Saturday 6 February 2010

Peak Oil On Troubled Waters

Don't cry for the Amazon, You buy Texaco. The year was 1991 in Quito, Ecuador. I found the graffiti whilst travelling through South America, writing a book about giving up consumerism and connecting with the earth. Unknown to me in the Amazon rainforest a thousand oil pits were leaking into the rivers and creating an ecological disaster zone thirty times greater than the ExxonMobil spill in Alaska.

All energy is borrowed. Someday you have to give it back, the indigenous girl tells the marine. Avatar the highest grossing Hollywood film in history has a fantabulous forest as its main protagonist. The trees and all the denizens on the planet Pandora are under threat by the American army, working for a mining company after its underground resources. Beautifully and imaginatively made, full of earth-based sentiment, it's a film that has stuck a deep chord in a disturbed world. The spirits of the forest look like seeds from the sacred Mayan ceiba tree. The native Na'vi resemble Maasai and Mohican warriors. The Outsider becomes one of The People. There's a happy ending.

The reality on earth is more difficult to look at. Joe Berlinger's documentary of the Ecuadorian oil disaster, Crude, follows the lawyers and the 30,000 Ecuadorians who have taken Chevron (who bought Texaco in 2001) to court to demand compensation. The forest dwellers are not the fierce blue-faced Na'vi flying on dragons, they are shy, sad-faced people whose lives have been polluted by the black oil that seeps into their soil and drinking water, whose babies are born covered in sores and who die early from cancer. The case has, like that of Exxon Valdez, been dragging on for over a decade. Chevron deny any responsibility.

In Avatar the spirit of the Pandoran rainforest runs through everyone, the trees' roots form a communications network that connects all of life on the planet. It's an idea that feels right, that sounds right, but whether we emerge from the cinema connected to our own planet is another matter. Do we realise as we go about our seemingly ordinary lives that everything we do is conncted to the Canadian forests now being torn down for tar sands or to ConocoPhillips' plans to plunder virgin Peruvian rainforest, or to the real-life American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?

And if we did realise this what would we do? As well as enabling communities to powerdown in response to climate change, the Transition movement considers 'peak oil' (the point at which the demand for oil exceeds its global production). Ultimately peak oil means less oil. One possible reaction to this is an endless battle between nations for fossil fuels, another is the reconstruction of our civilisation, a massive shift in lifestyle and the ways we treat the earth and each other.

To kick-start the latter, Transition brings attention to something almost impossible to see - a world entirely held up by the finite resource of oil, from our use of plastic and synthetics to the fuel that drives our vehicles and underpins our industrialised agriculture. Hard to see because we are distracted and disengaged at every turn by our illusion-based culture.

The truth is we'd rather believe that environmentally-sound creatures made in Hollywood will save the day. When real indigenous people from a rather less entertaining forest bring their case to bear we look away. But if we were truly connected to life we would not substitute animation for reality. We would not avert our gaze or prefer to live in wonderlands and never-never lands. Our task, as the Kogi, the Maya, the Hopi and all the real native elders who have come out of the wild places since the 1990s tell us, is to grow up and look at what is staring at us in the face. We're living in the same world and we're going to have to work very hard for that happy ending.

Outside my window that looks toward the North Sea there are orange lights glaring on the horizon. They belong to oil tankers, waiting in the bay for the oil prices to rise. Once you could look out and see forever. I don’t like to see them there. No one does. But the reality is they are there.

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