5 years ago today I sat with Clayton Thomas Mueller and George Poitras in rural Wales, both stranded in the UK after the BP Annual General Meeting. In the wake of the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, all planes were grounded for a week. After a walk on the moors we came back to hear the news of the oil rig that had exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. We watched on the live stream as plumes of petroleum spewed into the ocean. Just 4 days prior we had sat in the BP Annual General meeting, telling shareholders about the climatic devastation being caused by tar sands. An older gentleman in the audience piped up, stating his concerns about the cement being used for deep sea drilling, for BP’s highly praised and highly profitable Deep Water Horizon project. Having spent a lifetime as an engineer, he wasn’t sure the mix was up to scratch to deal with a spill. BP dismissed him as a doddering old shareholder: ‘of course we know what we are doing,’ they reassured us. 4 days later, the Gulf would be awash with oil, that cement would fail and it would take 87 days to find the right concoction to plug the leak.
Every year since the spill we have returned to the BP AGM to continue to stand side by side with the frontline communities that are affected daily by the Gulf Spill and who are challenging BP’s move into the tar sands. Each year we hear the lies, spin and at times outright inhumanity from the board and each year we work with our unlikely alliance of shareholder activists, ENGOs, climate justice activists, artists and poets to make sure the true cost of BP’s operations on communities is counted.
5 years on from one of the biggest environmental disasters in history the Gulf continues to be devastated; the land and the waters may take generations to recover. Since we have never experienced such disasters before, the science of the situation is at times expressed as a PR war with BP, rather than a thorough calculated evaluation. The communities feel they have been failed, not only by BP but by the US government. In previous AGMs, Gulf fisher folk raised concerns with BP about the lasting impacts about the environment and this year it was all about the human costs: the lack of access to medical care, and the lack of information about the long term impacts of the chemicals used to clean up the spill. The devastation of the fisheries has erased generational livelihoods overnight, uprooted the deep sense of culture and place, and had a devastating health impact of folks who are self-determined resilient people.
As Derrick Evans said to me last night as we reflected on his journey to the UK, this is a crime story, but it is also a story of phenomenal resilience and community action. BP has been hit hard by the spill but what they didn’t imagine was coming up against such a strong fight from community activists – they have fought hard to make sure this kind of criminal behaviour by oil companies is not normalised.
We have been honoured over the years to partner with folks from Bridge the Gulf and everyone organising under #GulfSouthRising – these are communities that have managed to reinvent the way the world responds to environmental disasters: the onus is now not on traditional philanthropy, or regional planners making sure they don’t put communities on the front lines of disaster. Instead this movement is about finding a new vision to plan and support local communities to work with the existing wisdom of the community and to elevate those folks to lead the way forward up and out of this disaster. Despite BP’s best efforts to ban people from entering the AGM -by intimidatory tactics and by barring journalists from tweeting – we will make sure all eyes remain on the true costs of the BP Gulf disaster.
We must remember what took place 5 years ago and make sure that we grip tighter on to those hands which, through our solidarity work, we hold across the ocean – especially today, when you are remembering loved ones passed, those who are still suffering and the animals and ecosystems that cannot speak for themselves.
“The goal now is not to count the dead people, or the dead dolphins. We are moving into a critical time where we have to get this right.” says Derrick Evans “The solutions cannot come from BP; they are coming from us. They are taking the form of an incredible show of resilience in the Gulf, facing the truth of the devastation and a celebration of community in the wake of the disaster. It comes in the form of direct action; bringing the truth to the BP HQ in Houston while allies in the UK make sure the BP annual general meeting in London is littered with frontline messages outside, and community representatives inside who can address the CEO and board directly. It is the shareholder activism that is making waves now in our universities and the financial news – building on years of work of people like Platform, Greenpeace and the Indigenous Environmental Network in order to show the true risk of climate change and the rising wave of resistance from frontline communities.”
We are at a crucial moment for our movement – building an intersectional, interdisciplinary, intergenerational and international community that is using all the pillars of human expression and creativity to remove the gaps between us to act now and reimagine our future. Today we remember this ecological crime, we send our love and solidarity across the ocean. We take time to reflect on the journey that this disaster has taken us on; the environmental justice family that we have built, linking those communities resisting extraction with those on the front lines of ecological crimes and climate disaster. Today, I am honoured to stand next to the ‘walking encyclopedias’ of environmental justice that I get to work with everyday. I recommit to amplifying your voices in the Gulf, the Tar Sands and global frontline communities to reimagine our future truly Beyond Petroleum.