Here’s the surreal paradox of our times in a nutshell: we, civilization—the hordes bickering and sexting, loving and starving, cheating and picking our teeth and sleeping in and every so often falling to our knees—all us humans are chained to fossil fuels whether we like it or not, and this dependency is killing us. We are, perhaps, the last generation to experience what beauty and stability still remains on this planet. World leaders know this better than anyone, and yet in the face of a dramatic, peaceful, and comprehensive revision of how the world works (which is what the transition over to clean energy would take), they use the UN as a front for showy pledges to curb greenhouse gases while pretending the real culprit doesn’t exist. George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian, makes this horrifyingly clear when he points out that after decades of UN climate talks, the front-seat role fossil fuels play in warming the climate was only acknowledged for the first time last year, in Lima.
We can’t trust our leaders to save us, Naomi Klein tells us starkly in her 2014 book This Changes Everything. We can’t trust the “green billionaires” or the geoengineers; no miracle will outpace such colossal hubris: only honesty, revolutionary economic policies, and humility before the forces of nature while nature’s still capable of accepting our offerings. There will be no angel swooping down on wings—real, or soldered on—who can save us; only the bickering, sexting hordes can save us. I open my laptop and I read about the Obama administration’s granting of conditional approval to Royal Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic, and then I read about the recent Nature report which bluntly states 100% of Arctic oil must remain in the ground if we are to limit warming at the 2 degree limit agreed upon in Copenhagen. There was a day, recently, when I opened a third tab and clicked through pictures of dozens, even hundreds, of beautiful multi-colored kayaks seen from above—hundreds of candy-colored slivers circling and circling around the first of Shell’s monstrous yellow oil rigs, docked in Seattle’s port for pre-exploratory maintenance. The people in those kayaks were radiant with anger and hope. I had those three tabs open on May 18—the day hundreds of ordinary citizens pledged to risk arrest “. . . if our elected officials fail us . . . to send the message that Seattle is unwilling to support a catastrophic project like Arctic drilling.” It was ten o’clock in the morning and I sat at my living room table five-thousand miles away staring at all those kayaks, and I cried my eyes out.
Then I blew my nose, wiped my eyes, signed some online petitions, and posted an article about the protest that one person out of the six-hundred people I’m connected to on Facebook “liked.” A few days later, Dave Lordan, who knows I’m writing a manifesto called “Artists of the Climate Age,” asked me to pen something short, about Shell and the Seattle activists. I tried. But what I know about Shell, the Arctic, and their hundreds of strangers in those beautiful kayaks are facts, the kind of facts that communicate everything and nothing, for instance: what gets dredged up will get burned, and burned Arctic oil makes for the 4 degree world internal documents reveal Shell is already planning for. Scientists and policy makers aren’t openly planning for a 4 degree world, simply because it translates into a death sentence for millions of people. It means people currently bickering and sexting are going to have kids who’ll die in wars or die of famine or die of exposure, who’ll lose everything they have and become refugees. Back in April, six Greenpeace activists scaled the Polar Pioneer (the rig Shell’s currently got docked in Seattle) and camped out below its main deck for a week. Shell responded by accusing the activists of endangering themselves and others. If there’s a prize for greatest lack of self-awareness, I want to nominate a candidate.
Here are more facts I know. The concentration of carbon in the atmosphere has now exceeded 400 parts per million, which is well above the safe threshold for absorption. Remember when, in 2012, BP hemorrhaged oil for 180 days into the Gulf of Mexico’s hospitable, accessible waters? The technology to clean up a spill in the fragile Arctic ecosystem does not yet exist, and a government assessment gave potential spills a 75% likelihood of occurring if oil exploration in the region goes ahead.
If those terrible odds weren’t themselves reason enough to stop this insanity, consider the fact that Shell already tried to drill in the Arctic three years ago, but was forced to abandon the effort when an attempt to move their rig prematurely and during a violent storm (to avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes) resulted in the rig’s disengagement from the towing boat and subsequent foundering nearby, with 150,000 gallons of oil onboard.
That flotilla of kayaking protestors surrounded the Polar Pioneer on May 16, making international news. Two days later, protestors blocked the entrance to the rig’s terminal. Beyond these organized events of mass protest, groups of demonstrators regularly gathered at the port to voice their outrage over the rig’s presence. Over twenty-two environmental groups came together to denounce Shell, and the City of Seattle brought legal action against the corporate titan, though it was pretty small-time: found guilty of lacking the proper permits, Shell effectively ignored the accusation and continued preparing its rig at the contested terminal.
Shell still has two other rigs destined for exploratory drilling, and I remain in respectful awe of protesters all along the Pacific Northwest willing to give up their freedom in order to stymie or delay Shell’s Arctic ventures. There is, however, something very chilling, in sentences that read (paraphrased), “Protestors gave rousing speeches, sang folk songs, and then went home, while a spokesperson for Shell stated the company had anticipated the demonstration and work on the rig was not interrupted.” What do you say when the obvious has already been said, you have seen many people nodding in agreement, and still, change doesn’t happen fast enough? What if fate—notoriously inelastic—is not a faceless mystical force but two dozen middle-aged white men in suits, sitting on a board and barking into cell phones? And how, exactly, are we content for even a millisecond to live out the destiny they’ve designed for us—in which we march to the grave along with our children, our dreams, and our histories—which really shouldn’t count for so little—without so much as a shrug?
But maybe we can stop Shell, arrest the whole system, in the nick of time. Once you grasp what the alternative is—and take the time to grieve—actively working for a better world doesn’t seem so crazy. There are already a lot of small actions we can all take right now: from signing petitions online, to emailing or meeting with local representatives, to organizing and attending marches, to talking about climate change with friends and family, to championing divestment campaigns, to plumbing these issues through art, to participating in direct action initiatives. I’m doing these things because it’s literally the least I can do and I’m still trying to figure out what’s the most.
Which means, I guess, that I can’t stop thinking about those kayaks. The way I see it, their symbolic meaning isn’t fixed, and I can read that image one of two ways. I tend to vacillate a lot between hope and despair, and sometimes the kayaks assemble in my mind and spell out futility, a David and Goliath story as rewritten by a pessimistic nonbeliever. The Polar Pioneer is in Arctic waters now, after all. But other times, the vision of those kayaks gives me that priceless faith present only at the birth of revolution. Maybe we’re not marching to our deaths after all—who is this doomed, monolithic “we” anyway? So many people I know and admire are fighting hard for an inspiring future. It’s simple: should the kayaks multiply by the thousands, then the rigs will truly be stopped. And then, we could choose our fate.