As I write this, friends and colleagues and a ship I love are in custody in Murmansk because they made a stand against big oil.
The place they chose to make their stand was in the Russian Arctic, where Gazprom and Shell are building the first rig to exploit a new opportunity to drill where drilling was once impossible: the newly ice-free waters of the once-frozen North.
Two Greenpeace activists boarded the Prirazlomnaya platform to hang a banner, to throw a spotlight on the dangers of oil drilling in the arctic in particular, and our continued reliance on fossil fuels in general. Gazprom was having none of it. Shots were fired at our activists, knives were brandished at them, the coast guard sent a helicopter with armed agents to seize our entire ship — an illegal act under the Law of the Sea against a Dutch-flagged ship in international waters.
But this wasn’t about law. This was about message. And the message was painfully clear. Our activists and the two journalists accompanying them were told to shut up. With jail cells. With a very public show of force to let us, and everyone else who might consider speaking up against them, know exactly who is boss, and what fate awaits those who might consider this a cause to join. They’re talking to you.
This is the dystopic vision of a world in which democracy has been bought with petrodollars, in which human rights can be suspended,
ignored, trampled upon. It’s a world in which Planet Earth is occupied by a global tyrant: the fossil fuel industry.
That tyrant has as much stranglehold on human rights, indigenous rights, the rights to free speech and assembly, and the right to a free press as a dealer has over a desperate heroine addict’s every hour. Make no mistake, our addiction is desperate. Just as a junky who has run out of veins in their arms and legs will shoot up between their fingers, the oil in the Arctic is only attractive because it’s all that’s left. It’s hard and costly to get to, it poses massive safety, environmental, and reputational risks. It’s currently a break-even venture at best. But Big Oil knows that as supply declines, price is going to skyrocket — because they’re actively ensuring that demand remains high by bribing and bullying every government on the planet to ignore the warning signs of climate change, avoid putting a price on carbon, continue subsidising coal and oil, and stall the development of renewable energy.
It’s not just Russia. Tim deChristopher served a prison term in the US for the audacity of impersonating an oil company and bidding on oil tracts in a national park. He was told to shut up. With a jail cell.
Ken Saro-Wiwa’s non-violent protest against the collusion of government and oil in Nigeria? He was told to shut up. With a jail cell. Then a rope. His story ended with his execution, and horror in the international community at the revelations of human rights violations that a state was willing to enforce to ensure it remained in the good graces of an oil company.
Gazprom and Russian security may be behaving like anti-free-speech thugs in threatening 28 activists and 2 journalists with 15 years in prison, but it’s not morally distinct from oil companies turning the US government into a wholly owned subsidiary, ready to wage war, ignore science, and imprison the innocent at their master’s bidding.
Researchers have a name for it: the “Repression effect.” They’ve found a corrrelation between extractive industries like coal and oil and increased corruption, authoritarian government, governance failures, and conflict. They’ve found that resource wealth retards democratization by enabling the government to better fund the apparatus of repression. And we know the impact of Big Oil money in US elections, where corporate entities are granted personhood under the law and so have “rights” to buy any congressman or senator they please.
Whether it’s the Burmese army enslaving villages to lay the Yadana and Yetagun pipelines or the proceeds from the Chad-Cameroon pipeline being used to weaponize a civil war, or Chevron’s “Human Rights Hit Men” in the Ecuadorian rainforest, The Arctic 30 are simply the latest victims of Big Oil’s clearing away of everything in its path, including human rights, to get the next fix to sell to its enslaved dependent.
But here’s a secret about tyrants: they overplay their hands. And when they do, the people they disdain as powerless tend to rise up and
demonstrate exactly what power looks like. When the French government overplayed its hand in 1985 by sinking the Rainbow Warrior to “anticipate” her taking action against nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific, they set off a tsunami of protest in the Pacific — a billion acts of courage ranging from small boat owners joining a flotilla that sailed half way across the Pacific to stop the next test, to New Zealand making political choices to forego export income in the name of justice, to restaurants choosing to turn down the profits of selling French wine. The French government lost that battle; the planet won.
If we have any hope of overthrowing Big Oil, it’s going to take another billion acts of courage — from politicians turning away from campaign donations in the name of their children’s future, to communities saying “no” to easy money from fracking, to consumers resisting the candy-man crooked-finger beckoning of subsidised dirty energy and the whispered assurances that everything will be alright, if we simply accept the world as it is, don’t make a fuss, and shut up and buy.
I’ve got 30 friends waking up to their 31st morning in a grim jail today, reminding me just how much the Big Oil Tyrant fears people speaking out and taking action.
And all that does is renew my commitment to speaking out and taking action.