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Gauging 21st Century Environmentalism

By Worldchanging Canada writer Simon Donner.

A few years ago, I found myself in Kota Kinabalu, capital of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, with a day to kill. Looking to escape the equatorial sun, I visited the Sabah state museum in the south end of town to learn a little about the local history.

The main part of the museum itself was sparse and underwhelming. I perused the floor devoted to past the heads of state of the province of Sabah, a section of interest only to those with a weak spot for the moderate, almost campy, post-colonial propaganda of nominally democratic nations like Malaysia. After an hour of staring at dusty old photos of primary school classes, wedding receptions, overseas vacations and smiling handshakes with mid-level foreign dignitaries, I was ready to leave. That was when a guard directed me to the newer wing.

The modern wing of the museum is sponsored by Shell and devoted to the wonders of petroleum. The multimedia exhibit introduces petroleum geology and the many methods of exploration, drilling, recovery, production, transportation and refining. The exhibit also highlights the "many" social and environmental benefits of exploration in Malaysia's offshore water. One colourful display boasts that corals sometimes grow on the legs of the massive offshore drilling platforms in the South China Sea, creating artificial feeding grounds for fish. Another speaks of Shell's work on sustainable development, albeit without any examples or explanations, other than a few images of Shell employees donating blood and teaching school children how to use fire extinguishers.

Nowhere in the exhibit, or the museum, is any mention of the environmental impacts of Malaysian oil production, not of the global environmental impacts of oil use. The most memorable part of the museum—better even than photos of former head of state Tun Sakaran's family trip to Egypt—is the Dunia Tanpa Minyak or "world without oil" display. There, the visitor gets the petroleum industry's equivalent of the Charles Atlas treatment. The first panel featured children playing in a colourful den equipped with a TV, VCR, vacuum cleaner and a telephone. The second, 98 pound weakling panel, featured naked, dejected-looking children in an empty white room.

The Sabah museum has been on my mind since the debate about oil drilling on the outer continental shelf of the U.S. began this summer. No mistaking: the debate is pure politics. It is a grand distraction from the real issues facing the U.S. — and the world. The amount of recoverable oil on the outer shelf is far too small to have a meaningful impact on U.S. oil imports let alone provide the political Holy Grail of energy independence. The chorus of "drill, drill, drill" threatens to short circuit the badly needed conversation about fuel efficiency, alternative energy, and reorienting the transportation.

The debate also presents a great opportunity to shift the environmental movement into the 21st century.

For years, far too much of environmentalism has been rooted in old-fashioned "not in my backyard" arguments known as NIMBY-ism. It worked when the issues were simply protecting a local park from a new roadway. In a globalized world, with raw resources, goods and services openly traded from Anchorage, Alaska to Zanzibar; from Addis Ababa to Zephyr, North Carolina—with resource extraction and pollution causing global environmental crises (from climate change to transboundary air pollution to global fisheries depletion), we need to think beyond our backyards, and beyond our coasts.

The opposition to oil exploration on the outer continental shelf is NOMYCism—"not on my coast" – a global form of the old NIMBY standard. Banning exploration on our shores without reducing oil use only exports that exploration to places like Malaysia, where the public is more powerless to stop environmentally destructive resource extraction. Is the American continental shelf more valuable than that of Nigeria, or Malaysia, or Indonesia?

Drilling on the outer continental shelf may be a poor idea because of the low amount of recoverable oil, and because it distracts from the real issues facing Americans. Drilling in select environmentally-sensitive regions, like the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, is certainly a bad idea. But those of us in the most consumptive of continents need to face the reality of the 21st century. Bans on oil exploration on our continental shelves (absent a radical reduction in oil demand), or, for that matter, bans on logging in our boreal forests (absent a radical reduction in pulp and paper use), or, increase in corn use for ethanol (without decreasing other corn demand), only exports the local environmental effects of resource extraction.

This silly debate may be a watershed moment. We could sit on the sidelines and despair the lack of rational political discourse on energy. Or we could get out there and talk about the global nature of the challenges we face.

Let's use this lemon of a debate about offshore drilling to talk about protecting coastlines around the world, not just at home.

Let's use it to educate about the linkages between local consumption and environmental degradation abroad—about the cascade caused by our decisions.

Let's use it to press for full lifecycle analysis of our energy and fuel choices.

Let's use it to find the real, equitable answers to climate change and future energy needs.

Inside and outside photos: J P Kollhøj

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