“What is this shit!” exclaimed the public-relations team at the oil and gas company Shell in June of 2012 – probably – as they saw a PR nightmare unfolding on social media. What happened?
The Shell campaign site ArcticReady.com announced new opportunities in the Far North with blithe optimism, now that the ice is releasing profitable oil fields from its “eternal” embrace. The campaign was kicked off with an event in Seattle’s Space Needle, when something went wrong…
“Let’s Go! Shell in the Arctic”
Shell and other companies indeed already expand their business into the arctic. However, the campaign site and the event was part of an elaborate hoax created by the world’s best pranksters “the Yes Men”. They teamed up with Greenpeace to bring a message across which is still as pressing as it was in 2012: human-made climate change causes a warming (on average) of the planet, and a melting of the ice caps. The very product – oil – that contributed greatly to global warming and melting of ice now makes it possible that even more oil becomes available, which will further contribute to our carbon footprint. But that is not the only issue.
Earth’s oceans cover about 71% of the entire surface and water density is dependent of its temperature. When the oceans warm up a little, they take more space and the sea level rises. Melting glaciers that otherwise tower over the waterline will additionally contribute to it [edit link added]. The current pace of sea level rise is about 3mm per year, which may not sound much. But other possible effects that could be triggered as a result of global warming aren’t even factored in, and yet it is already “a significantly larger rate than the sea-level rise averaged over the last several thousand years” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA –pronounced like Noah. It seems the whole issue can only be approached with a grim sense of humour.
Another issue is the shrinking of biotopes that not only endangers iconic species such as the Ringed Seal and the Polar Bear. “Sea ice, especially during the sunlit seasons, serves as habitat for an ice-specific food web (sympagic foodweb)” as this NOAA essay illustrates. The dissertation for the “Institut für Polarökologie” (Kiel, Germany) summarizes:
“Sea ice is an important structural element of polar marine ecosystems, but also in the Baltic, Caspian and Okhotsk Seas (Horner et al. 1992, Thomas and Dieckmann 2002). At its maximum, sea ice covers 13% of the earth’s surface, making it an important biome encompassing a similar area as deserts or tundra systems (Lizotte 2001). The sea-ice canopy greatly modiﬁes the exchange of energy and material between the atmosphere and the sea (e.g. Wettlaufer 1991, Rahm et al. 1995, Haapala and Leppäranta 1997). Sea ice reduces the amount and quality of light in the water column and thus, strongly inﬂuences the onset and composition of pelagic spring blooms (Maykut 1985, Haecky et al. 1998).”
As a result of global warming, record warm winters are observed at the poles, while we all might see more extreme temperatures in either direction because of currents and winds that begin to flow differently. The global warming has an impact on various anticyclones such as the Siberian High or North American High, which in turn have a large influence on the weather in Europe, North America, as well as in East Asia. As you probably noticed: it’s not always getting warmer where you live, just because the poles warm up. Apparently this week saw the coldest day in the USA in 20 years.
How bad is it? A new study published last October in Nature suggests that 2047 will be the End of the World As We Know It. At least this is the impression when you plug in the date “2047” with “global warming” into your favourite search engine. It might devastate ecosystems; the “natural” climate as we know it might end; it might be a “point of no return” and tropical and poorer areas of the world will be affected first, perhaps setting mass migrations in motion with rather gloomy political implications.
Occupy Oil Rig
Next to extreme weather, rising sea levels, shrinking habitats and unpredictable side effects, the oil drilling itself poses a threat to the environment, due to oil contamination from drilling, leaky pipelines and oil spills. Who knew?
But only when some issue makes the news again, and preferably around the corner, as in the Shetland Islands, there is some awareness.
This happened when Royal Dutch Shell (it is an Anglo-Dutch venture) seriously considered to just blow up their oil rig “Brent Spar” in deep sea waters after it was time for it to retire in 1995. Their seemingly careless conduct led to calls for boycott in many countries and some significant damage to Shell’s brand.
Greenpeace occupied the rig with 25 activists (including journalists and photographers), but grossly overestimated the remaining storage, and as a consequence their reputation was damaged as well. Eventually, Shell pulled the rig to the shore where it was dismantled. That wasn’t Shell’s only issue. The company is apparently involved in some unethical oil production in Nigeria, which originally brought the Yes Men onto the scene.
“The effects of oil in the fragile Niger Delta communities and environment have been enormous. Local indigenous people have seen little if any improvement in their standard of living while suffering serious damage to their natural environment. According to Nigerian federal government figures, there were more than 7,000 oil spills between 1970 and 2000.” – Niger Delta, Wikipedia
Shell claimed a loss of about 400,000 barrels (in total) of crude oil per day to oil leakage in Nigeria. Assuming UK barrels, they lose crude oil of about 0.72 of Olympic sized swimming pool per day. Shell claims that 98% of this is due to oil thefts. The thieves drill holes into the pipelines, capture the oil, but leave them open allowing the oil to spill out.
However, Shells’ numbers where contested by Amnesty International. Before Dutch parliament, Shell revised them down to 70% loss due to such theft, which would be about half a swimming pool of crude oil, per day. Greenpeace or Shell, the truth isn’t always affordable when the stakes are high. Provided we don’t know what happens with the stolen oil, still almost a quarter of an Olympic sized swimming pool of crude oil is released to the environment per day from normal operation.
The Nigeria affairs of Shell seems to be a very dark chapter indeed. In my cursory research on that matter I found Shell allegedly corrupted the Nigerian Authorities. I also happened across the fate of the Nigerian environmentalist Ken Saro Wiwa, who was arrested and executed by the Nigerian authorities in 1995. There were also cases of bribery by the government itself and other very dubious activities. The situation in Nigeria urged the Yes Men to take action and it seems it was the beginning of their cooperation with Greenpeace.
We Are Sorry. Not.
The Yes Lab page shows a few sources and news coverage of the “Murder is Bad” campaign.
“In the 1990’s when Nigerians began to nonviolently protest Shell’s oil development, Shell collaborated with the Nigerian military regime to violently suppress opposition. More than 60 villages were raided, over 800 people were killed, and 30,000 more were displaced from their homes.” – the Yes Lab, Project “Murder is Bad”
But the first prank took place in 2010, known as the “Shell: We are Sorry” hoax, executed in a similar way as they did with Dow Chemicals some years before (known for their “Bhopal Disaster” in India). Each of the Yes Men somehow convinced the media they were legitimate spokespersons of the companies and claimed they acknowledge the damage done and would be fully responsible for their actions. Of course real corporations would never take responsibility for their actions in that manner.
Pitch Black Humour, with Rainbow Shine™
What began with Pranksterism in Nigeria seems to have become the campaign with Greenpeace for the protection of the arctic.
Shell as a target remained, and the Russian company Gazprom was added in 2013. The campaigns were supported by some “classic” Greenpeace activism which was resolved only just after Christmas when the 5 last activists of the “Arctic 30” held captive for 100 days were eventually released by the Russian government.
The activists planned to hang banners onto the Russian drilling platform “Prirazlomnaya”, were captured and accused of “piracy”. “It was the stiffest response that Greenpeace has encountered since the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985, said Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA” reported the Washington Post in late September, and 11 Nobel Peace laureates wrote to Putin to drop the excessive charges against the activists.
Meanwhile the pranksterism continued. Mimicking overly enthusiastic (and naïve) companies trying to harness this new thing “social media”, the Shell hoax site ArcticReady asked users to submit slogans for various motives.
Here are a few examples. Check out the social media gallery – apparently some users thought they were trolling Shell.
As if on cue, only a few month after the start of the hoax campaign, Royal Dutch Shell’s actual drill barge “Kulluk” ran aground in the western Gulf of Alaska near the Kodiak Islands. The ArcticReady hoax website comments with pitch black humour (quite literally) and unabated optimism:
“Yes, the reports are true. Our 266-ft drilling barge containing over 140,000 gallons of diesel fuel has run aground in a highly sensitive ecosystem off the coast of southern Alaska. But what is failure but a bump on the road to triumph? In fact, we consider this an auspicious beginning to our 2013 Arctic adventure. Contrary to the numerous warnings by scientists, environmental activists, and people indigenous to the region, we take this recent occurrence as a sign that Shell is in the right place, doing the right thing. Nature has spoken, and it’s asking the Kulluk to stay a while longer.” – ArcticReady.Com, “#RepairingFreedom”
The hoax campaign continued in 2013 when Shell and Gazprom allegedly announced a partnership to tap the oil in the Russian arctic. This time the Yes Men and Greenpeace launched the hoax website Polar-Partners.com with this fine explanation:
“Welcome to website celebrating partnership for Arctic petroleum project of two mighty companies […] Today, Gazprom and Shell together are making far-reaching plans to uncover new vast energy reserves in Russia Arctic region, now available to public through sea-ice-loss. We welcome the opportunity to use Shell’s state-of-the-art extraction technologies, as well as our unique laser technology for eliminating oil pollutions in real operating conditions” – Polar-Partners.com
Take your time to read both hoax websites for a lot more subversive humour, like the section for “science-minded people” which notes among other “positive” points a “strong downward trend in worker fatality following 2011”, “Heavy ties to Russia political structure” or Russian “Powerful laser technology for accident elimination at wells (no world analogues)”. The launch of the partnership was once again opened with a seemingly positive “PR event”:
I think they could have done the Gazprom part without the cliché Russian-English, but there are a lot of hidden jokes. On the 0:50 mark, Gazprom allegedly succeeded in a “relocation of salmon” and we get to see apparently found footage of a polar bear in the sunset, someone firing, and hitting a polar bear with a flare among other things…
Sports events were also targeted. In august, Greenpeace added a pythonesque element to the Formula 1 Grand Prix victory ceremony.
Another high profile example was the “don’t foul the arctic” banner which was unveiled at a soccer champion’s league match in Basel (Gazprom is a major sponsor of the Swiss team).
Here Comes the Communication Guerrilla
The Yes Men may or may not be Discordians, which may or may not be a reason why I am interested in their activism for a long time.
This type of activism has a number of names. I would put it below the guerrilla communication heading. Under the premise that for example corporations attempt to communicate with possible customers, guerrilla communication seeks to make this act of communication and manipulation not only visible, but to disrupt or subvert it. The audience is made to think and question the messages that are otherwise ubiquitous and accepted often without giving them much thought.
The simplest way of doing guerrilla communication is probably through subvertisement (also known as Adbusting) and can be done by everyone, albeit on a much smaller scale. The activists draws attention to their message by presenting it through an established brand:
“A well produced ‘subvert’ mimics the look and feel of the targeted ad, promoting the classic ‘double-take’ as viewers suddenly realize they have been duped. Subverts create cognitive dissonance. It cuts through the hype and glitz of our mediated reality and, momentarily, reveals a deeper truth within.” – AdBusters Magazine
The subversion can be targeted directly at the company, the branch they are representative for (like Shell and Gazprom for companies drilling in the arctic), or against lifestyles or cultures promoted by the brand. While ArcticReady and Polar Partners target more the companies, some user-submitted ads also attack lifestyles.
The Yes Men often times work with a technique called “over-identification”. They put themselves into the shoes of the WHO, Dow Chemicals, Shell and Gazprom and “genuinely” try to advance their goals in an “upfront” manner. But by overdoing it, the dubious goals of such companies become entirely obvious; perhaps like the Monty Pythons, who start many of their sketches fairly low-key and gradually make them ever more bizarre.
The method has its benefits as initially, the audience buys into the message, and gradually realizes something is wrong and then begins to think about it. Oil companies probably rejoice because of the melting ice, but of course in reality it would be a bad idea to cheer too much.
Too much, or too little Skepticism?
Advertisement taps into values most find agreeable. Making you prettier always works. You probably like “freedom”, “authenticity”, “honesty”, “independence” or “budget-friendly”. Perhaps you like it when it is “good for the economy”, and “creates jobs”. Wouldn’t you want to support something?
“Anything that’s totally vacuous and diverts, after all what does it mean to be in favor of … suppose somebody asks, do you support the people in Iowa, can you say I support them or no I don’t support them. It’s not even a question it doesn’t even mean anything. And that’s the point of public relations slogans like ‘support our troops’ is that they don’t mean anything, they mean as much as whether you support the people in Iowa […] the issue was do you support our policy but you don’t want people to think about the issue that’s the whole point of good propaganda, you want to create a slogan that nobody is gonna be against and I suppose everybody will be for because nobody knows what it means because it doesn’t mean anything” —Noam Chomsky, On Propaganda (1992)
One way how this has been used in advertising is by presenting the product with these agreeable values (often times in a very contrived manner), while everything that could upset customers is hidden away. Indeed, such messages don’t mean anything.
A healthy lifestyle can be framed as boring, because it isn’t risky. Risk is cool (somehow people really seem to confuse Evel Knievel style stunts with inhaling toxins, for example). That way, many can be even convinced to buy cancer-sticks, perhaps believing it makes them more assertive, or they think ruining one’s lungs is somehow setting them free on the American plains. Free like a cowboy. The Yes Men hoax site mocks some of this spin with their “#RepairingFreedom” idea. Which probably is already governed by Poe’s Law.
“Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing”
It is probably common knowledge by now that the tricks of the Tobacco industry, alas, gave the Oil Industry (and Creationists) a smoker’s leg up.
The companies would create credible sounding “scientific” institutes, hire “experts” who would draw on every straw there is, while misrepresenting real science with the goal of giving the impression scientists were still debating on whatever is actually decided by an overwhelming majority. This technique is sometimes called creating a “manufactuversy”.
The confused public and law makers would react with an otherwise common sense attitude: “if the experts are disagreeing, it’s too early to take sides or draw conclusions.” The created uncertainty then delays necessary legislation and regulation. For some reason such conduct seems to appear often with conservatives and right-wing politicians, who perhaps quite happily delay regulations for their buddy industries.
Ironically, they love to have maximum freedom to pollute the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, at the same time love to pile regulations on women’s bodies or what consenting adults can or can’t do, when they aren’t quite the traditional couple. And somehow, conservatism rarely includes the environment.
Yours Truly, the Environmental Friendly Oil Company
Meanwhile, the real oil companies in all seriousness present themselves as environmental friendly and it is not a hoax. Gazprom touts the benefits of “environmental friendly fuel”.
“Natural gas” sounds great, doesn’t it? We all love nature and all things natural and organic. But gas isn’t any more “natural” or “chemical” whether it was produced artificially or pumped out of the ground. And organic materials just means “contains carbon atoms”, like CO2.
Less dangerous isn’t exactly “friendly” by any stretch of the definition. While the extraction of gas seems less problematic as that of oil, this “natural gas” is Methane.
Methane has the potential of trapping 62 times more heat in the atmosphere than Co2 over a 20 year period, and still 8 times more over a 500 year period. Methane is therefore not an “environmental friendly” option. Shell has a nature page, too, where the hoax activists perhaps got some inspiration:
“Our goal is to have zero fatalities and no incidents that cause harm to our people and neighbours and put our facilities at risk.”
Oh, really? I hope my journey through issues and communication pays off now, as this one is completely meaningless in Chomsky’s sense. There is probably no single company on earth that likes fatalities in their facilities.
I do wonder who rubber-stamped such rubbish. Is there actually a single person, interested enough to happen on their site thinking “Oh, this is great! They actually don’t want fatalities in their facilities!”?– I almost cannot believe it.
The other issues on their page are downright obscene considering their arctic adventures and their conduct in Nigeria. The “Code of Conduct” allegedly written for employees, even lists “fighting corrupt practices”. Perhaps, they send this over to the Nigerian Government.
Religion is always a reliabel preservative of bad ideas. They emerged thousands of years ago when bad ideas were still more commonplace and were then captured faithfully in scriptures.
As a consequence, Christians and others rarely lead any cause but rather are like the ball on a chain on humankind’s ankle. And everyone with vested interests could rely on that religion will be around and fine tune their arguments to the anti-science ignoramuses among the faithful, where they are most plentiful.
Indeed, what religious people believe became a good indicator of nonsense. The biblical Genesis was dreamed up a few hundred years before the Common Era, maybe 2500 years ago when environmentalism was no issue. Yet many Christians believe that it was dictated by their allegedly almighty deity and thus true at all times:
“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’.” – Genesis 1:28
And since God’s Mysterious Divine Plans™ are about other things than worrying about the environment, evangelical Christians are convinced that whatever we do, it won’t be a problem. God takes care of it, as usual in their infantile religion.
The whole world is drowning.. hah haha haha to wash away our sin!
To be fair, the “Christian Science Monitor” has a good article on the “2047” study mentioned above. Perhaps such Christians could talk to their peers more decisively.
Again, religion poisons everything. It creates an irrational foundation which is by default in opposition to science as new knowledge might contradict the “eternal truths” of scriptures. A crack in the door that can be exploited…
“Conservative groups may have spent up to $1bn a year on the effort to deny science and oppose action on climate change, according to the first extensive study into the anatomy of the anti-climate effort. The anti-climate effort has been largely underwritten by conservative billionaires, often working through secretive funding networks. […] The groups collectively received more than $7bn over the eight years of Brulle’s study” – The Guardian, on December 20, 2013
The Almighty God emerged in the deserts of Western Asia and not in the ice of the north and seems to not care. “Nature” will do just fine of course. The question is whether we do as well. But don’t despair, when Quinn the Eskimo gets here everybody’s gonna jump for joy.
The Almighty Quinn
The first line of my eccentric montage was a classic opener in Greil Marcus’ review of Bob Dylan’s album “Self-Portrait” on which “Quinn the Eskimo” appeared. It was released long before my time, but the controversy about it struck me as interesting as various critics were unsure whether the album was meant seriously.
“Everybody’s building the big ships and boats
Some are building monuments, others jotting down notes
Everybody’s in despair, every girl and boy
But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here everybody’s gonna jump for joy
Oh come all without, come all within
You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn
Come all without, come all within
You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn.” – Bob Dylan “Quinn the Eskimo” / “the Mighty Quinn”
Meanwhile in Gazprom Russia, Shell scammed the Nigerians. Or something like that. At least Shell can’t expect “criminal activities” from Inuit, also known as Eskimo (the term is considered a racial slur by some).
Alas, the Mighty Quinn is only mighty. Many places will experience a human-made flood if we aren’t making changes fast. By then, Ken Ham might have completed building his monument. He may hope it doubles as a big ship, filled with Evangelicals and it may begin to float. Or so it seems in frozen Kentucky in July.
Consider supporting / following the Yes Men, they have a (non spam) Twitter account here, or help out the folks at Greenpeace. And well, you could help “Spread the Weird” Discordian Times, too. Just in case.
As usual, I greatly appreciate comments. Don’t be shy. It is also okay to tell me you really want more 550 word blog entries on one, just one subject, not five. And now everybody… “Come all without, come all within”