It’s Complicated

I read an article this morning[1] about Shell Oil spills in Nigeria — shocked. I don’t know why. I don’t know why it would surprise me to see an oil company taking advantage of those with less of a voice, but I was, and all over again.

I skimmed the article, not ready to grasp the full weight of it at once; I needed it in bullet point pieces. It was too much.

“There are hundreds of oil spills each year in the Niger Delta, Nigeria.”

“Shell doesn’t deny the areas are polluted.”

“…claims against Shell have been brought on behalf of more than 40,000 people.”

“Shell is trying to suggest that it is in fact up to the Nigerian government to take the lead on cleaning up the mess, something the company is supposed to have done already.”

“…the clean-up will take another three decades.”

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “Shell’s clean-up of oil spills has failed to meet standards set out in Nigerian law or even the company’s own standards.”

“…[There are] standing pools of oil and a strong stench of petroleum in the same places where UNEP had exposed pollution four years earlier.”

And the lone comment at the end of the article: “This is a complex issue and requires properly researched analysis. I am no fan of the oil companies but this piece was lightweight, emotive and one-sided. I expect the Royal African Society to aim for a much higher standard.”

I found myself hating that commenter as much as the idea of shell signs along the highway inviting me to pay them for their exploitation. The idea that there is a more balanced way to report that 40,000 people are suffering due to a company’s atrocious business practices is absurd. The fact that someone could read that story and say to themselves It’s not that cut and dry is the reason we have a problem with exploitation to begin with. Some people believe that the well-being of others is negotiable based on how it can serve them. And with all the anger I felt, I had to wonder if I was one of those people willing to exploit others. I don’t think so, at least, I hope not.

I searched for another article [2] only to find that the commenter was right — it was more complicated than that.

“To date, in excess of 10,000 oil accidents have occurred. Each year, an average 240,000 barrels of oil run into the groundwater — equal to more than 660 tankers. Many incidents are caused by outdated or neglected infrastructure left by corporations such as ‘Shell’ and ‘Chevron’. And by attacks. Oil pirates and rebels… blow up the pipes to gain illegal access to the expensive resource — or to extort money from the government.” Only part (mind you, a large part) was due to the oil companies. The rest of the environmental damage is spurred on through corruption and poverty. I suddenly wondered if I was poor, would I risk the environment.

I am sad to report that I am certain the answer is Yes. I may not do the damage, but I would be willing to look the other way. I would choke out a river, if it meant feeding my children. Yes, I would. If I had little access to opportunity, I certainly would. That’s hard for a recycler like me to admit. I don’t buy chemicals to clean with; I make all natural ones. I buy the less harmful dishwashing soap. I don’t paint toxins onto my nails. I try not to waste, not to buy more than I need. But doesn’t my car use gasoline?

Once again, I was reminded that my desire for environmental protection comes from a stance of privilege and hypocrisy — a certain level of distance from the production of what I claim to need. Just as I am privileged to have the option of choosing to go vegan, or in using my buying power to purchase organic produce, I am privileged to scorn these pirates of oil, and to hate the Shell or Chevron signs posting their prices alongside of the road… while I drive a car dependent on the fuel they produce.

In the hierarchy of privilege, I can easily scorn the oil company practices, but I must tread lightly when I consider individuals and customs that are exploitive of the environment and people. Knowing they may be wrong, is no struggle, but knowing what I would do in that situation is a different question altogether. These issues must be looked at with a certain understanding.

Of course, this assumes (in this case) that there needs to be oil drilling, in the first place. This nuanced way of looking at how others would want a piece of the pie assumes that exploitation is natural or inevitable. Could there be pirates of oil, if no one was drilling the oil? However, without that oil, and the countries willing to pay to ravage the land to get to it, where does that leave a country like Nigeria?

How does a Global South country gain development without this exploitation? How does it grow without wreaking havoc on the land and people? Is there a way to make that happen and to make it accessible for everyone involved? I’m asking because I don’t know.

I only know that I want there to be.