Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Why Is It Always Us?

I can't say it's a bad life being an environmental activist. You meet great people, you go to fantastic parties and you get to go around feeling so smug with yourself its unreal.

However there's no getting round the fact that there is a certain amount of risk involved.

In my ten or so years of active campaigning my personal peril meter has clocked up being ridden down by several horsemen - one of whom may have been the Duke of Baccleuch, attacked by a maniac with a pitchfork, deliberately been run over by Jeep Cherokee (the copper who witnessed it told me off for damaging the bonnet), being jostled, knocked to the ground and dragged away by security guards or the police on numerous occasions, being bundled against my will into a unmarked van on a dark lane and nearly been ploughed into GM plant food by a mad farmer with a huge tractor.

I've been lucky though and never suffered more than a scratch. Others haven't been.

The brief campaign against fracking at Barton Moss recently saw Chris Pannel break his leg after being pushed into a ditch by the Greater Manchester Police, Vanda Shivett hospitalised with nerve damage after being got by the police, Kris O'Donnell suffer a broken eye socket after being kicked whilst being arrested and plenty of other incidents. One copper cut his finger whilst working on a lock-on and another injured himself whilst making an illegal arrest of someone on a fence, but other than that the police escaped unscathed.

And being on the receiving end of violence probably isn't the worst that can happen to an activist. I once spent thirty six hours in a police cell after being refused bail and was pretty miffed about it, but I was very well looked after. I also spent five weeks in Norwich Crown Court with the prosecution calling for a six months prison sentence, but I received a fair trial and was acquitted.

However twenty eight Greenpeace colleagues and two journalists weren't so lucky and spent three months in a Russian gaol not being well looked after and were facing a very unfair trial and potentially six years in prison before international pressure forced their release.

Other weren't released. Activist Tim DeChristopher, who snuck into an oil and gas lease auction was sentenced to two years in prison for something that certainly wasn't violent and probably not even a crime.

But again, it could be worse. According to NGO Global Witness, 908 environmental campaigners in 35 countries have been killed in the last twelve years, mostly in Central and South America.

And the background to this is that environmentalists are peaceful people. Individuals may lose it on
actions - although very, very rarely - and we may fall out over issues like violence to property and the use of uncontrolled force, but we are peaceful campaigners.

So I guess the question is why is it always us lying in the road?  Why is it always us going to prison? Why is it always those trying to save the earth who end up buried in it?

The obvious answer is because they have the power, not us. Giving one agency the monopoly on the use of violence is the price we paid for moving on from being a tribe to being a nation. We are on the outside so the state uses the powers it has to deal with us.

However there's a little more to it than that.

Most of the violence directed at environmentalists, from the people who shoot Brazilian land rights campaigners to the thugs who hospitalised my friend Jonathan at Manchester Airport, are non-state actors. The authorities don't organise or even condone these attacks. However neither do they investigate or stop them.

Similarly when the forces of law and order intervene themselves, they are usually acting to defend the commercial interests of a non-state body. The motivation of individual officers is questionable and usually suspect, but the people who ordered the Russian Coastguard to seize the Arctic Sunrise knew the Prirazlomnaya rig was not really under terrorists attack, just as I'm sure the people who sent the Tactical Assistance Unit to deal with the Barton Moss blockade knew we hadn't really tried to shoot down a GMP helicopter. DeChristopher didn't commit any offence against the US government. Indeed the Department of the Interior was opposed to the auctions he infiltrated and cancelled many of the sales afterwards, but he did annoy the oil boys so he was sent down.

The modern state is a servile one that serves big business more than its own citizens. Sometimes this is indeed a corrupt relationship, but at other times it is just realpolitik. If you don't want to have to either put up taxes or tell the voters there is no such thing as a free lunch, you have to stay sweet with the fat cats.

So when the eco-warriors turn up to point out that the emperor has no clothes, you turn a blind eye whilst they send in their thugs, or you lend them some of yours. You'd hardly think we were important enough to warrant the attention of the cream of Britain's armed forces, but John Major offered Shell the Special Boat Service to get Greenpeace off the Brent Spar and I believe the SAS were used at Manchester Airport. Nothing is too good for business.

Businesses themselves are, of course, amoral. Environmentalists beat themselves up over what counts as violence, but the companies themselves don't really care. They just see security costs, whether that's to ward of people with bolt croppers, custard pies or petrol bombs. On the flip side they also see no difference between using violent and non-violent methods themselves. Those nice people in CSR may well point out that's it's better to ward off potential trouble by respecting human rights, but others just pay death squads to do their dirty work. You and I see a moral dimension here, but the bottom line just sees money.

So what do we do? That is a question I was seriously asking myself last year when the Arctic 30 were in their Murmansk jail.

Do we carry on and say that this is the price we must pay, which makes me a bit of a psychopath? Or do we say that this is not worth the cost, which makes me a loser? Psychopath or losers, which would I rather be?

Actually I want to be a winner. So I carried on. In due course the Arctic 30 came home, which was a victory of sorts, although the Arctic oil has now started to flow.

Gandhi, an optimist if ever there was one, said  'First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.'  

I really don't know if we will win, if catastrophic climate change and ecological overshoot can be avoided, but I do know on which side I stand.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Review: [When Girl Meets Oil] Evolution of a Corporate Idealist

Evolution of a Corporate Idealist
A hundred years ago the mills of Glossop were booming. Most have gone now, but we still have the Partington theatre, a legacy of a benevolent mill owner and which puts on plays, film shows and occasionally opera. We also have Woods Hospital, where L S Lowry died, a gift to the town from another mill owner, Samuel Hill-Wood, who's largesse also briefly propelled our local football team to the top division in English football.

The charitable work of these liberal Capitalists used to be called Paternalism, and sometime during the twentieth century it disappeared along with other such British institutions as the Dinner Hour and the Tea Trolley.

However today it is back, and going by the name of Corporate Social Responsibility.

We Dominate Because We Care

I knew a bit about CSR before I picked up this book. I knew CSR people spoke a different language to the rest of us, one of Supply Chain Initiatives and Stakeholder Engagement. I also knew a few companies that had been hot on CSR, such as Shell, British American Tobacco and the late and unlamented Enron. I had also knew it sucked in people who I was sure were headed for glittering careers in the world of Human Rights law and such like. So what happens to them when they take the corporate shilling?

To those of us on the outside, giant corporations are just impenetrable black boxes, the inner workings of which we know almost nothing about. We see the human and natural resources going in, and the pollution and executive remuneration coming out, and assume everyone inside is of the same mindset. As a result the dialogue between company insiders and activist outsiders is often one of the mutually deaf, with the gulf between us as large as the one CSR pioneer BP filled with oil four years ago.

That was bad news for the environment, but a decade earlier it was globalised Capitalism that appeared to be on the ropes. The Multilateral Agreement on Investments had bitten the dust and the 1999 World Trade Association meeting had ended in bloody confrontation between protestors and police. The barbarians were at the gate and something needed to be done to safeguard the corporation. Was CSR that something?

Girl meets oil

Whilst they were fighting on the streets of Seattle, down at Yale Christine Bader was completing her MBA. She had already decided she was neither going to sell her soul for money, nor don a balaclava herself. She had been seduced by the Sun King, aka England's own John Browne, dapper CEO of oil giant BP and so, although it wasn't called that then, she ended up in CSR.

Given my views on, as he is now, Lord Browne you would probably expect me to regard this as a bad start. However I do remember how he came across at the time, so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt here. Plenty of other perfectly sensible people really did think a fancy new logo meant that butterflies really would start coming out of BPs oil wells.

Soon Ms. Bader was in Indonesia doing pioneering work to endure BP's Tangguh plant was built with minimum disruption to the local population. Then she was in Shanghai proving that you can do business in China without compromising human rights, before being seconded to the UN to help to write the international gold standards on the subject. And none of that was as easy I've just made it sound.

Meanwhile it all was all going horribly wrong for BP first in Scotland, then in Texas City, then Alaska and finally in the Gulf of Mexico. The company she done such good work for suddenly turned out not to be an ethical business, but a corporate villain. They had put short term profits over long term safety, had promoted those who cut corners and punished those who raised concerns, had ignored near misses and taken risks which with hindsight looked incredibly foolish.

Ms Bader had nothing to do with any of that, but how a person who is clearly clever than I am could spend the best part of a decade in such a dysfunctional organisation without smelling a rat is the question that runs through this book. Was she fooled? Did she just see what she wanted to see? Or was her part of BP different to the rest of the company?

The answer appears to be a bit of all three.

Certainly Ms Bader admits to not looking too carefully behind the curtain. Had she realised that Browne only talked about Climate Change so that it could sell gas to power companies, or that whilst Browne was talking human rights to the world he was getting secrets from his spy in Greenpeace, she might have been a bit more cynical.

On the other hand BP's work in Indonesia and China, as well as the parallel progress on human rights in Columbia, was genuinely innovative.


Inside the beast

Certainly it wasn't too onerous for them; a few hundred thousand dollars spent as part of a multi-billion dollar project. But whilst Ms Bader is clear to repeat that isn't all about money, when outraged locals can cost a big company millions of dollars when they get spikey CSR does start to look like good value for money. All of which suggests to me, with my activist head on, that what the world really needs is not more CSR professionals, but more rioting mobs.

I suspect Ms. Bader knows this too. She's also aware of the contradictions of being a Corporate Idealist. She is cynical about a colleague working for an investment bank who was seemingly oblivious to where most of its money went, but at the same time she realises she was blind to most of what BP were doing as well. She also knows CSR people can end up just being wheeled out to help bury bad news.

But she also tells of the often cathartic experience of confronting the C-suite with the material evidence of how the decisions they make impact on the people at the bottom of the corporate food chain. It can take a big stick to get progress, but that change can be profound and genuine.

Decline of a Corporate Cynic

So what did I learn from this book?

Firstly, although Ms. Bader and her colleagues will say this is not what CSR should be, for the moment it is just an add-on. That's partly because, whilst you can drill for oil whilst supporting oppressive regimes or you can drill for oil respecting human rights, and either way it's still oil, if you take an issue like Climate Change seriously you just wouldn't drill for oil in the first place.

BP may now take seriously the problem of its rigs exploding, but in its latest Sustainability Report it say that Arctic oil "offers significant opportunities to help meet the world’s growing energy needs", mentions Climate Change only in terms of their own emissions, doesn't mention tar sands at all, but boasts about how they recycle their cooking oil in Tangguh. This seems to me to be a failure of the very first stage of CSR; that is acknowledging that there is a problem in the first place. Still, at least they're not fracking (yet).

“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

So it's not surprising Corporate Idealists and Green activists don't always get along. Add in that whilst CSR people earn a fraction of the wages of the C-suite whose reputations they safeguard, they don't do too badly all told and they very rarely find themselves in Russian gaols or on the business end of police truncheons and you have two groups of people who are going to struggle to bond.

But despite that this book makes clear that the dance between insiders and outsiders is a complicated and important one. BP did well on human rights in Indonesia and China in no small part because Ms. Bader had a gang of NGOs breathing down her neck. Meanwhile in the Gulf they were left alone to do their own thing. So maybe it was actually my team that took its eye off the ball. Oops.

So the Corporate Idealist needs the NGO activist and vice versa. It takes two to tango. Ms Bader knows this, I think many Human Rights NGOs know it too, but how many of us Greens get the message? Not enough I think.

All of which makes Evolution of a Corporate Idealist essential reading, especially for corporate cynics like me.

Indeed, afterwards I thought the clash of idealism and practicality was such a great story someone really should write a novel about it.

Now there's an idea.