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By Robert C. Koehler
You couldn’t call it a dialogue. It was more like a momentary rip in the global power continuum, a spill of outrage on the stage of a major oil conference in London.
On Tuesday, two Greenpeace activists interrupted a speech by British Petroleum chief of staff Steve Westwell — sandwiched him at his podium, trespassed on time and space that didn’t belong to them, and spoke to an audience that hadn’t come to hear them. They had about 20 seconds, not much time to talk about the complexity of ecosystems or draw attention, say, to the plight of the Gulf of Mexico’s Sargassum algae. They did the best they could.
One unfurled a banner that read “Go Beyond Petroleum.” The other, as she was being ushered off the stage and out of the hotel, shouted, “We need to speed up progress and make a push to end the oil age.”
That was it. Time’s up. That’s how protest is — shouted and emotional, sometimes illegal. Even when it’s videotaped and the world gets to witness those 20 seconds of public theater, all we hear are slogans, all we see are disruption and scuffle: disorder, quickly dealt with. Money gets its hair mussed a little, then returns to its agenda. Nothing seems to change. The disorder implicit in that agenda returns to “let our children worry about it” status, and we remain on the track described by Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress, his investigation into why civilizations collapse:
“The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer.”
As though still on the podium with the BP exec, I claim a little more time to open up that Greenpeace slogan, to address its implications not in the abstract but in the presence of those who profit from our stagnation within the oil age, whatever that might mean. After all, it’s their future too.
For it to matter whether or not we move “beyond petroleum,” there has to be a spiritual, not just a technical, dimension to the concept. It implies, I think, a fundamental break with the domination impulse by which we have “tamed” nature over the millennia of recorded history and built our unstable civilizations, propped up by war and conquest. Moving beyond petroleum means moving beyond our uncritical acceptance of a fragmented world and fragmented sense of responsibility.
Indeed, it means moving beyond the gospel that competing fragments, each looking out for its own “self-interest” (a.k.a., capitalism), is the highest form of order we can hope for. Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the highest-ranking Republican on the House energy committee, demonstrated the sham nature of this system last week, when he apologized to BP for the $20 billion escrow account President Obama ordered the company to establish, calling it a “shakedown.”
Turns out, A) “Of the five Gulf Coast states, Mr. Barton’s Texas is the only one whose beaches, fisheries and tourist haunts are not threatened by oil spewing from BP’s ruined well,” the New York Times reported; and B) “. . . the oil and gas industry have been Mr. Barton’s biggest source of campaign money . . . contributing $1.4 million since the 1990 election cycle,” the Times added.
At the very least, capitalism in its unregulated, most virulent form — fragmentation capitalism, you might say — which was set loose in the Reagan era, has to be contained. No small task. U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman, a Reagan appointee (with stockholder interest in the drilling industry), recently overturned Obama’s six-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling in the Gulf (which would affect operations at 33 of 3,600 sites), siding with the argument that one blown deepwater well is “no proof” the others constitute a threat — no matter that the consequences of another accident would be cataclysmic.
The decision is proof of the status-quo aversion to long-range thinking — or thinking that goes “beyond petroleum,” thinking that muddies the profit game with ethical, moral and ecological concerns.
The “no proof” argument has long been the dodge of last resort for polluters, whether corporate or governmental. For instance, the U.S. Department of Defense — the biggest polluter on the planet and supreme enforcer of the global status quo — maintained, as long as possible, that there was no proof the mystery illnesses Vietnam vets (not to mention the Vietnamese themselves) were suffering had anything to do with Agent Orange. Ditto, Gulf War Syndrome. Irrefutable proof takes decades to accumulate; in fragmentation capitalism, the aim of the game is to take advantage of this and avoid responsibility for as long as possible.
Beyond petroleum, beyond the short-sighted exploitation and fragmentation of the planet, there is life itself, awaiting our discovery in its ever-unfolding complexity. Beyond petroleum lies the human future, at peace with itself, at peace with the planet, secure in its context and evolving toward whatever comes after us.
We have to start growing up. This won’t be easy, of course. Getting there will require a concerted, planetary effort, and the ascendance of values – reverence, humility, love – bigger than the ones that drive the age of oil.
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)