By Madighan Ryan, Staff Writer. Image by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash
It is amenable to the largely white, Western, middle to upper class, to sequester the oil industry’s disruption and devastation to distant parts of the world; to build a white picket fence around a nation like America and assume that the Liberty and Freedom woven into the fabric of privileged cultural narratives also means Liberty and Freedom from Big Oil disruption.
Suella Braverman and her compatriots (and you, if you find yourself excessively annoyed) are playing the world’s smallest violin when it comes to the degree of disruption Just Stop Oil activists, demanding the ban of all new fossil fuel projects, have caused in the United Kingdom. “Threat to our way of life” seems to be a bit of a melodramatic battlecry when your adversaries are your neighbours – teachers, paramedics, academics, not to mention retirees – and the extent of their disruption has been inconveniencing your route to work and spray painting the window of a department store only London’s elite have the pleasure of frequenting. Or perhaps you feel that two teenagers armed with a can of soup are the true threat? Funny how none of the arm-chair critics seemed to care as much when Mr. Van Gogh’s painting was found to be entirely unharmed. Let’s contextualise road blocks, vandalism, and the infamous tomato soup incident with the thousands of deaths and human rights atrocities committed or made possible by the true villains here: Big Oil and the governments dependent on them. Because if you’re playing the world’s smallest violin, victims of Big Oil are comparatively the world’s largest orchestra, and I challenge you to listen.
The Most Polluted Place on Earth
An image search of the Niger Delta will outstrip any written attempt to chronicle Big Oil’s exploitative six-decade-long chokehold on the resource rich area. This is the home of true disruption: the Niger Delta’s honorific as one of the most polluted places on Earth, makes for unfavourable conditions, to say the least, for its 6 million residents, the majority of whom depend on agriculture. Food security continues to be devastated by the ravaging effects of many many thousands of oil spills – there were 822 (reported) oil spills in 2020 and 2021 alone. During planting season, once-rich soil practically bleeds with crude oil: crops are stunted, some have been wiped out altogether, and seeds may not yield.
Ken Saro-Wiwa died resisting Big Oil. His words two weeks before he and eight other men were hanged: “This is it – they are going to arrest us all and execute us. All for Shell.” All for organising the 1995 non-violent grassroots movement to banish the Shell Oil Company from Ogoniland in the Niger Delta, set against the backdrop of human suffering and corporate profiteering. Just three years later, hundreds of Kaiama, Mbiama, and Yenagoa men died resisting Big Oil in an anti-exploitation movement led by Nigerian youth. Hundreds of their women were raped. Nigerian troops violently suppressed both protests because of the Nigerian government’s (colonisation-induced) dependence on Big Oil: well over three quarters of the Nigerian government’s export income is oil money. Or so said Western media, who failed to as loudly circulate that all of these innocents were also victims of corporate crime. Off-the-record, the Shell Oil Company both directed and armed the Nigerian government in both 1995 and 1998 to protect their access to 6,000 km of layed pipelines, and 1,000 oil wells.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
It is amenable to the largely white, Western, middle to upper class, to sequester the oil industry’s disruption and devastation to distant parts of the world; to build a white picket fence around a nation like America and assume that the Liberty and Freedom woven into the fabric of privileged cultural narratives also means Liberty and Freedom from Big Oil disruption. But Liberty and Freedom are not equally applied and white picket fences are not nation-wide. White willful ignorance allows Big Oil to easily obscure their involvement in human rights abuses experienced in sacrifice zones:
- The island on which the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, a Louisianian Indigenous community, lives has lost 98% of its landmass since 1955 due to offshore oil and gas extraction. Continuous dredging and the laying of pipelines have resulted in salt water flooding, and the disruption and destruction of the local ecosystem, naturally occurring hurricane defence mechanisms, and agriculture. In 1998, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the island protected status as it was a cost ineffective investment.
- Of the 5 million Californians who live within a mile of an oil well, nine out of ten are BIPOC. In Los Angeles, 580,000 marginalised Angelenos live within harmful proximity to oil wells. According to the American Lung Association, due to the prevalence of neighbourhood drilling, Bakersfield, California (majority Latinx) is the most polluted city in the U.S. This is, and will continue to be, a generational health epidemic: a child in Bakersfield is three times more likely to suffer from asthma than the average Californian child.
- The pipelines which connect the oil refineries and wells along the Mississippi River also connect and unify the area designated “Cancer Alley.” Low-income, majority black, “fence-line” communities are exposed to copious amounts of industrial contaminants and co-pollutants from hundreds of petrochemical facilities in the area.
It is not just land, but people – communities whose residents are majority BIPOC and/or poor – who are sacrificed by Big Oil for the energy whims of the privileged and blissfully ignorant.
Just Stop Oil is not responsible for true disruption. Big Oil, while the facilitator of devastation and human rights abuses, is not responsible for true disruption. It is those who ignore the people sacrificed by Big Oil, in favour of hysteria over tomato soup, who are responsible for the true disruption of any moral compass we should possess as human beings. On October 20th, 2022, Lloyds Banking Group released a decision in response to protests: they pledged to end “direct financing (either via project finance, or reserve-based lending) of new greenfield oil and gas developments.” Just Stop Oil has justifiably and successfully prioritised the lives and rights of global communities over the length of your daily commute.
This is a lesson in empathy, a lesson in perspective, and a beginner’s guide to true disruption.