Culture Beyond Oil: Ethics Beyond Institutions

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ethics of cultural organisations and their partnerships with companies who contribute significantly to worsening crises and injustice.

Nick Poole has shared his write-up of the first meeting of the Museums Ethics Network funded by the AHRC. This network is welcome, drawing together all sector groups to question the purposes of museum ethics and how they should be adjusted in the current climate. I’m impressed by Mark O’Neill’s three categories of museum: Elite, Welfare and Social Justice, and the steps of progress towards becoming a Social Justice museum. I’m encouraged that the Network is promoting a different idea of ethics, the idea of a Virtuous Museum, or a museum which generates common goods and virtuous behaviours. Too often the ethical criteria of museums or galleries amount to little more than prudent self-interest, or keeping its nose clean. As I explain below, Tate’s criteria for its ethics committee do not embrace any ‘bigger than self” values at all.

I was pleased to see that environmental ethics were discussed at the Network meeting, in terms of ‘responsibility to the object, the public and to the impact on the broader environment’. It’s in this area of museum ethics that I have my biggest concerns, which arise not so much from reading this account but from a flaw evident in the discourses around the purposes and behaviours of museums in the UK. The flaw is not so much an omission or a failure to give environmental issues enough time or status. It is in seeing the environment as separate, somehow a threat from outside, or a belief that environmental justice is outside the rightful sphere of museums’ influence and therefore outside their ethical considerations. This separation arises from an assumption embedded in our culture that social and environmental justice are distinct from each other, even opposed. We frequently hear that we have to make some sacrifices of nature in order to generate growth to tackle social inequality. This trade-off between the environment and people, or nature and culture, is the foundation upon which the Kyoto Protocol is being negotiated and the Millennium Development Goals aim to be achieved. It may be the reason why they are nowhere close to being achieved on time. The false dichotomy of society and ecology is the root cause of our current crisis, which could be articulated in short as our inability to attain a stable climate before the tipping point of a 2C increase leads to a planet that is unfeasible for human society. The crises of money, of environmental resources and of social unrest are all dimensions of one crisis, arising from a major systemic flaw.

Taken together, museums are utopian representations of the whole world; panopticons for seeing the world; and safe spaces for remaking it. They are not less than this, and could be even more if we apply the potential of technology to fully expose and contextualise their collections. This is the right moment for an overarching review of museum ethics but it will be ultimately pointless if it doesn’t increase the agency of museums in enabling people and other species to survive on Earth. This would mean a really radical look at the power residing in structures and the deep cultural frames we all hold, and an exigent analysis of how museums uphold those superstructures and value frames, and what they can do to break down the ones causing deep harm. Beyond this kind of analysis museums should also take action. However virtuous your ethical theories, they amount to little if you don’t put them into practice.

Museums and galleries have a perfect moment to put them into practice with ethical sponsorship much in the news. Platform, Art Not Oil and Liberate Tate have collaborated on a publication called Culture Beyond Oil, to which I contributed a short piece. It is a collation of commissioned artwork, documents of various protest actions, voices of people directly affected by oil spills, pieces about other artist protesters including Ai Wei Wei, contextual articles by the three organisations and a number of written pieces from supportive artists and writers. Together they form a chorus that says: Some art institutions like Tate may say they need money from the most ecocidal companies in the world, but art and artists do not.

The contextual articles are based on investigation into the economics of art sponsorship, including some heavily redacted minutes obtained from the Tate’s Ethics Committee when reviewing its sponsorship by BP. These minutes are revealing in that they expose that Tate’s ethical criteria are entirely about corporate self interest. Being interested to sustain Tate’s mission is valid as far as it goes, because its mission of collecting art and promoting education and enjoyment about it very much enriches our public life, but this interest doesn’t go far enough. If a school announced its ethos as being ‘to maintain standards so that we attract pupils and funding, to continue our operations’ would we think this is enough? Tate’s ethical criteria make no reference to any values. The criteria simply are that acceptance of funds “should not significantly damage the effective operation of Tate in delivering its mission, whether such acceptance
– would harm its relationship with other benefactors, partners, visitors or other stakeholders
– create unacceptable conflicts of interest
– materially damage the reputation of Tate, or
– in any other way.”
These four criteria could be summarised as one: If accepting funds looks dodgy and upsets people to the extent that visitor numbers and other funding sources are significantly affected, Tate would reconsider. As such the committee is outsourcing the duty to be ethical while denying those others any participation in the decision, by reserving the right to decide when enough people have protested loudly enough that it will be significant enough to reconsider. If, as is the case, fossil fuel lobbies successfully subdue coverage and debate about their impacts, the numbers of protesters are likely to be smaller than is reasonable. In fact, the numbers of protestors about Tate’s sponsorship by BP have recently swelled to 8,000 signatories to an open letter. This might have given them pause for thought, but Tate, the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Opera House and British Museum renewed their £10 million deal with BP on 19th December.

Tate’s minutes reveal that after consideration it was decided that there was no evidence that BP’s sponsorship would significantly affect Tate’s operations to sustain its mission. I wonder how many scientists or how much empirical evidence they consulted, about the impact and ethos of BP’s business. If they had, or if they took on board the evidence given, they would have considered that, for example:
– ocean acidification (i.e. dead ocean) stands at 40% and rising, caused by oil, plastic & oil-based fertiliser pollution and CO2 concentrations from emissions
– the actions of big oil companies such as BP in extracting oil from  deep oceans, tarsands and Arctic zones are emitting concentrations of global warming gases far in excess of safe levels while destroying virgin forest and ecosystems.
– BP (and Shell) are actively involved in lobbying against climate action and to lift regulations against pollution.

For some background evidence on the latest science about the crisis read this by David Roberts on the 2C safe limit, and this 5 year warning from the climate-conservative IEA, added to which are recent observations of unprecedented fountains of methane erupting from the melting Arctic, a sign that feedback effects are in motion.

The missing links in Tate’s logic are these:

  • Forgetting that this combination of deforestation, high emissions and ocean acidification is causing climate change that is already leading to major economic and ecosystem collapse even at a 1% temperature increase.
  • If BP and others’ actions are not stopped, to be replaced by emergency mitigation and adaptation within 5 years, this is ‘game over’ (to use James Hansen’s phrase)
  • This means game over for Tate and for culture because it would be game over for vertebrate life
  • BP and others gain ‘social legitimacy’ from cultural sponsorship to continue their actions, an overt tactic in their business plans.

This, arguably, makes the continued operation of oil companies despite evidence of their devastating impacts, more unethical than companies involved in drugs, arms or slavery. I am spelling this out rather tediously to make clear that Tate has overlooked that its legitimisation of BP radically threatens its own existence. It is neither good for itself nor in the common good.

Since the launch of the publication there has been quite a lot of discussion about the issue on social media. A frequent comment is that the National Lottery should be subject to as much ethical scrutiny as private sponsorship, as it is taking money from the poor. However, I don’t think the Lottery is anywhere near oil companies on the ethical scale. I think it’s wrong to see funding sources which more directly affect the poor in the UK as more problematic than sources which destroy the environment. To put it bluntly, ecocide leads to severe social deprivation and ultimately genocide. This is not hypothetical: Witness the genocide of half a million West Papuans to secure environmental resources for companies like Rio Tinto and, yes, BP.

We must draw the line here, surely. We can acknowledge that we are all somewhat complicit by using oil, albeit in a world which gives us very little choice because of the dominance of oil companies. That consumption doesn’t bring us anywhere close to culpability of the companies that use their billions of pounds of profit to lobby to deny man-made climate change and to improve their reputations with arts sponsorship. BP has recently closed its renewable energy branch, as it doesn’t make enough money. We consumers are being denied the power of choice.

Tiffany Jenkins sums up the pro-oil sponsorship position in this post. Her key arguments (and my responses) are these:

  • Oil companies are legitimate and legal: In response, I would suggest that we all have an ethical responsibility to continually reappraise what is legal. If Ecocide is made an international crime against peace, as many high-profile legal thinkers think should be so, BP and Shell would be hard-pressed to defend themselves.
  • The arts have always been sponsored by unethical organisations and people: In response I’d ask; why should a previous continuity of unethical practices be an argument for their future continuity? The ecological crisis forces us to stop doing things as we always have done. If this means less funding for excellent art productions, until more ethical companies are in a position to be strong sponsors, we should be prepared to make that sacrifice if it helps end catastrophic degradation of the planet.
  • Pressure can be applied to oil companies to be more ethical while continuing to accept their funds: In response, I ask how well that would work based on evidence so far? To what extent are those who are pro-oil sponsorship pressuring BP and others to convert to sustainable energy, to restore forests and oceans, and make reparations to nations like West Papua and Nigeria? Can they do so authentically while taking their money? This may be possible for some companies but I suspect that BP and oil companies are beyond influence while tied into such a deal.

2 responses to “Culture Beyond Oil: Ethics Beyond Institutions

  1. Pingback: Will you be a curator of the future? « The Learning Planet·

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