some remorseful ramblings on oil…
“In no way can one person encompass the influence and extended landscape of this thing we call oil. These images can be considered notations by one artist – contemplations of a world reshaped by this massive energy force, and the cumulative effects of the industrial evolution.”
My feelings exactly after having been to see a slice of his work at the C/O Berlin, a photography gallery containing an exhibition of some of Edward Burtynsky’s prints of the extraction and transportation of oil, as well as some of its end of the line uses.
Despite this difficulty the vast windows of precise real life detail focusing on these three areas of oil use and production succeeded in conveying something of the alien inner world of oil. Though I would count myself as a fairly clued up person on this subject, and I generally try to advocate for alternatives for oil, its sheer scale of operations in the wastelands and expanses of our earth had never before been so vividly portrayed to me. Combined with the images of fields and fields of motorbikes, or cars, or burnt out helicopters, the scale of the post-oil task ahead began to engulf me.
His complete works (I think) are accessible on this website of his.
Though I don’t know whether just looking at them on a computer screen will have quite the same effect.
After this exhibition, and on my departure from Berlin to Beirut on a plane, the emdeded-ness of oil in our societal make-up, our economy, our livelihoods, our food, and our politics occupied my thoughts.
As we scarpered down the runway of Berlin airport at midnight, the lengthy runways, huge swathes of white flying machines and accessories necessary to their function, all reliant on oil in some form or another, made me question again this decision to fly that I had made. The enormity and anonymity of the whole thing just scared me. A couple of months ago I had been weighing up whether to fly to Beirut or not. And at the end of 2011 I wrote this piece on taking the decision not to fly. Can these be reconciled? Do they need to be?
I do not profess any deep philosophical claim, only this: I have principles and they are formed on logic, not feeling.
The operation of principles in reality and in relation to others in your life is however, far less clearcut. Principles, to me, are just that, they are the ideal, and when they come into conflict with other principles, they must be weighed up, not necessarily to seek out a balance, but according to relevant factors affecting their application. I’m sure there’s some jurisprudential/philosophical names I could throw into the mix here which show that I did a law degree/am educated, but I can’t remember them. For the lay people amongst us though, this is a process that the courts of EU member states (such as the UK) and the European Court of Human Rights engage with in their judgements on human rights. That is, where two conflicting rights are being adjudicated on, both equally valid and contestable positive rights, there has to be some way of working out “who wins”.
Often the reality is less an intelligent war of words, but more of a logistical thinning out of these claims, e.g one party is outside of the time limit to bring a case so the claim is invalid etc. When the substance is tackled however, there are inevitably priorities involved. So where a human right to not be held (in custody or prison) without charge exists, it can be compromised in limited situations such as where the life of a nation is under threat. The definition of under threat is obviously controversial and somewhat subjective, but there IS a get-out-clause of the principle/ideal constructed as a ‘right’, as long as it can be justified. There are other rights which are deemed ‘absolute’, so, maybe less of a cop out? Such as those relating to torture, but the reality is so far from facilitating the maintaining of this right that it is not uniformly adhered to. So in these cases: 1. the reality is different from the ideal 2. not enough is being done to make the reality any better at upholding the absolute right. For example, there is not enough funding to have unexpected visits of inspectors to every prison under the Torture prevention Convention, so we are not channeling enough resources into making the ideal, a reality.
My justifications for flying in this instance kind of work along these lines. In that the dominance of oil as the method for functioning in our world, especially travelling, means that to effect what I may judge to be change beyond the effect of my personal consumer choices (e.g not flying), I have to work within the system available to me, choosing the worst options when all other avenues are exhausted.
My reasoning is subjective but operates within the undeniable reality of the “energy force” that is oil; on weighing what I would be doing when I got to Beirut I thought/think that the work I will be doing to lay foundations for an Arab Youth Climate Movement is both strategic in relation to the UN Climate Negotiations and in the long term, might be the seed that germinates to challenge the primacy of oil in our society given that Middle Eastern countries form our primary sources. I also think I will get a huge amount in pushing myself to engage with communities unfamiliar to me, and with hugely different societal values. In the words of Samir Geagea, the ex-commander of the Lebanese Forces during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, on the subject of difficult situations he said:
“The human being is like an olive. If it is not squeezed, it does not produce oil.”
This is long term learning for the price of one flight. Cushty reasoning I know. But I have reasoned, and flying was not my original idea, shame then that clashes broke out in Tripoli (North Lebanon) making my only port of entry overland (bypassing the Syrian option obviously) not worth the risk.
And one more thing, staying within the familiar confines of the EU did not appeal one bit. And without meaning to offend all my friends who work within them (!) I’m bored of the streamlined but fairly ineffective environmental movements in the EU that yes, thanks Ben for the reminder, insist on spending large amounts of money “singing for the climate”. I want to start working on calling for the nitty gritty social justice aspect of positive environmental change, and a vacuum of opportunity in the Middle East exists on this subject, and so the stars aligned and here I am.
The other reason I’m writing about oil again is because of news that Saudi Arabia, according to some, could stop being an oil producer from the end of 2030. That’s our no.1 source of oil in the west, extracting only to maintain its own subsidised usage of oil and gas.
Could this possibly be true?
Why on earth isn’t this ALL OVER the news?!
According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) short term energy outlook august 2012, “OPEC members serve as the swing producers in the world market because only OPEC producers possess surplus or spare oil production capacity, most of which is in Saudi Arabia.” So looks like the US (and surely the rest of us) are relying on the Saudis for those extra reserves that they hold back, to keep us going on the same path, for that bit longer. Well if the Citigroup analysis that analysed this bombshell is to be believed, then bang goes that last hope of easy flowing oil sources; making the Canadian tar sands developments even more attractive to governments. In fact the Wall Street Journal interprets the Citigroup analysis as implying Saudi Arabia will no longer be a “swing producer”.
Time to change? I think so.