Thursday, August 18, 2016

Occupy London: Energy Tour

In 2011, the Occupy movement sought to call global attention to the worsening distribution of income and wealth stemming from the centres of global capitalism. As a rare manifestation of anger around a constantly simmering (and tragically escalating) situation, Occupy stands out as a major contemporary attempt to collectively change the global narrative around fast-disappearing human rights, connected with economics and space. Extending from this, Occupy London Tours is an  attempt to keep this conversation alive in the heart of the world's banking sector (they want to "throw open the secretive world of finance and politics for all to see"), through participatory, volunteer-run community and educational events.

To this end, Occupy London Tours has been running several city tours since 2012, spanning Mayfair, the City, the recent high-rise development at Canary Wharf, and the newly-minted Energy Tour. A walking tour is a nice format for education and community-building, and there was a social feel common to the best of community projects as we strolled around London's Southbank precinct, chatting to each other in between sites. Your correspondent picked up the tour halfway - drained from the previous fortnight's residency here, I was late and had to intercept the tour through some sleuthing - and so for me the tour began at the surprisingly-located Shell Building,  just behind the London Eye. Out hosts (Alice Rose Bell and Chaitanya Kumar), wearing top-hats, explain to us that this nondescript brutalist building is the home of the Shell Foundation, Shell's philanthropic arm, which may or may not be well-intentioned, and proceeds to go through some of the history of Shell, including its founding (by an English trader interested in, surprisingly enough, shells), merger with Royal Dutch Petroleum, expansion into Nigeria, interference in local conflict there, and other global operations, to its present-day strategic maneuvering against activists, environmentalists, and communities.

Photo: Occupy Tours London (pictured: Alice Rose Bell and Max Wakefield)

It's not news to anyone remotely involved in environmental activism, and Royal Dutch Shell features at the top of most lists of history's worst contributors to climate change. All the same, it doesn't hurt to hear it again, and there's something symbolic in the innocent-sounding, small-town British backstory of Shell, and its gradual embedding of itself as inseparable from government - a kind of extreme early business prototype for how to become too-big-to-fail - serves as another reminder of the near-impossibility of change in a world of oil economics (not to mention the location and size of the building itself). The story of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the activist executed by the Nigerian government for non-violent resistance against the environmental destruction of his homeland Niger Delta in the 90s, is a particularly acute reminder. Such events continue today, with oil companies, as shell did in the case of Saro-Wiwa, doing their best to wash their hands of direct involvement in conflict whilst simultaneously doing whatever it takes to maximise profit. Though there are few cases where this was as direct as Saro-Wiwa - which resulted in Nigeria being somewhat hypocritically suspended from the Commonwealth for what, let's face is, was probably in the end the actions of a British company - it is commonly acknowledged that such instances are now part of the day-to-day running of a global resources corporation (Brazil's Vale, or Australia's BHP and Rio Tinto, for example). That activists continue to risk their lives fighting against such global machinery is necessary, but their personal sacrifice cannot be anything but acutely felt.

Not co-incidentally, the next location of the tour is the Nigerian High Commission, where out top-hatted chaperones explain a little more about Saro-Winka's story and the ensuing international furore, before finishing the tour with a visit to the building which, until recently, was the headquarters of the UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change. It was big news when one of Teresa May's first actions on 'winning' the UK Prime Ministership was to absorb the 8-year-old department into the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to form the ominously-named Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, following the lead of countries like Australia in erasing the implicit acknowledgement that climate change exists, and therefore also erasing any potential liability. Not only did it seem to represent a denial of the prominence of Climate Change in government policy, it also took away the potential for the department to extend its operations, apparently mainly limited to decommissioning nuclear sites.

The tour can only touch the surface of some of these issues, but nevertheless, as I broke off at the completion of the tour to do some fairly cynical sightseeing in London's centre, I was aware of my newly-informed gaze. As someone who has always looked at the buildings of London (and not only London) with a degree of suspicion about what they actually are - what their history actually is, what people are actually doing in there - the choice of Occupy Tours to equip us with the history and significance of some of these buildings can only be a good thing. At best, it's a reminder that the strength of human beings working together to overcome the embedded violence of the global system, here represented by the monument of architecture.

At worst, it makes you feel a little less alone in the overwhelming worldscape we are now in.

Other locations include the Tate Modern, the Coin Street Co-Op and the Thames.
Occupy London: Energy Tour guides include Chaitanya Kumar, Alice Rose Bell, Max Wakefield and Sophie Neuburg.

Occupy Tours runs monthly throughout the year.

1 comment:

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