The Sustainability Conundrum

Originally posted April 2011

Today it is one year since the Deepwater Horizon accident, which filled my Summer of 2010 with anxiety for the people and wildlife of the Gulf, and anxiety for the effect of this and other spills on global ecosystems, as the oil gushed week after week into the sea.

Since then BP has been working hard. Working hard to fix its image and its bank balance. Supposedly it has a renewed focus on sustainability, but you don’t even have to read between the lines to see that this is pure greenwash. The headline of BP’s new sustainability strategy is this: “We are determined that BP will be a safer, more risk-aware business. We will deliver on our commitments from the Gulf Coast incident and work hard to earn back the trust in our operations. We will rebuild value for our shareholders by re-establishing our competitive position within the sector by playing our part in meeting the world’s growing demand for energy, as well as participating in the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

This says, quite overtly, that BP can only be sustainable by sustaining its own wealth, which depends on increased extraction, which depends on safer methods so they don’t lose share value. It is true that BP is also investing something towards renewable power. But how much? Over the next 5 years, it will spend only 25% of what it costs them to clean up after the Gulf incident. At the same time, it will spend vastly more on new techniques for tar sands extraction and fracking. The Albertan Tar Sands is the most destructive project on the planet. If it continues, it alone will contribute to a 2C temperature rise. BP’s Sunrise project is helping to expand the operation by enabling more and more extraction. As Bill McKibben reminds us, we have raised the temperature by 1C and look what impact this has had so far. Our actions look set to raise the temperature by 4C to 5C before the century is out, unless we outlaw fracking, deepwater drilling, tar sands, deforestation and other ecocidal tactics, and replace them with alternatives already proven or within our grasp.

I have to say, BP is not alone in its perversion of the concept of sustainability. There are 3,000 large companies causing $2.5 trillion environmental damage a year. Many organisations twist the triad of economic, social and environmental sustainability by isolating and diminishing the importance of the environment.  This is the ‘sustainability conundrum’: that it is possible to call yourself sustainable while actively destroying the planet or being implicated in its destruction. I argue that very few cultural organisations have really addressed this conundrum in order to put environmental sustainability at the heart of their mission. Tate has over 70 green champions across the organisation. Are they ever invited to address the ethics of sponsorship, as they work towards raising over £200 million in sponsorship for expansions to Tate’s London sites? There are two keys to an institution becoming sustainable: one is involving all staff (which Tate and BP have both done), the other is addressing the very core mission of its organisation (which BP has not done at all, and which Tate may still need to consider).

Knowing what we know now, cultural organisations can no longer continue to be consciously complicit with this ecocidal industrial
system. Humans are the only known animal species to destroy their habitat. How can we live with that indicator for humanity without seeking to change it? The only really sound function of a cultural organisation is to ensure the evolution of humanity to build its capacity to sustain life on the planet. This means working towards overcoming: infantilism, addiction to money, the lack of empathy and the hubristic competitive thrust that destroys life in its path to success. More positively, it  gives cultural organisations opportunities to help us imagine non-destructive ways of living, using new materials and smart technologies. To do this they can form partnerships with companies for mutual benefits, not just a simple transaction of money.

This is the challenge often put to me about my position: Isn’t it better for bad money to fund good things than for it to fund more bad things? I say, perhaps a little, but this is not really very much better than the bad. It is much better for ecocidal companies to be going through a root and branch transition towards zero carbon now, and we must all demand that they do so. If cultural organisations are sponsored by ecocidal companies through a transactional relationship, they are not in a position to make that demand. I’m extremely pleased to see that Tate has taken a vocal role in campaigning for the release of Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei from unjustified imprisonment, bravely posting the words ‘Release Ai Wei Wei’ to its walls. This shows Tate is prepared to be radical. Conceivably, they would they do the same if Ai Wei Wei was persecuted for resisting the tyranny of the fossil fuel industry, but where would that leave them in relation to their fossil fuel sponsors? My signature is on this letter to the Guardian asking Tate to rethink its relationship with BP. I feel anxious about being seen to take a radical position, especially given that my family’s income depends on bodies like Tate trusting me. However, longer-term reasoning overrides this. We need to think differently now about what it means to be radical. Bill McKibben said in his speech to 10,000 young people at Power Shift: “you are not the radicals in this fight. The radicals are the people who are fundamentally altering the composition of the atmosphere. That is the most radical thing people have ever done.”

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