Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

13 Sep 2012

Oiling the cogs of the Conservation Machine

Our society runs on oil, and despite leaps and bounds made in alternative fuels, it is still the most energy efficient source we have in terms of reliability. Until that changes, it will remain a growing market. Fears of "Peak Oil" have been brushed aside following discoveries of fresh wells to tap, but also technological advances which allow access to extreme oil; fracking every last drop out of the Dakota tar sands. Geopolitical threats from Iran have spurned this prospecting, and the squeals of the environmental sector are drowned by the monetary muscle of the petro-lobbyists.

Whilst the oil companies rake it in, environmental NGOs are feeling the pinch, and not just in their pockets. Human induced climate change is exacerbated by our addiction to oil, increasing the degradation of natural systems. With previous pots of government funding running dry, the NGO community is turning to big business to pay its way. Indeed, the current message of the conservation clique is clear “capitalism is the key to our ecological future and ecological sustainability will help end our current financial crisis”. Rather than renounce the system which has promoted the exploitation of resources across the globe, these BINGOs (Big NGOs) have leapt to make alliances with money spinning corporations. Whilst it is naive to believe that a globally operating environmental NGO can function on voluntary donations at a ground level, it does not detract from the issue of the green washing effect this has on our view of corporations, nor change the influence they exert in turn. As they hold the power to switch off the tap of cash at any moment, BINGOs are forced to follow company line and the capitalist tenet of returns on investment and demonstration of growth.

One such BINGO who is trying to bridge the gap between the seemingly polar opposite worlds of conservation and corporations is the Earthwatch Institute. Since 1971, they have worked with field scientists and institutions to develop citizen-science-based research and environmental monitoring programmes. Last year, they supported close to 80 different projects in more than 30 countries, contributing to scientific journals, but also changes in management strategy for at risk environments. What distinguishes Earthwatch from others is their attempts to engage with their corporate partners rather than take their money and run with it. Most impressive is the 5-year partnership between HSBC, focusing on the impacts of climate change on tree growth. Regional Climate Centres were set up in China, India, Latin America, North America and Europe, where scientists, supported by local community members and HSBC employees, carried out field research to establish the health of the forests. More than 10,000 employees across the globe took part in field research before returning to their offices and implementing 700 initiatives to ingrain sustainability into their business. Whilst big banks mean big bucks, they too are implicit in every major transaction, and thus their actions have a global reach. But by partnering with Shell, have Earthwatch bitten off more than they can chew?

Over 500 Shell employees have now been on projects, who return to their business well aware of the threats of climate change as a direct result of oil extraction. This has spurned internal funding to support projects through their Biodiversity and Ecosystem services initiative, and employees are partnering with UNESCO world heritage sites to transfer their business skills. I truly believe that this goes beyond greenwashing and that within the company, certain individuals are realising the future impacts of unsustainable business. Unfortunately, this represents a drop in the ocean, and with Shell numbering close to 100,000 employees, it seems that the partnership still has a long way to go.
Kader Attia. Oil and Sugar #2, 2007
Are Shell to blame for the oil glut? They, after all, only represent 5% of the total oil market, and yet receive probably the loudest condemnation. Governments are those who are directly responsible for the fate of their country, but how can we expect a government to reject a 5 billion jumpstart to their economy, and an oil lobby who force it down their throats. The shambles of Shell's operations in Nigeria both on an environmental and human rights scale demonstrate the corrosive power of oil, and should make anyone wary of operating with them. This week, Shell have done the unthinkable but unavoidable, and have begun to prospect for oil at the fringes of the receding Arctic icesheets. The shameful irony of a positive feedback loop; more oil consumption has made more of it available.

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