10 responses to pro-oil arguments


Oil sponsorship of culture is warming up as a discussion topic. The Museums Association editor expressed support for ethical guidelines that preclude it, and an image of a ‘BP or not BP’ performance headed their consultation on new ethical guidelines. Tate hosted a party to celebrate 25 years of sponsorship by BP, and BP sponsorship again dominated its members AGM. This has led to some discussion on social media. I’ve written quite a bit on this issue in the past, in different places and ways. I’ve decided to pull together all my thoughts in one place in response to all the key arguments expressed in defence of oil sponsorship.

1. The reality argument: The reality is that cultural organisations are facing massive funding cuts and need to take whatever money they can get, no question.

A response:
The reality is that cultural organisations may well not survive climate change. Mainly perpetuated by fossil fuel-based companies entangled with governments, environmental instability is starting to damage the global economy, and over the next two decades will decimate it (see footnote). CO2 emissions from fossil fuels are causing climate disruption and temperature rise that is currently on course to make the planet unliveable for most vertebrate species within this century. Until this point, the economy has been mainly damaged by corporate corruption which has in turn triggered shock-doctrine austerity by neo-liberal governments. The most realistic action we can take for our wellbeing (in communities and cultural institutions) is to resist corrupt corporate power in general, and the best action we can take to survive (as a human civilisation and biodiverse planet) is to fight climate change. If we tackle both corporate power and climate change together, it follows that we must scrutinise the power of oil companies.

2. The ‘more than oil companies’ argument: There are other companies responsible for CO2 emissions and climate change, such as shipping companies, agribusiness, air travel and more. Surely oil companies aren’t the only ones responsible?

A response:
Yes, there are others but the fossil fuel companies, and their lobbyists, are leading the global push against climate action, to ensure their market dominance so that all the other related industries are supplied by their raw material. Just 90 companies are responsible for our emissions, and most are fossil fuel companies. Apart from climate disruption, fossil fuel companies also cause direct harm to environments and human communities through oil spills, ocean acidification, deforestation, air pollution, corruption, human rights abuses, land-grabbing and conflict. Many of the 20th century’s wars have had oil supplies at their root. (When I use the term ‘oil companies’, I tend to include dealing in coal, shale gas and by-products of oil.)

3. The ‘lesser evil’ argument: It is important to draw the line ethically, but not at oil companies. They are a lesser evil than arms or tobacco companies, for example.

A response:
It’s fairly common to deflect from the central role played by oil in the global crisis. Arguments run that the growing population is the key factor, that oil is running out anyway, or that biodiversity loss is a far worse problem. All of these things are somewhat true, and all part of a complex web – but oil is currently at the centre of it. Oil has produced fertilisers that power agri-business, which has enabled population growth. Oil running out is powering the destruction of fragile ecosystems in search for new supplies. Climate change and oil-linked ecocide are primary causes of biodiversity extinction being 10 times above the background rate.
Part of this engineered deflection from oil companies is pointing blame at other types of unethical companies that serve our addictions and our territorial aggressions. (In my rough ranking of poor ethics, oil and arms companies are close together at the top, and tobacco and sugary/junk food companies are lower down together.)

4. The ‘hypocrites’ argument: People who campaign against oil sponsorship are hypocrites as there’s no way they can escape benefiting from oil. We’re all implicated and entangled in oil so we can’t withdraw from it.

A response:
True, we are all somewhat implicated. However, this is an unfair and simplistic accusation. Oil companies, by an order of magnitude, have a much greater influence and impact on the environment than any individuals. Then, individuals hugely vary in their footprint. Oil sponsorship campaigners tend to make strenuous efforts to reduce their own impact (e.g. having one 5th to a 10th of the normal household footprint). They believe it is right to engage with oil companies as low-level consumers and citizens, to ask that they support a transition to a sustainable future, and to stop exerting undue influence against climate action. It follows that these cultural workers would choose to engage with oil companies on their home turf, to expose how culture is being exploited.
Moreover, there is an unfair bind in this argument which paralyses us. Because most of us remain dependent on fossil fuels, we are led to believe that we are morally complicit in their crimes, and therefore unfit to criticise the companies who are threatening all our futures. There is an orthodoxy in climate campaigns that emphasises individual consumer action to reduce our footprints, rather than collective citizen action to challenge corporations. The accusation that climate activists are complicit hypocrites is a mirroring of this orthodoxy.

5. The ‘public good’ argument: Oil companies benefit the public by giving generously to causes. It’s better they do this than not at all.

A response:
Firstly, oil companies do not give generously in relation to their profits. In the UK, oil sponsorship contributes very little to the budgets of museums compared to public grants, retail, ticket and membership revenues, yet their logos are everywhere. Comparatively, oil companies are not paying for us to see great art/science/history, especially not when you account for the public cost of climate mitigation & adaption, the billions of taxpayer subsidies to oil companies, and the cost of wars over oil and stoked by climate-ravaged want.

Secondly, they sponsor culture as a key tactic in gaining a Social Licence to Operate (SLO).
This stands in parallel to legal licences to operate. Companies know they cannot conduct operations efficiently without community agreement. Oil exploration is very damaging to ecologies and to indigenous livelihoods, so oil companies resort to two main methods of business continuity. One is seeking protection via security firms or Government military. (Last month was the 19th anniversary of murder of Ogoni activists linked to Shell’s security.) The other method, the SLO, involves seeking validity through sponsorship of cultural, educational and social causes. It reduces the likelihood of resistance and therefore reduces the costs of security or compensation. It also helps them forge closer ties with Governments, to get favourable relaxations of regulations and tax subsidies. Now that oil is clearly understood to have wider global impacts, on humans and all other species, questions are being asked (e.g. by environmental lawyers) about how oil companies should give generously way beyond just the communities of extraction sites. Cultural organisations must reflect on the web of protections, endorsements and licenses that they are supporting when they are oil-sponsored.

6. The ‘it’s legal’ argument: Who are we to judge oil companies, when they are operating legally? If they’re legal, their money is good.

A response:
Just because something is legal doesn’t make it just or ethical. Look at what human rights abuses are legal under some national regimes. There are many lawyers pushing for ecocide to be made the Fifth International Crime against Peace. Oil companies would be some of the first in the dock, for example, for the Tar Sands, for the devastation in the Niger Delta or for Deepwater Horizon. Until we have an ecocide law, internationally, we basically have a situation in which companies can destroy the common wealth of the environment, in their own short term interests. We do not have a legal basis for good business. An authentically good business can only be one which actively helps to heal the planet (rather than partially mitigates the damage it does).

7. The ‘public money is no better than private’ argument: exemplified in a comment from Colin Tweedy, “I have always found it ironic that most…arts organisations are, of course, happy to accept money from governments, however dubious or down right crooked they may be, while pontificating loudly about the morals of business”.

A response:
Theoretically, governments and businesses are two very different kinds of institution. In the European context, governments are defined as more or less democratic institutions, representing the broad demos and distributing commonwealth for the public good. The forces making these governments ‘dubious or downright crooked’ are the corporations lobbying for protection, for reduced regulation and for repression of dissent. Just because governments are compromised by the influence of corporations, does not make public funding equivalently dirty to private.

8. The ‘greening oil’ argument: Fossil fuel companies are changing and investing in greener technologies. We should engage with them on this, in positive ways.

A response:
Oil companies have talked about pursuing alternative energy sources but in reality their record is shameful. BP and Shell who are the main sponsors of museums cut back on their renewable research some years ago. BP now no longer has a renewables target. Oil companies put much more resource into skewing the media to deny climate change and lobbying Governments for subsidies, licences and protections that hamper the essential transition to low-carbon energy, making it very difficult for us to overcome our oil addiction despite the ample existence of alternative technologies. They have diverted strong climate action in negotiations at Lima, and are pushing for the TTIP to enable companies to sue countries that negatively affect their profits. This is not to say that they can’t change, but a very great change is what is needed.

I don’t think more ethical funding policies need to exclude engaging with oil companies. There are other ways of working with them, for example, holding events or competitions that explore sustainable innovations. I see potential for cultural organisations to work proactively with companies to create and promote social and ecological innovations.

9. The ‘no alternative’ argument: There is no other alternative to taking corporate money. What else can we do?

A response:
The transition to a low carbon economy is both possible (technically) and urgently necessary, as acknowledged by the UN, the IPCC, most scientists & world leaders. The question is, how do public cultural institutions support that transition, while also staying open? The answers are complex and varied. One aspect is to work to grow the mission of the organisation for social and ecological change, which in turn will build capacities of the local community to thrive, and so build local support for culture. Another is to be active and strong in advocating for culture to funders, public and governments. Also, organisations have many more ways that they can be entrepreneurial, being creative with their retail and getting new services commissioned. Another is not to consider growth (e.g. with expensive buildings) as the only way to survive. Another is to push for equality of public funding and sponsorship, rather than letting it favour only a few. Finally, although it isn’t all, they can investigate ethical funds and push for the involvement of ethical companies and trusts in investing in culture.

10. The ‘always been like this’ argument: Culture has always been patronised by unsavoury powerful people. Why should it change?

A response:
Firstly, this argument is not historically true. The production context and value of culture is not a universal or constant. Human society has not always been driven by money. We are at a point in which it has never been so dominated by the interests of those who seek to accumulate by extracting money out of natural resources, labour and, increasingly, via debt. Art has not always been a commodity. Makers have not always lived in societies where most people need to exchange their labour or ideas for money to exchange these for essentials.

Secondly, we cannot assume continuity, or allow ‘business as usual’. Now that we are at such a critical juncture, we must learn from the past but make judgements based on scientific models that indicate a radically different future. Because oil-fuelled industrialisation has powered a massive rise in population and ability to consume and waste food, we are led to believe that the continuation of this will improve living standards globally. But we are now at peak well-being. In 10 years time, the general gratitude for oil’s contribution to civilisation will be greatly diminished. We need to take precautionary action, based on models for the future climate, and cultural organisations must play an active role in that.

And another…
The ‘it’s not my remit’ argument: I feel concerned about oil sponsorship but it’s not my responsibility and I can’t afford to rock the boat.

This is really understandable. I felt like this for a long time. Technically, this isn’t an argument for oil sponsorship but it is a factor in why it gets through unquestioned. Cultural organisations should enable uncensored debate about funding policies by staff, supporters, artists and audiences, to allow people to be honest about their personal political and ethical concerns.

Have I missed any arguments? Have I missed any responses? Let me know in comments.

If you’ve been convinced, or were already, you might like to sign this petition http://www.dropbp.org/ or attend Carols not Barrels 


Evidence for my claim that climate change (and other effects of oil-fuelled industry) will decimate the economy (globally) over the next two decades.

The Club of Rome and MIT predicted in 1972 in the Limits to Growth that the world economy would collapse in 2030. On several indicators, their projections were more conservative than the current situation. Last month, the UN issued a stark warning that the climate situation was more severe than previously thought. Many scientists are warning that the IPCC summary is still too conservative. Watchers of Arctic melt-cycles such as John Nissen say the meltdown could be unstoppable by as early as September 2015. Michael Mann has modelled that the temperature increase will reach 2C by 2036.

The primary reason for the emerging collapse is food and water security. By 2012 climate change was already contributing to deaths of 400k people p.a. and costing over $1.2 trillion. Unprecedented food price rises in the Middle East are behind civil unrest. The US military sees climate change as the most significant ‘threat multiplier’. Government funds will be diverted more to security, aid and climate adaptation. Corporations are already very powerful and will continue to grab land, accumulate wealth and seek government security in order to protect their assets, increasing inequality and social unrest. If temperatures rise as forecast, China may not be able to feed itself in the next 20 years. Many tropical countries will be similarly affected. The oil industry feeds agribusiness, with oil-based chemicals that degrade soil and pollute water, which combines with rising temperatures, to reduce crop yields. Also, because of acidification/oil spills & warming, fish catches will decline by 40-60%.

An additional factor is that oil has been used as collateral for trillions of dollars of debt, but a drop in oil prices (35% in recent days) will cause problems. To quote that last link “consumers are about to be buried by an avalanche of defaults and crushing losses as the chickens of financializing oil come home to roost.”

Use this map to see the country by country impacts of climate change by 2030. Click on the dollar sign to see the impact on annual GDP. One could be hopeful that things could change, but given that the world leaders in Lima had only agreed one paragraph of their document yesterday, and that their proposed plan is nowhere near enough, it’s not looking good.


3 thoughts on “10 responses to pro-oil arguments

  1. These are not arguments, these are excuses.
    These would be the arguments:

    Progressive energy: The ideal source of energy is not some “sustainable”–i.e., endlessly repeatable–form, but the best, cheapest, ever-improving form human ingenuity can devise. As long as human beings are free, they will continue to develop new resources from previously useless raw materials (such as shale oil). An oil industry is ideal in the same way the iPhone is an ideal for so many. It may not be the best forever, but it is the best for now and we should be grateful to have it.
    2. Environmental improvement: Energy and technology, including the oil industry, are needed to improve nature–which, left to its own devices, is resource-poor and threat-rich. Every activity has negative byproducts, but the net environmental impact of oil is a radical improvement.
    Which comes from https://www.masterresource.org/energy-debate/energy-ethics-101/
    The second one is very important, far from destroying our surroundings, we radically improved them. The energy enabled us to build great cities, roads, defences against the elements, such as coastal protection and all sorts of utilities, and in the meanwhile it provided us with enough food to protect us from continuous cyclical starvation. So starvation is down, people live much longer and healthier, they live much more comfortable lives and less die by extreme weather events every year. It would be easily argued that mankind had never have as useful a resource as oil is, in terms of amount of improvements to human lives.
    What you mention are negative side effects, to an essentially extremely beneficial resource use. And I agree its side effects should be battled, strongly. But don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

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