Smoking gun


The other day I was part of a singing flashmob raising awareness of Shell’s sponsorship of the Southbank Centre. We were also welcoming Yoko Ono as Meltdown Festival curator, as she has set up Artists Against Fracking. After our ‘songmob’, Chris Garrard, active in Shell Out Sounds, talked to Jude Kelly. He writes here about this conversation, how she raises the point that tobacco sponsorship is all but absent from the arts now.

Tobacco sponsorship is often raised by those in a position to explain ongoing sponsorship by oil companies. I was one of the signatories, as a Tate Member, of a letter to Tate about its sponsorship by BP. This has led to a response from Nick Serota, agreeing that it isn’t correct to say that ‘all money is dirty money’. He says:

“Tate Trustees do draw a line. They are simply not drawing it where you would like it to be drawn at present. We don’t accept money from tobacco companies. We don’t accept money from arms manufacturers. We don’t accept money that has been laundered. They have debated, very seriously, as a Board, and as an Ethics Committee, whether or not they should accept the money that has been offered by BP. And they take a different view from you.”

This is very decisive and clear, and suggests a strong moral authority: Oil is acceptable whereas tobacco, arms and laundered money are not. The oil-sponsor-friendly position has often been explained through the moral stance of suggesting that we, their critics, are hypocrites because we all use oil. The implication is that oil is a moral choice in which we weakly indulge, whereas tobacco is an addiction foisted upon us.

However, I believe it is deeply unethical to draw the line here. The main reason is that the destruction knowingly wreaked by the fossil fuel industry, their lobbyists and Government subsidisers, is incalculably greater than any war (barring global nuclear war) and most definitely greater than the impact of tobacco. I emphasise again that this destruction is ‘knowingly wreaked’. This is the crime.

Tom Engelhardt explains the scale of it, compared to tobacco, in his introduction of a new word ‘terrarism’:

“Instead, what we’ve got is the equivalent of a tobacco company situation, but on a planetary scale. To complete the analogy, imagine for a moment that they were planning to produce even more prodigious quantities not of fossil fuels but of cigarettes, knowing what damage they would do to our health. Then imagine that, without exception, everyone on Earth was forced to smoke several packs of them a day. If that isn’t a terrorist — or terrarist — attack of an almost unimaginable sort, what is? If the oil execs aren’t terrarists, then who is? And if that doesn’t make the big energy companies criminal enterprises, then how would you define that term? To destroy our planet with malice aforethought, with only the most immediate profits on the brain, with only your own comfort and wellbeing (and those of your shareholders) in mind: Isn’t that the ultimate crime? Isn’t that terracide?”

The second reason is that it is unfair to accuse people of hypocrisy who acknowledge that we are all complicit in the tyranny of an oil-fuelled culture. Oil is an addiction, an extremely complex one, because its consumption is riddled across society. However, many of us calling for an end to oil sponsorship make stringent efforts to reduce our own carbon footprint (my own is a fifth of the average household and there is much more I plan to do). We are also very active in reducing oil dependence in society, often taking every opportunity to address waste and oil dependence in retail, transport and food organisations.

Cigarettes are like smoking guns. You can easily trace the link between advertising and addiction. It is easy to tell stories of children suffering from passive smoking, due to the sad addiction of adults. We  still have so much work to do to make visible the smoke from the many guns of the oil industry: The plastic in the ocean and in landfill; the acidification of oceans; the direct damage to ecosystems caused by drilling, fracking, transportation of oil, and tar sands extraction; the oil-based fertilisers and pesticides destroying biodiversity; the air pollution; the aesthetic and sonic effects of cars and planes on our world; and above all, the impacts of climate change and the fact of its human causation.

This post from 2011 summarises my views, bringing in other points than I’ve managed above, on oil sponsorship of culture.


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