Should Arctic drilling opponents take on Shell, or our own craving for crude?

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The floating protest against Shell's presence at the Port of Seattle made headlines. Would activists have more impact if they stormed Olympia instead?

Ok, admit it — you’re a little queasy about the recent “Paddle in Seattle” protests against Shell. It’s not that you questioned their cause: the Arctic is highly sensitive, the risks of an accident are high and Shell’s record in the Arctic is hardly inspiring. Nor did you doubt the effectiveness of a flotilla of tiny Davids standing up — okay, sitting down — against an oily Goliath: Shell’s operational window in the Chukchi Sea is so narrow that any delay in the port permitting process could cause Shell to rethink the whole project.

Rather, what bothered you was the small-picture feel to the campaign. Even if Greenpeace and others involved do stop Shell from wintering its Arctic fleet in Seattle, the victory will be short-lived. As soon as oil prices rise, Shell or a rival will be back for the billions of barrels under the Chukchi. Why? Because, what is actually driving this drama isn’t oil-industry greed, or even the wimpiness of the Obama administration. It is our own insatiable appetite for crude.

Put another way, unless the zeal we saw on Elliott Bay can somehow be channeled toward the more complicated, and less glamorous, task of curbing that demand, the “Paddle for Seattle” will ultimately be less political action than performance art.

This isn’t a dig at the protestors, exactly. Groups like Greenpeace, for all their emphasis on immediacy and real-time spectacle, recognize that these “events” must be part of a larger campaign to shift the global economy away from fossil fuels. The problem, really, is the way that larger story is being articulated and received — by activists, but also by journalists, politicians, citizens and the larger culture. And cynical as it may sound, when it comes to stories about social change, ours is a culture that increasingly insists on, not only obvious conflict and identifiable heroes and villains, but plot lines that move swiftly and uncomplicatedly toward concrete resolution, whether it’s a success or failure. “Reducing oil demand” just doesn’t fit that criteria.

Which isn’t surprising. For many of us, oil demand is a concept we’d rather not think about — not because it’s too abstract, but because it’s too depressingly personal. We understand the link between our driving habits and distant events like Arctic drilling. It's just that, as a group, we’re not very good at acting on that knowledge, especially when gasoline is so darn cheap.

It’s not Shell’s fault that Americans are driving more now than ever before, that SUVs and pickups again account for more than half of all new car sales, that 55 percent of hybrid and electric vehicle owners are now “upgrading” to conventional gas-powered models, or that one in five of those buyers is opting for a sport utility vehicle. All in all, we'd rather not think about the “let’s use less oil” story, and thus there's little incentive for activists to bring it up.

By contrast, narratives centered on oil supply and, in particular, on actions to interrupt that supply, offer us all the story elements we crave. Campaigns to ban fracking, for example, provide instantly recognizable heroes and victims and opportunities for dramatic, concrete results — fracking bans have been enacted by local governments across the nation. Protests to stop oil trains, which are rapidly emerging as the most powerful environmental narrative in the state, have also racked up some real wins for environmentalists and locals.

And these aren't just symbolic victories. Any time you can prevent an expansion of the supply infrastructure, whether it's a new oil field in the Arctic or a new oil train terminal in Washington State, you’re not only reducing the risk of an accident; you’re also slowing the growth of the oil infrastructure and thus allowing for a future that is not quite so locked in to oil.

But again, such supply-side campaigns are often simply holding actions. As long as demand for the crude remains high, oil companies, railroads and other transportation firms, and their political allies, have every incentive to keep pushing for new and creative ways to get around activists and blockages and kayak protests and keep the crude moving to consumers. Case in point: state legislators in Texas and Oklahoma recently enacted laws that make it illegal for local governments to ban fracking — a ban on bans. After more than a century and a half of steady growth, Big Oil has a lot of momentum.

As Travis Nichols, an Arctic expert at Greenpeace points out, even if Shell is thwarted this time around, next time might end differently. If “a Republican president or a Republican Congress comes in and says, ‘go for it!’, we haven created the long-term cultural change that will keep fossil fuel projects like this from going forward.” The challenge, Nichols argues, is, “how can we make this into something that is lasting and permanent and that institutionalizes the passion that we’re seeing now, so we don’t have to do this every three years."

In other words, how do we make this "a turning point, and not just something like, ‘Oh, remember when everyone got in those kayaks? What was that about?’”

So, how do we create long-term cultural change? What would it take to ensure that the narrative opened on Elliott Bay IS a turning point?

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About the Authors & Contributors

Paul Roberts

Paul Roberts

Paul Roberts is a journalist and author whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Harper's, the Washington Post, Newsweek, the New Republic, and more. He covers energy, technology, and consumer culture. His latest book, "The Impulse Society: American in the Age of Instant Gratification," was published by Bloomsbury USA last year.