French – but what is also taking place here is ‘reverie’, a reverie for the Earth. An extraordinary act of celebration, an act of listening to, paying attention to, a beautiful planet. And this ‘planet’ that is being listened to are the calls of birds and animals, the sounds of trees and insects, that are audible to the human ear. These are the songs of the ‘more-than-human’, the voices of our companion species, around the world who we co-inhabit the planet with on this day, in these hours. (Only occasionally are their voices disturbed by, or accompanied, by the low rumble of ships engines, the dull roar of road traffic or the distant drone of a jet.)

Soundcamp coordinates this global event, and central to the initiative are sound artists Grant Smith and Dawn Scarfe. Dawn researches and coordinates Reveil. This remarkable project is tracked across the globe not from some research lab or some arts centre, but from a gem of an ecological park in South London. Soundcamp’s Reveil is in itself a celebration of Stave Hill’s pioneering vision and extraordinary resilience as an urban nature refuge over many years.

In the UK of the late 1970s there was a growing movement for Urban Ecology, which lead to the Trust for Urban Ecology[4] (TRUE), pioneered by Max Nicholson. This gathering of activists argued that ‘Nature’ should not be seen as existing solely in the realm beyond the metropolis, in the ‘Countryside’. But rather it does, and could, exist within the City. That although the urban environment is predominately the space of the human, we are not alone, that we live in these places together with a myriad of other species, from House Spiders to Wasps, from Carrion Crows to Blackbirds, from Plane Trees to Buddleia. That we should see these creatures not as encumbrances to be removed (witness the felling of trees in Sheffield or Walthamstow), nor as sources of anxiety or vectors of disease (as with House Spiders and Feral Pigeons), but these are fellow inhabitants of the city, fellow citizens, companion species and together we make this place that we call London.

 

Donna Harraway, inspirational biologist and thinker on the ‘more than human’ and ‘companion species’.

Arising from this movement came initiatives for ecological parks, areas of land and water, woods and meadows, set aside to create havens for ‘wildlife’ as it was known then, but which forty years later we might now refer to (in the shadow of the thinker Donna Haraway) as the ‘more-than-human’.

‘Wild in London’ – David Goode’s pioneering book on Urban Ecology published in 1986, with an image of William Curtis Park on the cover. Note too, that it was sponsored by Shell – A Shell Book.

 

The first park was established in 1976 by TRUE on the land of former dockside next to Tower Bridge and was named ‘William Curtis Ecological Park’ after the 18th London botanist William Curtis. The area of a few acres combined ponds and reed beds, grass meadow and some young trees. But it did not last long. The land once owned by the Port of London Authority, came under the control of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) when it was established by Thatcher’s Conservative Government in 1981, and directly managed by the Minister for the Environment, Michael Hesseltine MP.

The park was closed down in 1985 and when Platform came to be based around the corner at 7 Horselydown Lane five years later, I remember it as an area of ‘wasteland’ hidden behind plywood hoardings and beloved by Foxes. Now the land is the site of the GLA’s City Hall, the Bridge Theatre and a block of many stories of luxury flats. The land itself, and the whole of London Bridge City stretching between Tower Bridge and London Bridge, is now in the ownership of St Martins Property Group, an arm of the Kuwait Investment Authority, the sovereign wealth fund of Kuwait. Oil underpinned the ‘development’ of this land and the owners of that oil-derived capital now generate returns on it through rental. Land which had been abandoned by capital, disregarded as ‘wasteland’ that could be set aside for an ecological park, was now a generator of returns and had ‘value’, indeed today it is said to be some of the most ‘valuable’ real estate in the world.

But all was not lost. TRUE cut a deal with LDDC, and in early 1984 the latter gave over another area of ‘wasteland’ on the site of the former Russia Dock in Surrey Commercial Docks near Rotherhithe. Here was established the Stave Hill Ecological Park.[5] The ‘gift’ of this land by the LDDC took place in the midst of a ferocious battle between the Development Corporation and the communities that were long established throughout the docklands, central among those campaigning against LDDC was the Docklands Community Poster Project, driven by Loraine Leeson and Peter Dunn[6] and involving others such as the artist Sonia Boyce. The powerful resistance doubtless encouraged the LDDC to set aside at least some things for the local community, amenities such as the land for the ecological park. (During Soundcamp, Charlie Fox of Inspiral London[7] created a walk from William Curtis Park to Stave Hill, taking attendees through the streets of South London.)

Four years later Platform sited ‘The Tree of Life, City of Life’ Tent on Greenland Dock only five minutes walk from the Ecological Park. John Jordan, Jens Storch, Ana Sarginson, Pete Durgerian and myself all worked around the tent and across the neighbouring area for two weeks as we endeavoured to explore the ‘metabolism of the city’, inspired by a concept evolved by Herbert Girardet. We were visited by some other members of the project team, which included Herbert, Rodney Mace, Teresa Hayter and Nick Robins. On one if these visits Rodney was interviewed on the top of Stave Hill and as he discussed the past and future of the area Pete’s camera panned over the saplings and scrub that covered the infant ecological park, the dock-infill of rubble that had been landscaped and handed over to TRUE.

Now, thirty years on, the Tent returned to the area, invited by Soundcamp 2019 to pitch at Stave Hill Ecological Park (now run by TCV) and hold an intergenerational discussion between three original participants Herbert Girardet, myself, John Jordan, with two younger interlocutors Will Essilfie and Hajra Gulamrassul. The aim was to make a place to reflect on what has happened in the past thirty years and what might happen in the next thirty, to reflect on the period 1989 to 2049.

 

‘Vision’ by Jessie Brennan. Installation on Stave Hill, spring 2019, overlooking Stave Hill Ecological Park. Photograph: Jessie Brennan 2019; Original photograph: Rebeka Clark, 1986.

Among the audience tightly packed into the Tent, was Jessie Brennan who had also been commissioned by Soundcamp 2019 to produce an artwork. Jessie’s piece was in two parts, one a sound installation in London Bridge Station and the other on the crest of Stave Hill. This latter, an artificial mound, created by the LDDC in the early 1980s, overlooks the Surrey Docks area. (It was from here that Rodney had looked out across the fledgling ecological park.) Jessie had installed a billboard-sized blow up of a photo taken from Stave Hill in 1986 allowing the viewer today to juxtapose the image of bare earth and fences with the woodland that now covers the park.

The piece is, like the Soundcamp, a hymn of praise to the resilience of the ecological park. It has survived, it has resisted and survived. For the land all around has sky-rocketed in capital ‘value’, mirroring the rise in the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf just across the river on the Isle of Dogs. The park has been under constant pressure, from developers who want to obtain the site, and from others who’ve committed arson or stolen equipment from the park compound. But it has survived, and now it has official nature reserve status so its future is legally secure. Far more important it has survived because it has become loved by the community that lives around it, loved by children and parents, by dog walkers and volunteers, by those who look out for it, and by those that feel they ‘possess’ it and indeed are ‘possessed’ by it – including the organisers of Soundcamp. Without doubt fundamental to the park’s survival and flourishing, has been the indefatigable determination of its committed site warden, Rebeka Clark who has fought for and developed the project since the mid 1980s.

Its survival is all the more remarkable because it stands in the lee of Canary Wharf, in the shadow of one the most intense concentrations of finance capital on Earth. There is something hypnotic about the contrast between those well-known towers of glass and steel and the densely packed woodland of Alder, Hawthorn and other trees. These species seem to stand in defiance of the skyscrapers of corporate offices, these other species speak of an other way of being, they speak of another way in which the city could be.

The structures of Canary Wharf and the ceaseless building upon Docklands appears to drive out the other, drive out other species, and suggest that the city is a purely human space. However  Stave Hill Ecological Park suggests that this is not the case, suggests that we can live with the other, we can live with other species, indeed the joy in our lives is enhanced when we do live in companion with other species.  Soundcamp’s Reveil proclaims the same reality, that we live on this Earth with a multitude of other creatures and we can, and shall, revere them.

This way of being, distinct from the world described by Canary Wharf, becomes evermore important in the light of the UN Report of Biodiversity published on the 6th May 2019 and revealing that over 1 million species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction in the coming decades if we continue with ‘business as usual’, or rather continue to have business, or capital, determine what is a ‘usual’ way to live.

In the 1989 ‘Tree of Life’ project, the Tent had been located at the Mouth of the River Wandle in Wandsworth just prior to coming to Greenland Dock. There we had erected a banner, many meters long, across a stretch of ‘wasteland’ (or rather of land with little value to speculative capital). On the banner were the lines that seem as relevant as ever:

‘The Measure of the New Days is a Love of the Surface of the Earth like the skin of a Lover’

 

[8]

Platform banner – Measure of the New Days, 1989, Mouth of the Wandle. Photograph: Jens Storch

Thanks to Grant Smith, Dawn Scarfe, Rebeka Clark, Jessie Brennan, Charlie Fox, Jane Trowell

 

 

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/05/10/compelled-to-be-wise-in-the-tent-that-can-hear/20190504_tent_front/
  2. Soundcamp 2019: http://soundtent.org/2019/soundcamp_london_2019_program.html
  3. Stave Hill Ecological Park: https://www.tcv.org.uk/urbanecology/stave-hill-ecological-park
  4. Trust for Urban Ecology: https://www.tcv.org.uk/urbanecology
  5. Stave Hill Ecological Park.: https://www.tcv.org.uk/urbanecology/stave-hill-ecological-park
  6. Docklands Community Poster Project, driven by Loraine Leeson and Peter Dunn: https://platformlondon.org/2015/03/25/walking-among-the-ruins-of-the-future-thinking-of-a-city-beyond-neoliberalism/
  7. Inspiral London: https://www.facebook.com/InspirallingLondon/
  8. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/05/25/singing-planet-soundcamp-2019-and-the-platform-tree-of-life-tent/measure_crop/

En el día de hoy, una delegación de representantes del gobierno y del sector empresarial argentino se encuentra en Londres para tratar inversiones en fracking. Argentina Solidarity Campaign, Reclaim the Power y Fossil Free London se reúnen para oponerse a la expansión del fracking en Argentina, y al rol de las empresas y el gobierno Británico en la expansión y el financiamiento de esta industria.

Desde Lancashire hasta Sussex, comunidades a lo largo del Reino Unido se encuentran en este momento luchando contra la amenaza del fracking. Experiencias de distintos puntos del mundo han demostrado que el fracking causa sismos y contaminación, y que es una técnica que consume volúmenes descomunales de agua, un recurso muy preciado. Mientras algunas compañías locales impulsan el fracking en el Reino Unido, las grandes petroleras como BP y Shell prefieren no fracturar en su territorio local, con el fin de ‘evitar el tipo equivocado de atención’, en las palabras del CEO de BP, Bob Dudley. En cambio, tratan de explotar una de las reservas más grandes de gas de esquisto, Vaca Muerta, en la Patagonia Argentina.

Oposición al fracking en Lancashire, Inglaterra. Foto por Frack Free Lancashire

 

El fracking en la Patagonia es una expresión descarada del modelo extractivista que atraviesa a América Latina. A la vez que la frontera extractiva se expande hacia nuevas áreas en búsqueda de más hidrocarburos y minerales, y se empiezan a implementar nuevas técnicas de alto riesgo en la extracción, las industrias extractivas generan más daños ambientales, más problemas de salud para las poblaciones locales, y se debilitan enormemente las otras economías regionales, como es el caso de la agricultura familiar. Los inversores extranjeros colectan las ganancias, y lo que queda en la región son daños irreversibles. El modelo extractivista no da lugar a desarrollo sustentable y a una redistribución de la riqueza, como muchos proclaman, sino que conlleva a economías inequitativas que son vulnerables a los precios de los commodities, y en las que la riqueza se concentra en las manos de unos pocos.

En la Norpatagonia, comunidades originarias como Lof Campo Maripe ya han enfrentado situaciones de represión violenta por ejercer sus derechos territoriales y defender el territorio ante la extracción. El gobierno provincial de Neuquén ha prometido destinar 400 oficiales de gendarmería para proteger las operaciones de fracking.

Bloqueo de basurero petrolero. Foto por Confederación Mapuche de Neuquén.

Sin embargo, comunidades rurales y originarias en la Norpatagonia como la municipalidad de Vista Alegre y el Lof Campo Maripe se han organizado para detener el avance del fracking en sus tierras. Su resistencia al fracking resalta la amenaza a los ecosistemas locales y fuentes de trabajo y sustento, y reivindica los derechos territoriales de pueblos originarios y la defensa de la vida humana y no-humana.

El gobierno británico ha anunciado una línea de crédito de 1.000 millones de dólares para realizar negocios en Argentina, y BP y Shell han sido invitados, entre otros, a ofertar. Esto es lo que representantes del sector empresarial y de los gobiernos argentino y británico están tratando en Londres en el día de hoy.

Estamos aquí reunides en solidaridad con comunidades en la Patagonia argentina que están luchando contra el fracking.

Estamos reunides para decir NO a las empresas británicas que quieren hacer fracking en Argentina, y NO al financiamiento de esta actividad por parte del gobierno británico.

Decimos juntes, en Argentina y en el Reino Unido: No al fracking!

 

Argentina Solidarity Campaign

Platform

Reclaim the Power

Fossil Free London

Today a delegation of Argentinian officials and businesses is in London to talk about fracking investments. Argentina Solidarity Campaign, Reclaim the Power, and Fossil Free London are coming together[1] to protest the expansion of fracking in Argentina and the role of the UK Government and British companies in this venture.

BP – Pan American Energy gas processing plant. Credit Martin Alvarez Mulally

From Lancashire to Sussex communities in the UK are already fighting the menace of fracking. Experiences from across the world have demonstrated that fracking causes earthquakes and pollution, in addition to consuming high volumes of water. While some companies push for fracking in the UK, Big Oil companies like BP and Shell prefer not to frack near home – “to avoid the wrong kind of attention”, in the words of BP’s CEO Bob Dudley. Instead, they are trying to exploit one of the world’s biggest shale gas reserves, Vaca Muerta, in Argentinian Patagonia.

Fracking in Patagonia is a blatant expression of the extractivist model that is dominant across Latin America. As the frontier of extraction expands to new areas in search for more fossil fuels and minerals, and new, hazardous techniques are implemented, the extractive industries generate more environmental damage, health problems for local inhabitants, and the demise of other regional economies. On many occasions extractive projects overlap with ancestral indigenous land, leading to violent repression of protest. The provincial government of Neuquen has promised to deploy 400 militarised police to protect fracking operations. Profits are collected by foreign investors, and what is left behind is irreversible damage.

In response, indigenous and farming communities in north Patagonia like the municipality of Vista Alegre and the Mapuche community Campo Maripe are organising to stop fracking in their land. Their resistance to fracking highlights the threat to local ecosystems and livelihoods, and upholds indigenous land rights and the defense of human and non-human life.

The UK government has announced a taxpayer-backed credit line of £1bn for business in Argentina and invited BP and Shell among others to bid. This is what the business leaders and officials from Argentina and the UK are discussing in London today.

We are gathered in solidarity with Patagonian communities who are fighting fracking on their land.

We are gathered to say NO to UK companies fracking in Patagonia and NO to UK government financing this exploitation.

We say together, in Argentina and in the UK: No to fracking!  No al fracking!

 

 

Argentina Solidarity Campaign

Reclaim the Power

Fossil Free London

Platform

22 May 2019

Endnotes:
  1. are coming together: https://platformlondon.org/p-pressreleases/uk-argentina-fracking-talks-targeted-by-protest/

We’re in a climate emergency – so why is the UK aiming to extract 20 more billions of barrels of oil?! Our research[1], out today, shows just how far out of touch with reality this plan is – and what the UK needs to do instead, not only to protect the climate, but also workers’ rights and industry.

The climate emergency, acknowledged last week by UK and Scottish parliaments, means we have to rapidly come off fossil fuels. The government’s Committee on Climate Change recommends a fully ‘net zero emissions’ economy by 2050, and arguably, as a nation that’s reaped its wealth in large part from other countries’ resources including fossil fuels, the UK should go fully fossil fuel free even earlier.

And yet.

The UK government is planning a 32nd round of oil and gas licences – opening up plots where oil companies could drill for over 30 years – all the way to 2050.

For 15 successive years, oil companies have paid less and less tax to the UK government. For two successive years (2015-2017) ten oil companies together not only paid no tax but received over £2 billion from the UK Treasury.

The UK government has promised to pay for decommissioning (taking down) old oil rigs in perpetuity to a scale of an estimated £30 billion or more – while companies responsible walk away.

And both government and industry talk about a target of 20 billion barrels of oil yet to extract from the North Sea.

How does all this compare to climate limits?

Together with Oil Change International and Friends of the Earth Scotland, we did the maths[2] and it’s not looking good.

The UK’s 5.5 billion barrels of oil and gas in already operating oil and gas fields will exceed the Paris climate goals. And recent subsidies for oil and gas extraction will add twice as much carbon to the atmosphere as UK’s phase-out of coal power saves.

At the same time, at least 100,000 people in the UK work in oil and gas extraction (directly and in the domestic supply chain). Places like Aberdeen,  Norfolk, and increasingly the Shetland Islands to a greater or lesser extent depend on the industry for jobs and regional prosperity.

What does this mean? The UK is headed for a “no-deal exit” from oil and gas drilling, with no plan to phase out and none to protect the workers and communities who currently depend on the oil industry.

We have to plan our way out of this. We analysed what jobs industries like offshore wind, tidal energy and energy efficiency retrofits could provide, and found out that with the right policies, these can sustain over three new jobs per oil worker potentially affected by the transition.

This won’t happen by itself. Right now, there’s few opportunities for new onshore wind farms, and virtually no government support for tidal energy or to retrofit our housing stock. Wind turbine manufactures have opened few factories in the UK, with Siemens’s Hull facility a notable exception. And some offshore windfarm developers are notorious for employing crews on less than minimum wage, in dangerous conditions. With business as usual, “green jobs” will not materialise.

Affected workers and trade unions have to have a say in the transition to clean energy will happen, and UK and Scottish governments should step in to safeguard energy workers’ rights and livelihoods: ensure trade union recognition and sectoral bargaining in “green” industries, protect wages and pensions, and offer free time off and training for those workers who need it in order to switch away from oil and gas extraction.

And our governments have to be bold and use all the tools at their disposal to actively build clean industry. National Investment Banks, like in Germany or Denmark, can help new industries set up. “Hire local” or “buy local” legislation, like in Taiwan and France, can make sure UK factories and shipyards build the renewable energy economy. And direct public ownership of energy resources by cities, regions or nationally can reap a host of other benefits. These are only some of the examples – but to meet the climate emergency and create decent jobs, every possible tool has to be put in use.

Read and share the report[3].

Sign our open letter to the UK and Scottish Governments below.


Endnotes:
  1. Our research: https://platformlondon.org/p-publications/sea-change-climate-emergency-jobs-north-sea-oil
  2. did the maths: https://platformlondon.org/p-publications/sea-change-climate-emergency-jobs-north-sea-oil
  3. Read and share the report: https://platformlondon.org/p-publications/sea-change-climate-emergency-jobs-north-sea-oil

This is a Guest Blog by Will Essilfie, educator and researcher, on Platform’s event ‘The Tent that Can Hear[1]‘. In this event, Platform looked back at ecological issues in London in 1989 when we made the ‘Tree of Life, City of Life’ project, and forward to 2049. This was a 30th anniversary return as the Platform tent had been sited at nearby Greenland Dock for Tree of Life.

The Tent that can Hear took place on 4th May 2019 at Stave Hill Ecological Park, near Greenland Dock, London, as part of the annual celebration for International Dawn Chorus Day, Soundcamp 2019[2].

Applause resounded through the seven-sided pea green tent after Herbert Girardet read his poem ‘Compelled to Be Wise’. This was the ending of an engaging two-hour discussion ‘The Tent that Can Hear’, facilitated by Jane Trowell as Platform’s contribution to Soundcamp 2019. The speakers were Platform’s James Marriott, former Platform member John Jordan via video link from La ZAD[6] in Brittany, and cultural ecologist Herbert. They were responding to questions that Hajra Gulamrassul and I conceived.

For two hours the audience assembled in the tent experienced a range of weather from rain to sunshine to cloudy skies, at a slightly cold temperature which remarkably did little to lessen the vibrancy of the discussions. Due to the number of people who turned up for the discussion, which exceeded the admittedly limited capacity of the tent, a few panels were removed to makes it easier for everyone to see and hear. This probably added to the chill, making me contemplate what it must have been like for James and John to live in the tent 30 years ago for a total of two and a half months.

Spooling back for a bit, my own journey to the tent at Soundcamp began weeks before, when Hajra and I were invited by Platform to visit their archive housed at the Bishopsgate Institute[7], to research the 1989 project, Tree of Life, City of Life. Other than a basic overview – James and John living in a tent at 5 sites along the River Thames whilst exploring the metabolism of London – I knew next to nothing about the project.

Over two half days, I immersed myself in the archive, reading documents created at the time of the project.

This included research in the form of notes, newspaper articles, minutes of progress meetings, letters appealing for sponsorship, evaluation reports and photographs. The process of accessing this information involved searching through the extensive catalogue to identify specific reference numbers for the documents for retrieval. Once the archivists delivered the yellow folders containing these documents to me, I read through the contents to build up an understanding of the project, particularly the way it developed. In the comfort of the library, exploring events of three decades ago in a London that was in many ways very different from now, I was reminded again and again that the city is still facing a number of the same problems the Tree of Life project set out to address.

[8]

The Tent at the mouth of the River Wandle, 1989. Photo: Jens Storch

James and John, during their durational performance which consisted of two weeks at each of the five sites, were primarily there to ‘listen’ to the city. Working with a small team that included a cultural ecologist (Herbert), historian Rodney Mace, economists Teresa Hayter and Nick Robins, photographer Jens Storch, filmmaker Pete Durgerian, and administrator Ana Sarginson, James and John were able to build up a unique understanding of London, in both the past and in 1989, of how the city operated. In their research this capital city came across as a voracious organism consuming resources from around the world to build up its wealth [i][9]. The team’s insights into this consumption by the city as well as the waste produced by the activities of its inhabitants, served to underpin conversations with local people [ii][10] wherever the tent was sited.

Sitting with James and John in the very same tent they had conducted the original project in, they cast their minds back to reawaken their memories of what it had felt like at the time. Listening to their reflections on how the project had gone on to influence their lives, I was struck by how their words added colour to the documents I had read in the archive. Despite the numerous types of information on the project I had encountered, there had been gaps in my understanding of the day-to-day experiences of the project. James spoke about how camping at Nine Elms in Vauxhall really brought home to him “the destructive impact of cars… a symbol of privatization” as hour after hour the steady flow of vehicles past the site conducted a relentless level of noise and intensity. John informed us that the experience of the project had “radicalised him [and] changed the way he saw the world”. They both also acknowledged that though the project and its associated exhibition may not have adequately communicated to the public the insights and knowledge uncovered at the time, it dramatically changed everyone who was involved in it.

Hearing about the kind of work James and John went on to do following the end of the Tree of Life project, it’s clear that the project significantly impacted their work, the development of Platform,  John’s art activism in many contexts, and subsequently the lives of numbers of others. I guess more than ever I now see that the learning from social justice projects can in many ways be just as important for the instigators, if not more so, than the public the project is aimed at engaging with. In the end my exposure to Tree of Life, City of Life has left me with the feeling that looking at the numbers of people who experience an art activism project in an audience/participant capacity or directly witness it as a passerby can do the project a major disservice; some of the greatest impacts can occur where least expected.

You can watch the original Tree of Life film ‘Greenland Dock’ here[11] (16 minutes)

[i][12] This brings to mind a handful of novels with alternative conceptions of the city of London – The Drowned World by JG Ballard (1962), Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (1996), Un Lun Dun by China Mieville (2007), Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (2001), and A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab (2015). The London of Mortal Engines physically ‘eats’ towns and cities!

[ii][13] A non-fiction book about urban planning policy worthy of exploration is The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (1961).

Endnotes:
  1. The Tent that Can Hear: http://soundtent.org/2019/projects/the_tent_that_can_hear.html
  2. Soundcamp 2019: http://soundtent.org/2019/soundcamp_london_2019_program.html
  3. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/05/10/compelled-to-be-wise-in-the-tent-that-can-hear/20190504_tent_front/
  4. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/05/10/compelled-to-be-wise-in-the-tent-that-can-hear/20190504_jm_hg_tent/
  5. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/05/10/compelled-to-be-wise-in-the-tent-that-can-hear/20190504_jj_screen/
  6. La ZAD: https://zadforever.blog/about/
  7. Bishopsgate Institute: https://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/Library/Special-Collections-and-Archives/Protest-and-Campaigning/Platform
  8. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/05/10/compelled-to-be-wise-in-the-tent-that-can-hear/tent-at-wandle1989/
  9. [i]: #_edn2
  10. [ii]: #_edn3
  11. here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiyINwDMHKQ
  12. [i]: #_ednref2
  13. [ii]: #_ednref3

Sir Jim Ratcliffe – head of INEOS, one the world’s largest chemicals producers – and the UK’s richest man

On 16th January 2019 news was leaked through the German paper Handelsblatt of The Alliance to End Plastic Waste.[1] A new industrial coalition that will invest $1billion over the next five years in a campaign to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the world. Here was a powerful body of major corporations determining to address the scourge that was besetting the Earth and causing so much distress to so many, especially in the Western Metropolitan society – the plague of plastic.

In parallel with the seemingly endless tide of plastic waste has come a rising tide of concern. In December 2017 the final episode of Sir David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet II’ series thrust the issue into the mainstream and now rarely a day passes without a further report on the impact of plastic refuse on wildlife, on the scale of the plastic gyres in the Pacific, or on the mounds of waste on the world’s beaches. And the media also reports the fight back – towns declaring themselves plastic free, campaigns to make London ‘a city that breaks free of plastic’, The Daily Mail’s ‘Break the Plastic Habit!’[2] initiative and the valiant people (so often women) who have dedicated their lives to gathering plastic from the beaches and rivers.

We salute Fran Crowe[3], who has been part of the Platform extended family for a long time and who, since 2006, has made the focus of her powerful work the gathering of plastics on the beaches, particularly in Suffolk. She fashions beautiful, shocking installations from her finds. In 2007 she set herself the challenge of ‘saving’ one square mile of sea, by collecting 46,000 pieces of plastics whilst walking along the shore near where she lives. Through her art she has made tangible the often invisible pollution of the oceans.

Fran Crowe – ‘Cast Away’ – installation of found plastic at Landguard Fort, Felixstowe, Suffolk, 2008

There are now stirrings in the legislatures. The British Parliament announced in September 2018[4] that it would replace single-use plastic in the catering provided to the House of Lords and the House of Commons. In December 2018 the European Parliament and European Commission reached provisional political agreement[5] on new measures to tackle marine litter at source, targeting ten plastic products. It seems that with the announcement of The Alliance to End Plastic Waste the world of corporate capital is finally waking up.

But the Plastic Waste initiative is not without its critics[6]. The Recycling Netwerk[7], based in Utrecht, Netherlands released a statement that highlighted that the problem of plastics is not so much one of waste, but one of production.[1][8] That the solution to the world drowning in plastic refuse is not only through spending more time litter picking – though this is vital – but by stopping the manufacture of plastics in the first place.[2][9] The Netwerk highlighted the fact that several of the signatories to the Waste Alliance are also some of the world’s largest producers of plastics – including Shell, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, BASF and LyondellBasell.

Shell’s new chemical plant at Potter Township, near Pittsburgh currently under construction – 2019

Shell, for example, is currently ramping up its production of the chemicals that underpin plastics by building a new plant at Potter Township on the Ohio River near Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.[10] It intends to use fracked gas as the factory’s feedstock. This works aims to generate each year 1.6 million tonnes of polyethylene, the world’s most common plastic.

Rob Buurman of Netwerk Recycling declared:

“It is interesting to see [the chemicals industry] finally acknowledge that there is a problem with their plastics. But unfortunately, this initiative does not tackle the problem at its source: the gigantic production of 400m tonnes of plastic each year, with 60m metric tonnes produced in Europe alone.”

Buurman said street, river and beach clean-ups would not work as long as there was a steady stream of new plastics being produced and collected in a half-hearted way. “These kind of actions want to cure the image of plastic. But plastics don’t have an image problem – the exaggerated use of it in products with a short lifespan is a problem in itself,”

The spokesperson for Plastic Waste pushed back against this criticism: “Reducing the amount of plastic required to create products while preserving the benefits people rely on and making plastics easier to recycle is definitely part of the solution. … Some of the members (of the Alliance) do produce plastic, and some have announced expansions to meet the demands of a growing population…”

The PR executive continued:

“Plastic provides many critical health, safety and sustainability benefits that help improve and maintain living standards, hygiene and nutrition around the world and replacing it could, in the end, do more harm than good… We must maintain the critical benefits that plastics bring to people and communities. It is not either/or. With a thoughtful, comprehensive and strategic approach, we can do both.”

This response of the corporates to concern over plastics is archetypal. Blame not the production, for what is produced is of vital import to the world (especially those in the ‘under developed world’), but call for everyone to come together in addressing the problem of the waste.

The exact same rhetoric is applied to oil & gas extraction – it is not a problem of production but of waste. So we need to deal with CO2 emissions: by increasing efficiency, by planting trees, by carbon capture & storage technology, and so on. Once again ‘Let us all work together to address the problem of waste’, do not cause division by harping on about production.

Rachel Carson whose ‘Silent Spring’ (1963) revealed the ecological impact of the pesticides manufactured by Shell

They tried the same strategy in the 1960s and ‘70s around pesticides, responding to the widespread concern that grew on the back of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’.[11]

This narrative always obscures the fundamental fact that the point of chemical production is not to meet the social need for carrier bags or hip replacements, laptops or syringes (or the plastic glasses through which I peer at the world), but to generate return on private capital, to increase private wealth.

There is one plastics manufacturer who is refreshingly open and blunt on these matters, and seems to be reluctant to participate in this industry wide image initiative by the Plastic Waste Alliance, he is the head of INEOS, Sir Jim Ratcliffe. He is a symbol of the new phase in the war over fossil fuels. As the likes of Shell and BP seem to waver a little, INEOS is stepping to the front of the battle. For INEOS, a name unheard of by so many of us, is the one of the world’s largest manufacturers of chemicals and oil products. Their strap line is ‘The Word for Chemicals.’ It has a turn over of $60 billion.

Netwerk Recycling touched on this in their announcement, pointing out that in the same week that news came about the Plastic Waste alliance, INEOS had made a press statement[12] on a € 3 billion investment (equivalent to $3.4 billion) to create one of the largest chemicals plants in European history on the banks of the River Schelde in Antwerp.

There’s an important backstory to INEOS’ move. Ratcliffe was once an employee of BP’s Saltend chemical plant by Hull but was sacked. However in 1992, having become a venture capitalist and set up on his own as Inspec, he bought BP’s Hythe plastics factory near Southampton and its sister factory in Carshalton on the River Wandle in South West London. In 1995, after changing the company’s name to INEOS, he made his boldest move by purchasing BP’s plant in Antwerp.

BP’s former works at Baglan Bay, Port Talbot, South Wales – once the largest chemical plant in Europe, now demolished

BP was keen to be rid of this vast works in Belgium that it had had a stake in since the 1950s, for the company was rapidly pulling out of all chemicals investments in Europe. In 1994 it had put the nail in the coffin of its Baglan Petrochemicals Plant in South Wales – which had a ship dedicated to exporting raw product from Baglan to Antwerp. Soon after closing Baglan, BP decided to invest heavily in a chemicals plant in Yangtze, China, taking a 51% stake in the Yangtze River Acetyls Co. Ltd. The corporation was shifting capital from Western Europe to the Far East and leaving in its wake areas such as South Wales blighted by deindustrialisation. It looked as though the same fate would befall Antwerp.

INEOS’s chemical plant at Zwijndrecht, on the banks of the River Scheldt at Antwerp

However Ratcliffe bought the plant and stripped it to the bone, managing thereby to turn it around as a profitable venture and maintain production. It remained a hub in the chemicals world of North Western Europe. In 2010 INEOS announced that they would build a new 1 million tonne per year deep-sea Ethylene Terminal at Zwijndrecht, with a link direct to INEOS’s ethylene consuming factory in Antwerp and another plant in the Rotterdam area, as well as into Europe via the Aethylen-Rohrleitungs-Gesellschaft (ARG) pipeline to Koln, feeding plants such as those run by BASF at Dormagen. INEOS was by then the largest producer of ethylene in Europe. Ratcliffe, a buccaneering capitalist now had his hands on the chemical heart of the EU.

The same pattern evolved in the UK Sector of the North Sea offshore fields. INEOS began in 2005 by purchasing Grangemouth Refinery which is supplied largely by UK North Sea oil and is a vital organ in the UK Sector machine. By 2015 it was purchasing gas fields, such as Breagh and Clipper South, 40 miles east off Norfolk. In 2017 it brought the Forties Pipeline System through which passes 40% of the UK’s oil and the greater part of all of its offshore oil production. Late last year INEOS bid for all of Chevron’s stakes in the UK North Sea aiming to make Ratcliffe one of the largest players in that massive industrial realm. As with the control of the Antwerp plant, the Zwijndrecht dock and the ARG pipeline, INEOS now had its hands on the oil heart of the UK.

Jim Ratcliffe, knighted in June 2018, for services to business – on the recommendation of Theresa May’s government

Who is this Jim Ratcliffe? Sixty-six years old, a defiantly self-made man from near Manchester, Ratcliffe was declared the UK’s ‘Richest Man’ in the Sunday Times ‘Rich List 2018’ and was knighted in the same year. He owns an extensive home near Hythe in Hampshire (close to the first plant he brought – now closed) and two luxury yachts. His base is in Monaco and INEOS is registered in Switzerland. He is an archetypal symbol of the new era of Britain’s oil & gas realm, an era when it is no longer dominated solely by UK-based private capital in the form of corporations such as BP and Shell, but by foreign-based private capital in the form of INEOS and Chrysaor. These latter companies are almost entirely hidden from public view. It is not surprising that most of us have not heard of the name INEOS.

Ratcliffe and INEOS, though foreign based and paying little or no tax in the UK, continue to play a key role in shaping the politics of this country – just as BP and Shell have done since the 1910s. INEOS has been in the media for it’s determined pursuit of fracking in the UK and has been the object of protests in Scotland, Yorkshire, Cheshire and elsewhere. This month Greenpeace UK revealed that INEOS had directly threatened to close its Seal Sands chemicals plant, on Teesside, if had to abide by EU environmental legislation. The plant has broken legal pollution limits 176 times in the last four years and INEOS wrote to Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State for Business & Energy, to say that the company would close – with the loss of 2,000 jobs – rather than invest to comply with legislation unless Clark found a way to help it “defer compliance with regulations.” This, and INEOS’s push to frack in Britain, are perfect examples of the type of lobbying that the UK government has long been subjected to by the oil & gas industry. But the UK’s ability to resist such pressure, and thus to defend the quality of our air and the ecosystems of our rivers, will be far weaker if Britain steps outside the EU.

Vivienne Westwood among those resisting INEOS’s drive to frack for gas in the UK, 2018

Not surprisingly Ratcliffe has been a rare example of an outspoken supporter of Brexit in the ‘business community’. So we tie back plastics to Brexit. Here is a man who wants to drive the UK out of the European Union, apparently because he believes in Britain having a bright ‘free market future’ outside the constraints on Bruxelles bureaucracy. A man whose company is central to the economy of the UK and a key player in the industrial systems of a number of key EU states, including Belgium and Germany, and yet who himself chooses to live outside the EU in the tax havens on its periphery. And a man who has been virulently outspoken against EU Environmental legislation, whilst being in receipt of millions of Euros in EU subsidies.

And a man who is doubtless lobbying against the attempt by the European Commission to limit plastic waste. For as we have seen, although a central producer of plastics, INEOS is not a participant in the Plastic Waste Alliance.

Thankfully the shameless manoeuvring of Ratcliffe – being so central to the UK’s energy system and demanding subsidies whilst not paying tax – has not gone unnoticed. The shift to be domiciled in Monaco is reported t[13]o be saving £4 billion that would have gone to the UK Exchequer. On February 17th 2019 Labour’s John McDonnell told The Financial Times: “Any government would look askance at Mr Ratcliffe’s advice and representations (for state subsidies) from here on given the attitude he is displaying to our country in his tax affairs. Patriots pay their taxes.” And the Daily Mirror reported that McDonnell said: “This is a super-rich person. We’re not talking about someone who’s on his uppers… For every penny that’s avoided in this way in taxation, what does that mean? It means the NHS doesn’t treat patients, it means our children don’t get the full investment in their education and it means less safety on our streets. I appeal to people like this – this is a great country to live in, just make your contribution like the rest of us.”

INEOS and Ratcliffe, and others like him are the new lords of the oil & gas world and the struggle to protect the climate, address other environmental plagues such as plastic waste, and ensure we build a more socially just and equal society, will have to be fought on this battleground. Just as INEOS strives to generate the highest profit whether operating within or without the EU, the UK movement for social & ecological justice will need to engage in this battle whether we remain in the EU or leave. In both scenarios we urgently need to ‘Reform’ the economy.

Resistance takes many forms – Fran Crowe collecting ocean plastics on the beaches of Suffolk

 

*

[1][14] The UK government’s proposed action in 2018 also focuses largely on waste not production – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/single-use-plastics-budget-2018-brief[15].

[2][16] Or at least to colour code different types of plastic to ease recycling and to ban composite products, for example where a cap and a bottle are made of different materials.

 

With thanks to Fran Crowe & Terry Macalister.

The themes in this blog are drawn from research for the forthcoming book – ‘Crude Britannia – How  Big Oil shaped a nation’s past and future’, by Terry Macalister and James Marriott. Due for publication in 2020

 

Endnotes:
  1. The Alliance to End Plastic Waste.: https://endplasticwaste.org/
  2. The Daily Mail’s ‘Break the Plastic Habit!’: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/fb-5386445/BREAK-PLASTIC-HABIT-JOIN-DAILY-MAILS-CAMPAIGN.html
  3. Fran Crowe: http://www.flyintheface.com/
  4. announced in September 2018: https://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/offices/commons/media-relations-group/news/uk-parliament-to-dramatically-reduce-plastic-use-through-new-compostable-products-/
  5. reached provisional political agreement: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-18-6867_en.htm
  6. Plastic Waste initiative is not without its critics: https://recyclingnetwerk.org/2019/01/16/industry-alliance-to-end-plastic-waste/
  7. The Recycling Netwerk: https://recyclingnetwerk.org/
  8. [1]: #_ftn1
  9. [2]: #_ftn2
  10. Potter Township on the Ohio River near Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.: https://www.shell.com/about-us/major-projects/pennsylvania-petrochemicals-complex.html
  11. Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’.: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Spring
  12. INEOS had made a press statement: https://www.ineos.com/news/ineos-group/ineos-announces-antwerp-as-the-location-for-new-petrochemical-investment/
  13. The shift to be domiciled in Monaco is reported t: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sir-jim-ratcliffe-the-uks-richest-man-quits-country-to-save-billions-35x6jphxn
  14. [1]: #_ftnref1
  15. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/single-use-plastics-budget-2018-brief: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/single-use-plastics-budget-2018-brief
  16. [2]: #_ftnref2

This blog is by Freya Brindley Rowell who was on placement with Platform in March. She is about to go to university.

[1]

London’s Living Room, in City Hall. Photo: Freya Brindley Rowell

Nervous, anxious and excited were all things I was feeling as I headed to London to volunteer at Platform. As a person that grew up in the countryside, just navigating my way through the underground was cause for me to break into sweat (the blasting heat probably had something to do with it too.)

One thing that really stuck with me the whole time I was at Platform was the sense of community and the importance of staff wellbeing. Alongside this there were clear boundaries of what was appropriate to say or do in certain circumstances. Because Platform runs by consensus and there is no chain of command, anyone can speak up on this. The current media portrayal of “office culture” is very hierarchical and has a focus on individuals, a bit like a school playground, so this non-hierarchical approach has a great dynamic of everyone being an equal, and anything anyone had to say was treated with value.

Prior to my work experience I had expressed an interest in Platform’s campaign on divestment from fossil fuels. During my time on placement, my task was to research my own council, Gwynedd County Council in Wales. I was to look into their pension fund and see how it was being divested. In addition to this they helped me with the tools to contact my councillor and MP to raise the issues of divestment and how important it is in gaining climate justice. I am yet to hear back from either my councillor or my MP, however Gwynedd Council have since acknowledged climate change and the necessary measures that need to be taken if we are to stay within the 1.5 degree limit. Plus I am now part of the Divest Parliament Welsh Regional Team – a group of volunteers within Wales putting pressure on Welsh Councillors and MP’s.

[2]

Sakina Sheikh, Platform’s Divest campaigner.    Photo: Freya Brindley Rowell

On the last day of my work experience. I was given the opportunity of attending London’s City Hall, for an event organised by Platform and the Greater London Authority called ‘London Divests – Leading the Global ClimateTransition’[3]. This high profile event was targeted mainly at London councillors. A panel including Platform’s Divest lead campaigner Sakina Sheikh made the arguments for local authority pension divestment. They argued this on climate and racial justice grounds as well as the financial vulnerability of investments in fossil fuel companies. There were break-out discussion groups, and the panel also answered the audience’s questions.

‘London Divests’ was the highlight of my week. It was an amazing experience to see councillors talking productively about what needs to be done to achieve climate justice. In my view climate change has always been something that has been quietly ignored, that recycling is enough to please the nation’s conscience. It was explained at the event that not only was divestment important for moral and climate reasons, it has financial reasoning in that shares in fossil fuel companies are vulnerable. To stay within the 1.5 degree limit, 80% of the fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground. The top 200 hydrocarbon companies in the world already have more than 5 times the amount that can be burnt to stay within that limit. The investments into fossil fuel companies could expect a considerable loss when companies can’t access their reserves due to governmental limitations.

This two-pronged argument was explained at the talk, and it really inspired me as a young adult as it is my future and the future of many other young adults across the globe that will be affected greatly by climate change.

I am eternally grateful to the Platform team for welcoming me into their family and showing me their climate activist ways.

Platform says… We loved having you, Freya! 

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/03/25/volunteering-on-london-divests-guest-blog/cityhall_londondivests_logos2_small/
  2. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/2019/03/25/volunteering-on-london-divests-guest-blog/sakina_sheikh_small/
  3. London Divests – Leading the Global ClimateTransition’: http://Leading%2520the%2520Global%2520Climate%2520Transition%2520by%2520Greater%2520London%2520Authority%2520&%2520Platform

Action at British Museum to oppose BP’s sponsorship – on the steps of the portico (Credit Safa Kadhim)

I had read in advance the briefing that Culture Unstained[1] had put out to accompany the planned action. The protest at the British Museum was to be against BP’s sponsorship of the exhibition ‘I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria’,[2] a display of treasures from the land of Iraq. I read lines in the statement which described:

‘the large-scale contamination in the Province of Basra’s water supplies, with about 100,000 residents[3] … estimated to have been taken ill after drinking polluted water in the summer of 2018… Chemical and bacterial contamination of Basra’s water has been found to be extremely high[4] and salinity is more than 20 times[5] the recommended level. This was one of the triggers for the mass protests (in August 2018) – dubbed by some as the “water uprising”.’

How ignorant I felt. I had no knowledge of the appalling conditions in the southern Iraqi city that, of all places, should be benefiting from the oil that Iraq pumps each day – 4.6 million barrels, the world’s fourth largest producer. I had not noticed that there were weekly protests against the foreign oil corporations such as BP. I read the words of photo journalist Khaled Tawfiq Hadi:

“In Basra, all the wars weren’t enough for us to die in them. Now, even the taps kill us, the very taps that are the sources of the water in our houses”

How ashamed I felt, by the sense that, like so many, I had turned away from Iraq. A country that had been central to the attention of companions at Platform for a decade (particularly Greg Muttit and Ewa Jasiewicz), had dropped out of my view in the last five years. I felt sickened that the UK and its corporations were now, 16 years after the invasion of Iraq, involved in relentless resource extraction alongside merciless immiseration.

Terry Adams – BP senior executive and then UK Foreign Office consultant on Iraqi oil policies and contracts 2004-05

Shame turned to anger. How can it be that many of the architects of the destruction of Iraq now relax in absolute security, immense wealth, and in the comfortable support of friends and peers? For this is the life today, in February 2019, of the men who planned and oversaw the war and the subsequent plunder of Iraq’s wealth: of Tony Blair, of Lord John Browne (head on BP during the Iraq War), of the Rev Sir Philip Watts (former head of Shell 2001-04), of Terry Adams (ex BP and then UK Foreign Office consultant on Iraqi oil policies and contracts 2004-05), of Tony Hayward (Head of BP Exploration and BP CEO 2003-10) and of Bob Dudley (current CEO of BP)? The list goes on. An array of millionaires.

Tony Hayward – Head of BP Exploration and then BP CEO 2003-10

In my anger I imagined what it would be like to accompany these men, not around the galleries of the British Museum to gaze upon the works of the Assyrians, but around the streets of Basra. That we too would see the polluted waterways. That we too would witness the rage in the Friday protests. These ruined cities, these oil pipelines draining the resources of Iraq, are their works. These are the works of BP, of the UK Government, and in the shame of our averted eyes, us British citizens.

*

With a head full of thoughts, I joined the massive queue outside the British Museum on the morning of Saturday 16th February. Americans, Chinese, Italians … people coming from all around the world to view our imperial loot. The British Museum, an engine of the British economy. An economy living off past theft, the theft of the past, a kind of necro-economy. An economy dependent upon tourists ferried in on a million aeroplanes. The stench of jet fuel.

Such was the queue I came into the Great Court of the museum from the back entrance thirty minutes late. There was not an activist to be seen. But to my relief the air was filled with the sound of the protest. I could hear voices chanting in denouncement, like the roar of a great wave. It set my heart quickening. I could feel the demonstration in my belly before I saw it. As I walked around the curve of the Rotunda, lines and lines of people dressed in black came into view. They faced two speakers, Danny Chivers, of BP or not BP?[6] and Ibtehal Hussain, of Campaign Against Arms Trade[7], whose heads were just visible above the crowd, holding high in the air a portable sound system. Ibethal read from Khaled Tawfiq Hadi:

“Our dreams are repeated frequently because as soon as we enter into a dream we are quickly pulled out of it as no hour passes without the sound of falling tears nearby. I have yet to find someone in Basra who has completed his dream all at once.”

Straining to be heard, Danny and Ibethal were almost lost in the vast space of the Court amidst the constant rumble of shuffling feet and conversation. Unable to hear the speeches, it seemed to me that their voices came from a far distance, from another land, another time.

The lines of protestors, in orderly ranks, were like mourners for the dead. There was a sombre seriousness about the gathering. This was not an act, not a pose of discontent, but rather a demonstration. A demonstration of a view of history held by a great mass of people across this country and far beyond. A demonstration of patient rage.

“We are here because it is inexcusable for a public museum to be promoting a fossil fuel company in the midst of a climate crisis”

“We are here because sixteen years ago the largest mobilisation of people across the world took place to protest the Iraq War”

The yellow vested British Museum staff looked on in bemusement, chatting in pairs, whispering into walkie-talkies. They had a right to be baffled, for something new was taking place before their eyes.

There were many here in their early 20s. They must have been children when at 02.30 am on the 20th March 2003, forty cruise missiles fired from US warships in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf began the attack on Baghdad and reopened the Iraqi oil industry to foreign capital after forty years of closure. Alongside them there were many grey haired women and men who had surely joined the million strong London march in February 2003. Here, as then, several generations were in action. The demonstration at the Museum came the day after the Climate Change School Strikes, and in the midst of Extinction Rebellion. There was a feeling of a growing movement, a new wave, combining opposition to war and colonialism with the struggle against the oil corporations and climate change.

As the figures in black chanted:

“No War No Warming”

*

Action at the British Museum – the tapestry around the Rotunda (Credit Diana More)

The shining white marble floor of the Great Court was suddenly revealed as the lines of black dispersed in different directions. All of those attending the protest were invited to participate. This was a demotic action in a demotic space, this was more ‘community theatre’ than ‘performance art’. The 350 demonstrators stood one after the other surrounding the Rotunda. Against the sound of camera shutters clicking, they sang:

“We are the people rising

When oil burns and armies grow

You stole our past and future

It’s time for you to go, go, go,

It’s time for you to go!”

In their hands they held a 200-meter long ‘living tapestry’ whose white letters on a black background read:

BP SPONSORS

STOLEN OBJECTS IN

THE BRITISH MUSEUM

BP LOBBIES GOVERNMENTS >

OIL + ARMS =

IRAQ WAR >

BP PROFITING FROM >

DESTROYING LIVES

+

POLLUTING WATER

COLONIALISM X FOSSIL FUELS =

CLIMATE CRISIS

KILLS/DISPLACES >

PEOPLE RISE >>

NO WAR

NO WARMING

DROP BP

The long line of figures carried echoes of past resistance. The Women in Black[8] who bore witness to the Yugoslav Civil War, demonstrating in London by the Edith Cavell Monument next to Trafalgar Square (an action that continues to this day). The Greenham Women who ‘Embraced the Base’ in 1982[9]. As at Greenham, this was not a tightly controlled performance and there was space for the unscripted action. A well-dressed woman in her fifties held up a piece of cardboard on which she had hand-written:

‘My history looted by ISIS and auctioned by Christies’

*

Tara Mariwany and Yasmin Younis address the crowd (credit Diana More)

After perhaps an hour the action of surrounding the Rotunda came to an end. The chain of protestors uncoiled from the circle and recoiled itself in one corner of the Great Court. From the midst of this seated crowd rose three  Iraqis, who voiced their truths in turn[10]. During the war and its aftermath we so rarely heard the words of the people of Iraq, especially in the prolonged struggle over access to the oil. Their voices were drowned out by the cacophony of western politicians and consultants. Here, at the heart of the British Museum, space was being made by the demonstration.

Zeena Yasin spoke: “I am going to share a personal story that is a direct legacy of the invasion of Iraq. During the bombing of Mosul against ISIS, which is a direct consequence of the western invasion of Iraq – the husband of my auntie wanted to aid his neighbours. His wife begged him not to, worrying for his safety. Because of his bravery, strength and chivalry, he went in an attempt to save his relatives. Alas, the house he went to was bombed and he was one of the casualties. Because of the destruction of infrastructure and transport, she could not get him to the hospital in time. It was not safe enough to get a taxi or get on a bus. She pushed him on a pushchair for hours and he succumbed to his injuries on the way. Allah yaharmu (Allah bless his soul)”

As each speaker took the portable microphone a banner was held in front of the crowd which read:

‘Iraq is THE big oil prospect. BP are desperate to get in there’ – Foreign Office official November 2002

These were the lines from a memo, which through insane determination, Greg Muttitt extracted from Whitehall. They were words typed by an official (name redacted) after a meeting with a BP group led by Richard Paniguian (later Sir Richard). That November, whilst the world felt the invasion of Iraq remained in the balance and three months before the mass demonstration against the war, Paniguian’s team made it clear that BP regarded Iraq as ‘vitally important – more important than anything we’ve seen for a long time.’ Paniguian worked for BP of 37 years, helping the company break into the oilfields of Angola, Azerbaijan, Russia, Egypt, Libya and Iraq. On retiring from BP he became head of the UK’s Department for Trade & Industry defence sales team. Paniguian passed away in 2017. Surely he was a Master of War, a father of the ceaseless violence that has rained down on Iraq in these last decades.

Sir Richard Paniguian with the Prince of Wales receiving his knighthood in 2015

Yasmin Younis spoke: “As a member of the Iraqi diaspora and the child of Iraqi immigrants, being Iraqi has been one of the most influential aspects of my life. But growing up during and living in a post-Iraq War era, the war’s destruction extends beyond the Iraqi border. The most formative years of my life were filled with self-hatred and self-doubt as the world turned against my people and “Iraq” became synonymous with “war” and “violence.” Whenever I tried to learn about my history or my culture outside of intimate familial settings, my searches were limited to violence, war, and casualty.”

With her voice cracking she continued:

“When I saw there would be a special exhibition on my culture and my history, I was ecstatic because for once, my culture’s beauty would be celebrated, but finding out the sponsor was BP was a massive slap in the face. These are the very same sponsors who advocated for the war, which destroyed my homeland and slaughtered my people all in the name of oil. To BP and the British Museum, I say how DARE you use my culture and my history as an attempt to hide your colonialist skeletons. Not my culture, not my country. No war, no warming!”

The Rumaila field, to the west of Basra, is the biggest oil project currently operating in Iraq. It is an Elephant Field, discovered by a BP subsidiary in 1953, the third largest in the world, and the backbone of Iraq’s exports. In 2018 it accounted for 40% of the country’s oil sales, and contributed around 30% of the total budget of Iraq. It is now operated by BP, in partnership with the Chinese state multinational PetroChina. It gives these corporations a hugely powerful stake in the Iraqi economy and thus its political future. Power in Iraq was once in the hands of Saddam Hussein and his circle, now it is in the hands of a number of foreign business executives and government ministers.

BP’s ability to draw profit from Rumaila is a direct consequence of Paniguian’s lobbying the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, via his officials, and a direct consequence of the forty cruise missiles that rained hell down on Baghdad in March 2003. It is also the consequence of BP’s relentless pressuring of the post-War Iraqi regimes – which was so exhaustively documented in Greg Muttitt’s book ‘Fuel on the Fire’ [11]– as they strove to secure rights over those ‘vitally important’ oil fields. Central to their campaign to get hold of Rumaila was Michael Townshend, Regional President BP Iraq 2009-13, currently head of BP Middle East, who had previously overseen the building of the infamous BTC pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean. Townshend was an architect of the Rumaila project and now the people of southern Iraq have to live with the consequences of his plan.

Michael Townshend, Regional President BP Iraq 2009-13, currently head of BP Middle East

Tara Mariwany spoke:

“We have all heard the argument that the 2003 invasion would bring democracy, stability, and peace to the people of Iraq. Yet, the current situation shows, the invasion and subsequent occupation has only been in the interest of corrupt politicians, foreign governments, and oil companies like BP – all of this at the very expense of Iraqis…

Today, oil-rich areas are one of the most deprived in the country. More than 80% of Iraq’s total GDP comes from the ports around Basra. Yet 50% of Basrawis live below the poverty line…While oil revenues account for 88.8% of total revenues, only 1% of jobs in the oil sector go to Iraqis.”

Filled with fury she continued: “In Basra, daily protests have been staged since summer 2018 due to growing frustrations at the corrupt leadership and foreign companies that are draining the country’s vast resources unhindered, to the detriment of the people. Local government offices were stormed, and entry to key oilfields were blocked off by protestors – and in retaliation, clashes with government forces killed 20 people, injured 492, and another 425 were arrested for participating, in just one single month. Hussam Abdel Ameer, 25 years old, and an unemployed university graduate from Basra said:

“We want jobs, we want to drink clean water, and electricity. We want to be treated like human beings and not animals.”

She refers to the method used by BP to extract oil as fast as possible from Rumaila, by injecting water deep into the rocks beneath the desert so that it maintains ‘well pressure’ and drives oil to the surface. It is a technique built into Townshend’s plan.

“As Iraqis are struggling to find water for their crops or feed their cattle with, the British Museum have partnered up with a company that is not only polluting waters with waste, but in 2016 and 2017 have injected over 720,000 barrels per day of water for their oil production.”

She rises to a crescendo and concludes:

“On this anniversary, it is up to us to remind the British Museum that we will not accept this sponsorship. We refuse to be complicit not only in the destruction of our planet, but the exploitation of a people and their land that have done nothing but demand to live their lives in dignity. As Iraqis continue to rise up, we too must demand the British Museum end their partnership with BP.”

*

Text by Bob Dudley, CEO of BP in the front of the British Museum’s exhibition catalogue

The words of Zeena, Yasmin and Tara stand in stark contrast to the Sponsor’s Foreword in the catalogue of the exhibition. Signed by Bob Dudley, Group Chief Executive, BP it includes the passage:

‘The important Iraqi Rumaila Field, which we helped to discover in the 1950s, is a great example of this (applying new technologies to historic resources.) We returned to the area in 2009 as the first international oil and gas company to invest in the country after conflict. Development of Rumaila has been extremely important for Iraq: it provides thousands of jobs for local people, and generates tens of billions of dollars in revenue every year for the country.’

An ‘application of new technologies’ sounds like serene common sense. But by this he means corralling the scarce water of a desert land in order to boost oil production, and boost profit. ‘Providing thousands of jobs’ sounds like the act of a great paternalist employer. But 16 years ago 99% of all those employed in the country’s oil industry were Iraqi nationals. Now the highest paid jobs in Iraq’s oil sector go to foreign nationals. It is hard to check Dudley’s claim on employment but we can be sure that the wage differential between foreign workers and Iraqi’s is massive. That sudden inequality in the industry is phenomenal. It feels like a return to the semi-colonial days before Iraq took control of its own resources in the 1960s and 70s. ‘Tens of billions of dollars in revenue’ sounds like BP is the benefactor for the nation. But what of the billions of dollars in profit that now go to BP and once went to the government of Iraq?

Dudley’s words describe how BP ‘returned to area’. It sounds almost as if the company were heading back to a well-remembered pub. In the mind of those that read the catalogue foreword, this page serves to vanish the simple fact that BP could only return to Rumaila on the back of a cataclysm of violence. And the British Museum, a great public institution, a showcase of the nation to the world, enables this vanishing act through this sponsorship deal and the publishing of this foreword.

*

Ilaf Moslawy performing at the entrance to the British Museum (credit Safa Khadim)

On a signal the protestors once again form a line and, carrying the tapestry, snake out of the Great Court and arrange themselves on the steps on the museum, before the pillars of the portico. They sing and watch the Iraqi poet Ilaf Moslawy[12] perform:

“I am BP.

How dare you question my activity?

I am British Petroleum:

King of Exploitation,

King of Injustice”

The British Museum is a building that hopes to convey continuity and stability. It presents its cornucopia of treasures in a spirit of trying to create exchange between cultures, to assist peace even. And it welcome visitors from across the world who filled the queues I had joined, attempting to be inclusive to all, as an important institution within a democratic culture.

The demonstrators of February 2003 were told that these three things – stability, peace, democracy – would be delivered to the people of Iraq as a replacement to Saddam’s brutal regime. Yet none of them have come. That which was promised by our government and the corporations has not been delivered. What has come are war and instability, poverty and pollution, and the profits of the country’s resources are being drained away from the common wealth of Iraqis to the private wealth of the government officials, company staff and corporate shareholders. Some tiny fragment of these stolen riches is syphoned back to the pension funds of British citizens and the marketing department of the British Museum.

I’m filled with a desire for justice. That those that designed and carried out this catastrophic destruction of a land and its peoples should be held to account. Perhaps we could stand alongside Lord John Browne, Terry Adams, Tony Hayward, Bob Dudley, Michael Townshend and the ghost of Richard Paniguian. We could accompany them as they look at the 350 people gathered together on the steps of the British Museum. Doubtless these white men in their sixties and seventies, like Tony Blair, would have no remorse, but believe that all their actions were taken with the best of intentions. But we would stand beside them in the knowledge that, on this day at least, the consequence of their actions was not forgotten but revealed.

May we take inspiration from the people of Iraq, who have kept up an extraordinary resistance, persevering in the face of unimaginable horror and oppression. May we, in the midst of luxury, maintain the same level of determination.

May there be many more days like these.

Banner held up at the front of the Museum as the action closed (Credit Safa Kadhim)

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Thanks to Jess Worth, Danny Chivers, Greg Muttitt, Paula Serafini, Chris Garrard, Ben Diss and Steve.

This blog builds on the back of research being undertaken for the forthcoming book ‘Crude Britannia – How Big Oil shaped an nation’s past and future’ Due out in 2020.

[13]

Endnotes:
  1. Culture Unstained: https://cultureunstained.org/
  2. ‘I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria’,: https://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/events_calendar/event_detail.aspx?eventId=4656&title=I%20am%20Ashurbanipal:%20king%20of%20the%20world,%20king%20of%20Assyria&eventType=Members%27%20lecture
  3. 100,000 residents: https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/basra-hospitals-overwhelmed-as-water-poisoning-cases-near-100-000-1.773822
  4. extremely high: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/08/iraq-basra-health-water.html
  5. more than 20 times: https://www.iraqicivilsociety.org/archives/9348
  6. BP or not BP?: https://twitter.com/ReclaimOurBard
  7. Campaign Against Arms Trade: https://www.caat.org.uk/
  8. Women in Black: http://womeninblack.org/vigils-arround-the-world/europa/united-kingdom/london/
  9. Greenham Women who ‘Embraced the Base’ in 1982: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenham_Common_Women%27s_Peace_Camp
  10. who voiced their truths in turn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJyWQZaL0rU&feature=youtu.be
  11. Fuel on the Fire’ : http://www.fuelonthefire.org/
  12. Ilaf Moslawy: https://www.facebook.com/ilaf.moslawy
  13. : #_ftnref1

 

I have been involved in various climate campaigns and research projects for the last 10 years and have often found myself in rooms full of well meaning, reasonably wealthy, middle aged white people. They are usually the Heads of Sustainability or Corporate Responsibility in their places of work – banks, local authorities, consultancies, funding institutions. Wanting to do something about climate change, feeling the urgency (somewhat), well meaning but with limited power. The wider culture in their institution isn’t one that is aligned towards meaningful climate action. And even though I know these people as individuals are good intentioned, I rarely am able to shake the feeling that the reasons they care about climate action are different from why I care about it. There is no real mention of Global South communities or any deep sense that extreme climatic events will impact the quality of life of people in the Global North too, with all it’s repercussions on our food supply and sharpest impacts on the most vulnerable people.

Somethings have changed and somethings have not. I’ve been away from the “climate conference scene” for a year. Firstly, travelling on my bike across Europe during the continent’s hottest summer in recent years, dodging unusual thunderstorms, struggling to find lakes to swim in, and witnessing field after field of failed harvest. Then on my return being one of the Stansted 15 defendants, on trial for an action whose origins lie in a group of environmental direct action folks coming together to use their skills and knowledge in solidarity with global south migrants. My first foray back into the suited and booted climate conference scene after this break was the Covenant of Mayors Investment Forum – Energy Efficiency Finance Market Place in Brussels last week.

Myself and my colleague Rowan found ourselves in the gaudy ballroom of a hotel in the European Commission district of Brussels, hobnobbing with officers from city councils across Europe, bankers, technology companies, EU officers.We were there to learn what current best practice is regarding city authority led climate action for mPower,[1] our flagship EU funded 4 year peer-learning programme whose aim is to facilitate the development and replication of innovative municipal energy system projects which maximise citizen control and benefit. 

There wasn’t much (or any?) mention of the impacts of climate change on the Global South and Europe’s responsibility. But what has changed – and I really felt this – is that white middle class people are scared now. They finally believe that climate change is a thing that will impact their lives in substantial ways. And this belief is clearly translating into action – from city authorities, investors, private technology firms and the EU. The conference, in fact, began with a keynote speech that was both pessimistic and optimistic. We were told that the EU is most likely going to miss most of its 2030 climate targets but progress is being made to meet its 2050 climate targets. That every Thursday morning, tens of thousands of young people have been marching, passing outside the Crowne Plaza, where our conference was taking place, protesting against government inaction on climate change. That people all around the world were unhappy because their governments were not taking climate change seriously. That there was bottom up support now for strong political action on climate. Perhaps weird climate events whose frequency is increasing is finally waking Europe up – the February heatwave that was basking Europe in Spring like temperatures way too early in the year was mentioned more than once.

 

Young people fed up with government inaction marching in Brussels – February 2019

There was a lot of mention of targets – which gave me the sense that the Paris agreement is making a difference, and the EU 2030 and 2050 climate targets are giving city led action structure, direction and focus. The most exciting presentations were from city authorities – about what they are currently doing and how they got to this point. The cities who attended the conference are signatories of the Covenant of Mayors, an initiative[2] that describes itself as the “world’s largest movement for local climate and energy actions”. You can browse through of the best practice examples collected by the Covenant here.[3]

This was a conference on investment and finance – so of course there were many mentions of “competitiveness” and “making the business case to investors” for energy transition initiatives. I could feel myself hit my Peak Cynicism at such mentions, and wondering whether green capitalism is the best we can hope from such a crowd. And that may well be true to a great extent but I was also reminded at various points over the two days that we don’t have to settle for green capitalism. A common question to city authorities was: “how do you make the business case to investors” – and I smiled when one city officer from Rotterdam shrugged his shoulder and said: “we funded the project [4]ourselves”. With his shrugging the officer asserted that there is another way – a route where the financing of climate projects could be undertaken for the common good not in order to generate profits for private investors. Of course not all city authorities’ have the financial power to do so but it is encouraging when those who do make something of their power for their citizens.

But what was most encouraging was that many city authorities gave examples of projects where they are engaging with their local communities – and stressed the importance of doing so. As part of the mPower programme, we will specifically be working with decision makers in city authorities to embed, at a deeper level, energy transition projects that have energy democratic and justice principles. mPower will tackle all sorts of pertinent issues – how to attract finance for example, how to deploy smart grids or districting heating systems, how to conduct large scale retrofits and so on  – but at the heart of our approach and political vision is to facilitate greater and more meaningful democratic control and ownership.

I’ll probably always be a bit cynical of such conferences – but I tend to think a healthy dollop of cynicism is a good thing. I heard much fear and ambition in that room over two days – but I left wondering whether this will translate into meaningful climate action or get stuck at “making the business case”. I probably will wonder this for a while, taking solace that through mPower we at least have an opportunity to work directly with city authorities to go beyond green capitalism.

Endnotes:
  1. mPower,: https://municipalpower.org/get-involved/
  2. initiative: https://www.covenantofmayors.eu
  3. here.: https://www.covenantofmayors.eu/plans-and-actions/good-practices.html
  4. project : http://ec.europa.eu/environment/life/project/Projects/index.cfm?fuseaction=search.dspPage&n_proj_id=5239&docType=pdf

Daily Telegraph image to accompany publication of the leaked conference call – 15th January 2019

 

The storm in Westminster rages so ferociously that at times it’s hard to hear ourselves think. There is second by second coverage of the House of Commons and Downing Street from every conceivable angle. Backbenchers so obscure that we’ve never heard of them before are dragged through the TV studios and closely cross-questioned. Others gain their ‘moment of fame’ though ‘acts of principle’ such as resignation. The journalists watch like hawks the comings and goings of advisors to Number 10 for any chance indication of a change in direction by the Prime Minister.

Questions swirl around the corridors of Whitehall.

What happens if we have a No Deal Brexit? What will be the impact on the country, on the economy? Will the lorries back up around Dover jamming the ports, filing the motorways and spilling onto the reserved runways of nearby airports? Will the lack of basic foodstuffs cause social unrest?

The strange thing about this storm is who remains silent at the heart of it. The UK’s three largest companies on the London Stock Exchange, by market capitalisation, are HSBC, Shell and BP. As they have been for a long while. We have heard from the likes of the CEO of Airbus and the UK Manufacturing Director of Honda (neither company are listed on the London Stock Exchange), but where are John Flint, Ben van Beurden and Bob Dudley, the heads of each of these companies, in all of this?

John Flint – head of HSBC

The media talks of the question of the UK economy  and it’s imminent crisis (Will No Deal mean gridlock and panic buying?) and the question of its long term prospects (Will Brexit lead to companies winding down investment and shifting production out of the UK?) as though it is the ministers or shadow ministers, the backbenchers or advisors, who can or will direct these things. But we know in our bellies that this is not the case, that decisions about whether capital is directed away from the UK, or trucks are directed away from Dover, will take place not in the offices of public servants in Westminster, but in the offices of executives in private corporations.

Ben van Beurden – CEO of Shell

Of course we also know that ‘business’, or rather large corporate concerns, are not sitting there idly or as bemused as we are. Their task is simple, to generate return on private capital, to generate ‘shareholder return’, and every circumstance has to be assessed for its potential to do so. If the UK crashes out of the EU – then how can this event increase profits? If the UK does Brexit – then how can that be used to improve shareholder return?

Bob Dudley – CEO of BP

Platform’s knowledge is particularly built around the energy sector – especially oil & gas and wind – so how do these questions apply in this sector:

If the UK crashes out of the EU – how will Shell and BP use this to increase profits?

If the UK does Brexit – then how can that be used by Orsted and EON to improve shareholder return?

Only very occasionally does the media afford us any glimpse that this corporate debate is taking place. On the night of Tuesday 15th January Prime Minister May suffered the worst defeat of any key government bill in at least a century. It was widely taken as a given that the governments’ Brexit Plan would be defeated, but few had predicted that the opposition to it would be so strong. The shock waves in the commentariat were immediate and Minister’s hurried to calm public nerves.

It seems that the first to take action were three of the most important UK ministers, after May, the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, together with Greg Clark, Minister for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, and Stephen Barclay, Secretary of State for Brexit. Less than 60 minutes after the vote had been declared they held a conference call with ‘business leaders’ from 330 ‘leading firms’.

Who were these ‘leading firms’? The reporting was scanty. The Evening Standard said they were “top brass from Amazon, BP, Balfour Beatty, the Post Office, Tesco, Siemens, Carolyn Fairbairn (CBI) and Richard Pennycook (of CoOp Retail and Head of the British Retail Consortium.)”. The Guardian added another name to the list, Scottish Power.

Who are these ‘top brass’? What do we know about them? We of course have names of those who attended from the side of the public – Hammond, Clark and Barclay – and we can find their biographies on-line, but only two of the ‘top brass’ were named in most of the reports in the papers.

Fortunately for us, such is the nature of these turbulent times that a tape of the conversation was leaked to the Daily Telegraph. Through that rare leak, we learn that from BP there was Peter Mather. Amazon UK was represented by Doug Gurr, and Tesco by chairman John Allan, who is also President of CBI. Jurgen Maier was there from Siemens UK, the largest manufacturer of wind turbines in Britain. And there was Kevin Anderson, CEO of Scottish Power, Simon Blagden, Co-chair of Fujitsu UK, Leo Quinn, CEO of Balfour Beatty, Paula Vennels, head of the Post Office and Vivian Hunt, managing partner at McKinsey & Co. From this we can glean the names of ‘leaders’ from 11 firms, but that apparently leaves 319 unaccounted for.

Greg Clark MP – Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy

We shall have to await the release of any information via Freedom of Information requests, and as is the usual way, the names of those attending will have been blacked out, redacted for ‘commercial reasons’.

The Telegraph leak reveals much of the substance of the discussion (although the paper seems not to have released the full hour of the transcript). The focal point, which was at the heart of the Telegraph’s outrage, is the pressure that several of the executives put on ministers in order to get the government to pull a No Deal Brexit off the table. Hammond effectively gave his commitment that this is likely to happen – a suggestion that runs directly counter to the public announcements of Teresa May.

The anger of the Pro-Brexit Right at this intervention by ‘big business’ in the democratic workings of the British state was neatly expressed by the columnist Janet Daley. Writing in the Telegraph three days later she described how:

A British Chancellor, a Cabinet minister in charge of Brexit and a Business Secretary fall over each other to soothe and placate the leaders of over 300 multinationals, sounding like aspiring lobbyists competing for contracts as they assured the companies that they would do everything possible to prevent the no-deal outcome which their boards feared’.

She went on to explain ‘the multinationals are now as determined to snuff out the true spirit of free enterprise as they are to control the actions of governments. They are as protectionist in their instincts as an isolationist country and as fierce in defence of their power as a totalitarian regime.’

Stephen Barclay MP – Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

There is much talk of how ‘business does not like uncertainty’. But only a short reflection gives the lie to this truism, some business dislikes uncertainty, but much of business thrives on uncertainty. The entire realm of trading, in equities or commodities, in traded goods or currencies, depends on uncertainty, or turbulence as it’s better described. A static, unmoving market in oil, for example, is a dead market. Money is made by judging, or guessing, the future value of a commodity. If nothing moves, and no values change, there can be little profit to be made on trading. A turbulent market, a market with plenty of turbulence, is a profitable market. And this does not just apply to those companies who are described as ‘traders’ based in the likes of Canary Wharf, but also to the ‘big businesses’ such as Amazon, BP, Siemens and others. In 2015, BP had the worst financial results in its century long history, it’s value was effectively rescued by the soaring profitability of its trading arm, BP Integrated Supply & Trading. The head of that division of the corporation, Dr Brian Gilvray, is now Chief Financial Officer of the whole of BP.

From the leaked transcript it is clear the ‘top brass’ used the call to get a better understanding of how the Chancellor saw the coming weeks and months. For such intelligence will assist BP, Amazon et al to utilise and navigate the unfolding turbulence. Invariably this is reported as being in order to avoid losses, but is also invaluable in order to generate profits.

What then does the government want in return from assisting private corporations, from this rush to a conference call within minutes of the vote? Most likely it’s after reassurances on how the likes of Amazon, Tescos, BP and the British Retail Consortium will help maintain the free flow of goods within the UK amidst the growing anxiety over a No Deal export/ import mayhem

Not without reason the government’s greatest fear is of a breakdown of the distribution systems, of panic buying in the supermarkets, queues at the petrol stations and social unrest. There are good grounds for their fear. The memory of Whitehall is scarred by such events in the past.

The Winter of Discontent – 1978/79

The famed ‘Winter of Discontent’ that contributed so strongly to the rise of Mrs Thatcher in 1979, is remembered for the tales of bodies lying unburied in the morgues and piles of rubbish in the streets. But the disruption of two months began in December 1978 with an overtime ban by BP tanker drivers who were determined to defend the value of their wages in the midst of rising inflation. They struck, petrol did not reach the forecourts, queues jammed the streets, and Callaghan’s Labour government teetered on the brink of declaring a National Emergency and calling in the Army.

Just over twenty years later a similar crisis hit Blair’s Labour government in September 2000. Lorry drivers, protesting the rising cost of fuel that was destroying their livelihoods, blockaded the UK refineries such as Coryton and Stanlow and distribution hubs at Buncefield and Trafford Park. Within hours the supermarkets were feeling the pinch, there was panic buying and rumours of the cash tills running empty. Blair reacted with unprecedented urgency, demanding that the oil companies meet in Downing Street and help get the fuel flowing again. Executives from BP and Shell duly attended, but their slow response to the government’s demands illustrated their power and gave them a key tool in their battle to extract an improvement in the UK North Sea tax regime. The chief negotiator on the oil companies’ side was John Manzoni – then a senior executive at BP Refining & Marketing, now Chief Executive of the Civil Service, perhaps the most senior man in Whitehall. How the poachers turn gamekeepers.

John Manzoni – currently Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet Office – former executive in BP

So the government knows well what a distribution breakdown looks like, and the ‘top brass’ know Westminster’s anxiety. They can smell their fear. Wittingly or unwittingly, the likes of Amazon, Tesco and BP can exploit that fear – after all the main function of these companies is to generate return on capital, and only secondarily to provide a public service to UK citizens that ensures there are avocados on the shelves and copies of cookbooks and DVDs delivered to homes.

At the centre of the political storm are conversations between the government and private corporations over the prospects of the coming months. They are hugely influential in determining the course of Britain at this time. Yet they are hidden from public view and we the citizens are unable to hear the dialogue that takes place in those rare meetings we are granted a glimpse of. This is the silence at the heart of the storm.

*

Thanks to Jo Ram

*

This blog builds on the back of the research being undertaken for the forthcoming ‘Crude Britannia – How Big Oil shaped a nation’s past and future’ by James Marriott and Terry Macalister. Due out in 2020.

*

 

Barnacle Geese

We drive slowly down the winding lane that leads across the flat landscape on the northern flank of the Solway Firth in the county of Dumfries & Galloway. As we move onto the farmland of Preston Merse, we are distracted by the red stone ruin of Wreaths Tower. All that remains of the craggy weathered masonry of this shattered house, are a fragment of walling, a window lintel, a flight of stairs and the doorway of an upstairs room. Our eyes turn back to the road and we look down the slope ahead and over fields of bright green grass.

Only they are not green. They are covered in grey white snow. Or is it shingle? No, it is thousands of Barnacle Geese. A seething carpet of birds! We inch down the road, pull in and let down the windows. The morning air is filled with soft honks and squeaks and barks. There is an astounding number of creatures. All around us as we sit in our car. We feel the mass of another species, utterly uninterested in us, blind to us, absorbed in their realm. They are like the Wildebeest migrations on the Serengeti I watched on the TV as a child. They are like cliffs of Kittiwakes and Guillemots, Puffins and Gannets I’ve have gazed at in Shetland or the Faroes. We are trespassers into their land, their space, their stories, their song. This is the humbling phenomena of other beings.

At Mersehead RSPB reserve two miles west, we learn of the Barnacle Geese of Solway. The woman at the desk is full of excitement and quiet pride. She is part of a team of Solway Watchers who each autumn draw information from bird counts across the Firth and thus estimate the numbers arriving from the North.

Location of Svalbard

Forty-two thousand, the entire geese population of the Arctic island of Svalbard, migrate each autumn – 2,000 miles down the coast of Norway, across the North Sea to Northumbria and over the Pennines to the Solway Firth. They fly by night, feed by day, avoiding predators, wary of humans with guns. In 2018 the first arrived on Saturday 22nd September 2018. A full 11,070 birds were counted on the fields of Preston Merse on Friday 12th October. Svalbard is one of a handful of places on Earth that these geese breed, so the population that spends the Autumn and Winter in Solway, and the Spring and Summer on that Arctic island, is the majority of the world population.

How many generations of geese have done this since the Ice Age? The people who lived in the Wreaths Tower in the 16th Century must have looked out upon these same fields and salt marshes and marvelled at the arrival of this winged horde. They must have studied the numbers just as the Solway Watchers do today. The geese have their own their stories, their song lines, that narrate the journey from Svalbard to Solway and back. They store the memory. They act out the memory.

We peer through binoculars and study the delicacy of the plumage of these graceful creatures. Black and white and grey. The edges of each block of colour is so precise, so clean, so perfect. And I am remembering my dear friend Doreen Massey. It is two and a half years since she died, but she is with us here. (An obituary to here is elsewhere on this blog[1]) For how she loved the geese. Often she would go birdwatching with her sister at Ravenglass, just south of here. And once she was among a party who journeyed to Svalbard in the Arctic.

Quite suddenly they take off! 5,000 geese take to the air, exploding off the ground all around us. My mouth drops open. The sky is filled with the sound of their wings, the squeaking, the thrumming of feathers through air. They hum like a swarm of bees.

Barnacle Geese in flight

I am here together with my mother. We have come not only to search out the geese but also to explore the villages, hills and beaches where she lived briefly as a child. She was only three when she arrived here, effectively evacuated away from a home in Essex, east of London, as the German air raids began. This is the place of her first memories, and they are etched into her mind so deeply.

Like the geese we are creatures of memory. My mother recalls the beach, the houses and the lanes of Rockliffe. The apple tree that hung over the road and from which she took fruit to quench her thirst in the heat. There are deeper, distant echoes of our family here in 1800s and before. The dampness, the small fields grazed by Black Cattle, divided by outcrops of rock in the valley of the Urr and Nithsdale. The tightly enclosed farm yards, buildings with their backs to the wind and snow. The woods of Kirkennan filled with Ash, Oak, Rowan, Beech and Hawthorn. The sound of the geese overhead in the autumn. The fabric of memory stretched over the land.

*

Graph of Svalbard surface temperature – 1750 to present

 

What if the geese too were to become just a memory? If the sea temperature in the Solway Firth alters then of course it will alter the ecosystem of this region, and impact on the feeding grounds of the geese. More dramatically climate change means the Arctic is warming at an exponential rate. Studies reveal how the mean temperatures of Svalbard have risen steadily since 1960s.

It is indisputable that this shift is impacting upon the ecosystem of Svalbard. Fossil fuel emissions, from the life support system of our industrial society, are eroding the life support system of the geese. If this change continues is it not likely that this population of the Barnacle Geese will collapse? And with that will go the annual migration and the sound of the geese over the fields of Solway? A pattern of birds arriving and departing, that must have been central to the hunter-gatherer families living here in the Mesolithic, will disappear.

Of course we do not not know for sure that this will happen. But unfortunately by the time we do know, by the time the numbers of 42,000 geese dwindle, it will be too late. Inexorably, another species will go under. Rendered extinct. Become only a memory.

*

A week after we watched the geese WWF[2] and the Zoological Society of London[3] published their bi-annual Living Planet Report.[4] The research studied more than 4,000 species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians and discovered that their populations had fallen by an average of 60% since 1974. In my lifetime a mass extinction has been taking place. Myriads of creatures are being pushed into memory. Destroyed by an industrial system that has cosseted me from cradle to middle age.

This annihilation does not go unnoticed. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the day after the publication of this report came the first public action of a new movement – Extinction Rebellion[5]. In Parliament Square a declaration was read out built on material from the group’s new website:

We are in an ecological crisis caused by climate change, pollution and habitat destruction; a mass species extinction on a scale much larger than the one which killed the dinosaurs is underway….

Change to avert the worst of the disaster is still technically and economically possible. The changes won’t be simple but there is nothing more important or worthwhile. It involves creating a world which is less frenetic and more beautiful. This is an emergency situation – action is urgent.

The Declaration came together with a set of demands –

  1. That the Government must tell the truth about how deadly our situation is, it must reverse all policies not in alignment with that position and must work alongside the media to communicate the urgency for change including what individuals, communities and businesses need to do.
  2. Good intentions and guidelines won’t save the ice caps. The Government must enact legally-binding policies to reduce carbon emissions in the UK to net zero by 2025 and take further action to remove the excess of atmospheric greenhouse gases. It must cooperate internationally so that the global economy runs on no more than half a planet’s worth of resources per year.

Over a thousand folks gathered in the sunlit square to hear speeches and the prayers of ministers from several different faiths. Many lay down in the road, locking themselves to each other, in order to prevent removal and block the traffic. Fifteen were arrested, following the planned strategy to crowd the courts with resisters. They were all later released.

This movement has its critics. It is certainly no more perfect than others than have gone before. The strategy of forcing change through activists risking arrest and imprisonment seems to wilfully neglect the reality that oppression in the UK is unevenly distributed. That for a person of colour to face the police is an utterly different experience than for a white person. Some of the statements from those who talk for the movement seem to ignore the fact that the impacts of climate change, as they take place across the globe, are experienced disproportionately by the already impoverished and marginalised, and this pattern is racialised.[6]

But there is a sense of something brewing here. A feeling of desperation that is spawning direct action – just as took place against nuclear missiles in the 1980s and the UK government’s intoxication with road building in the 1990s. Something is stirring.

*

Extinction Rebellion action to block the bridges of Central London – Westminster Bridge 18th November 2018

I’m standing on Westminster Bridge in sharp Autumn sunlight. There are a few thousand people here. The passage of traffic is blocked by this great gathering.[7] The organic ebb and flow of a peaceful crowd. The constant chatter of voices. The bright colours of clothes. At one place on this wide highway the demonstrators are packed more tightly. Some sit on the tarmac listening to the speakers who rise to use an open mic. Lucy Neal, part of the family of Platform for so many years, takes the stand. She reminds us of the nature of this place, a bridge spanning the great River Thames, its brown mid-tide waters falling towards the North Sea.

I look beyond her. There is the silhouette of Lambeth Bridge, the figures of another group of ‘blockaders’ clearly visible under an array of banners and flags. The Police vans lined up at the northern end, doubtless processing some of the 80 people arrested this day.

Five main bridges in the capital city were blocked for many hours. Pledges were taken that actions will continue and numbers will rise. Despite the bright colours perhaps this body of human beings is responding to a feeling of grief? Perhaps they, like the geese, rise like a swarm? Perhaps they are responding to the memory that it is only through direct action that dramatic changes in the trajectory of society taken place? Perhaps by acting together they are creating memory – ‘Yes, I was there that day too … the day we blocked the bridges.’ These festivals of resistance press the issue into the public mind, they create collective memory, even for those who did not attend.

*

I think back to the experience of the Barnacle Geese taking to the air from the fields of Preston Merse. How do I face the reality of their possible destruction? How do I face the melancholy that comes from recognising we are burning the life world of other animals? That we are stoking a great pyre of other beings.

Perhaps this melancholy connects within me to the fear of the annihilation of those I love … of Doreen, of my mother. The inevitability of the loss of those we love. We deal with this loss by the maintenance of memory. With my mother I go searching for evidence of the homes and graves of our ancestors. For ‘The dead only die when the living cease to remember them’.

Perhaps texts such as the Living Planet Report are written so that we do not forget the species we have destroyed? There must be thousands of books on the Dodo. We fear that if other beings are rendered extinct and then they are forgotten, they will be erased. But what if there is no one left to remember the dead?

How difficult it is to imagine our own extinction as a culture, as a people. And yet this process of extinction has been fundamental to the history of Western European ‘civilisation’, especially since the 15th century. In every corner of the globe, entire peoples have been driven to the edge of genocide or beyond – by the Spanish in Central America, by the British in Australia, by the Germans in Southern Africa, and so much more. Are we turning this brutal cultural pattern on ourselves in an act of self-destruction, an act of exterminism that will shatter the house of all other species in the process?

I ask myself, what would Doreen say about the altering of the climate in Svalbard? Would she have been here on this bridge? What was her sense of the mass extinction of other species? Perhaps it was not truly vivid to her? I don’t remember we ever spoke of it. Perhaps it was less pressing for her and her generation. The generation of my mother, for they were born only 7 years apart.

As we talk over the geese, my mother mentions climate change. I am surprised. It is so rare for us to touch on this conversation. Perhaps she too feels the shadow.

Maybe the joyful chaos of actions like the Rebellion on the bridges of London can lift the shadow? I feel compelled to try.

With thanks to Lucy Neal and Rowan Mataram

Extinction Rebellion declaration

 

Endnotes:
  1. on this blog: https://platformlondon.org/2016/03/24/doreen-massey-in-memoriam/
  2. WWF: https://www.wwf.org.uk/
  3. Zoological Society of London: http://www.zsl.org/‎
  4. Living Planet Report.: https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/all_publications/living_planet_report_2018/
  5. Extinction Rebellion: https://rebellion.earth/
  6. and this pattern is racialised.: https://www.globaljustice.org.uk/blog/2018/nov/19/climate-justice-and-extinction
  7. this great gathering.: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-46252619