Prior to entering this course, my knowledge of climate change was limited to the television ads I had seen by the infinitely wise-looking David Suzuki, urging me to reconsider my “ignorant” behavior towards the environment. Thankfully my blissful privileged upbringing helped push that issue aside for me, as I had more important things to focus on, such as finding out whether or not Squidward really does like Krabby patties (he does).
It’s been a few years since then, and now that I’ve been assigned the task of delving into the (unfortunate) truth of climate change, a few things have changed. As I grew older, my habit of blankly staring at my television set continued, and so I started hearing scattered news reports here and there as I flipped through the channels. “This is going to be the hottest summer in recorded history”, “Nobody predicted a hurricane season of such destructive capability”, “Since 1751 approximately 337 billion tons of carbon have been released to the atmosphere from the consumption of fossil fuels and cement production. Half of these emissions have occurred since the mid 1970s.” the list of headlines goes on. So why were we still denying it? If our primary source of daily information was directly linking our actions to the rapid deterioration of our planet and her resources, why were we so happy to ignore it? Because we weren’t getting the first-hand experience.
Let’s backtrack a bit, to the 1600’s to be specific. The first African slaves arrived on boat in America, chained together and covered in the filth they had been forced to live in over the past 4 months. The slavetraders were focused primarily on their profits, not the welfare of their “products”, so they crammed as many slaves as they could onto their boats and fed them as little as they possibly could. These slaves were then dealt out at auctions to the new Americans, who had just seized the continent of North America and needed a cheap, efficient energy source to capitalize on the ripe resources the lands had to offer. For many years to come, all seemed well for the average Joe, or Elijah to be specific to our context.
The slave trade was of course abolished by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, so the ever-privileged Americans seemed to be in a bit of a dilemma: they may actually be required to manually sustain themselves. Around the same time, though, another great discovery was made: petroleum, completely replacing the need for slaves as a primary source of energy in the fiels of agriculture, manufacturing and so on. People began rushing from everywhere in America and the rest of the world to reap the bountiful rewards of this seemingly-magical substance literally spewing out of the Earth. Unfortunately, we were unaware of the fact that petroleum, like other fossil fuels, was finite and would not be able to naturally renew itself (in a reasonable amount of time). Over the next 150 years, we would go on to tap every last source of fossil fuels found scattered around the Earth, and a 2012 estimate by the Scientific American estimated that we had already extracted 1 trillion barrels of oil from the Earth, and approximately 1 trillion remained, a trillion that would cost significantly more to extract. So in 150 years, less than the lifespan of a crafty sea turtle, we have managed to literally burn up the product of millions of years of intricate natural processes.
Ironically, the same people that enslaved the entire continent of Africa and stripped it clean of its resources; from lumber to diamonds, were now back in Africa taking from them the most valuable contemporary commodity on our planet: oil.
Let’s look at one example in particular; take a look at the logo above. Whether you immediately identified the logo as that of petroleum conglomerate Shell or simply associated this logo with the idea of traditional gasoline, you’ve heard of Shell. What you probably haven’t heard about Shell is that in July of this year, they were charged $5 billion for the damages caused by their 2011 40, 000 barrel oil spill off the coast of Nigeria’s Niger Delta in the Atlantic Ocean. Shell began operations in Nigeria in 1958 as a joint operation between Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum, immediately after the discovery of oil in the region. Since Shell’s first major oil spill in the area in 1970, the Nigerian government has reported over 7, 000 oil spills in the region (the actual figure is a bit ambiguous, as equally-credible sources report varied statistics from about 5, 000 to 7, 000).
Covering approximately 7.5% of Nigeria’s land-mass, the Niger Delta is home to 20 million people and contains amongst the highest concentrations of biodiversity on Earth, versatile agricultural land and the most abundant ecosystem of freshwater fish in West Africa. Scattered throughout the water, shore and mainland of the Delta lay countless pipelines carrying the oil from its source deep underground for processing and storage above-ground. Typically, these pipelines have a functioning lifespan of approximately 15 years, at which point the pipelines become so corroded that they become susceptible to leaks and breakage. Every oil spill, small or large, continues to poison the once fertile lands of the Delta, and due to the current policy of self-regulation bestowed upon the oil companies (cough cough Shell), it is convenient for them to ignore the issues and just continue drilling. Today, the inhabitants lack clean drinking water as the rivers are clogged by decade-old oil, they suffer frequently from skin lesions and illnesses due to the polluted air and water, are unable to grow any crop on the devastated land; they have lost all basic human rights, all because of their resource curse.
The resource curse is the paradox of resource discovery in a (usually) impoverished country. The expectation is that the discovery would lead to financial rebirth and instant restoration of livelihood – after all, the Nigerian government has made $600 billion from oil operations in the Delta since 1960. Let’s look back to that for a second: the Nigerian government, not the Nigerian people, have made $600 billion. Throughout the duration of oil operations, the standard of living for Nigerians in the Delta has only deteriorated despite the ludicrous funds coming in, this is because all of the profits are centralized in a corrupt government. The oil companies casually slip a few billion into the pockets of governing politicians, who comfortably turn a blind eye to the reckless actions of the oil operations while the Nigerian people continue to survive off of less than $1 a day.
A Shell representative said: “most of the facilities were constructed between the 1960s and early 1980s to the then prevailing standards. SPDC [Shell Petroleum and Development Company] would not build them that way today”. Well here we are today, and Shell has neglected to replace their now 30 to 50 year old pipelines, which has resulted in 50% of the quantity of oil spilled in the area, a figure shockingly different from Shell’s confident claim of 25%. The other 75%, then, is due to criminal sabotage and oil theft (according to our good friends at Shell, anyways), a figure which is more accurately represented as 20-28% by most sources. Well maybe it would be a little bit more difficult for mother nature to commit her selfish oil theft if Shell took the liberty of doing some long-overdue replacement of their outlandishly-profitable pipelines (pun intended), which shouldn’t be too difficult for a company that pulled in $470 billion in revenue last year.
For a more intimate understanding of the impact of Shell’s oil extraction in the Niger Delta, check out National Geographic’s video series, Curse of the Black Gold.
What does any of this have to with us?
Well, as the blindly happy consumers we are, it requires a substantial amount of oil in order to fuel our perpetually growing need for more clothing, gas for our comically-sized cars, accessories for our gargantuan houses and literally everything else. Whether it be transporting any given raw materials to their processing plant or delivering something directly to your house, we are wasting oil quickly, and judging by the quantities by which oil is being extracted, our liberal attitude towards oil expenditure is not changing.
So what do we do about this? Well if we’ve learned anything about our generation, it’s that social networking is the new revolutionary medium, take Kony 2012 or the BP oil spill as examples. We need to spread the word! It is our ignorance that is quickly destroying the Earth, and it is only through education that mobilization can occur, and eventually lead to healthy, natural stabilization.
It obviously will make minimal difference for you, as an individual, to boycott the use of oil, not to mention the fact that in our contemporary industrialized society, it is literally impossible for you to live without oil. The major problem this poses, though, is that as we continue to try and access the various sources of oil scattered around the Earth, the process will grow in difficulty, increasing the chances of slip-ups such as spills. Moreover, the continued use of oil on this mass scale only adds to the issue of oil in our oceans. To be precise, oil spills account for only 18% of human oil pollution in the seas. At this point in history, human oil pollution has surpassed natural oil seeps in the quantity of oil they have released into the ocean. This may seem irrelevant, but you should consider the time spans of these 2 sources: oil has existed naturally now for millions of years, and over that time has naturally seeped into our oceans; humans have had access to oil for less than 2 centuries, and in that time have surpassed the total amount of oil in the oceans as a result of millions of years of natural deposits. Worldwide, people use about 80 million barrels of oil every day and the more we use oil, the more dependent we become on the resource. We must stop the vicious cycle now before it really is too late by cutting back dramatically on all of our oil usage and looking to renewable energy sources, which have all proven to be significantly less detrimental to our homeostasis. As the consumers, we are in control of how much oil we waste, and if this arbitrary demand for oil is hindered now, we can start thinking about reversing the unfortunate impact we’ve had on the Earth, one drop at a time.