Arctic Oil Hubris

Black treasure (2014) blown glass Artist: Antoine Brodin

Black treasure (2014) blown glass
Artist: Antoine Brodin

The U.S. government has approved plans by Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for oil off the Alaskan coast this summer. This comes after years of industry lobbying to explore what some estimate to be major oil deposits in the Chukchi Sea. Some estimates run up to 15 billion barrels.

On the one hand, the U.S. administration has followed a course of promoting environmental responsibility.

On the other, this administration has pursued a policy of domestic production and self-reliance. Unfortunately, that self-reliance has been pegged to oil and gas production, including fracking. Despite the inevitable oil spills (and no matter what the companies say, they are inevitable) and the damage done by drilling and fracking, fossil fuel exploitation continues unabated.

Meduse.X (2014), ink on paper Artist: Antoine Brodin

Meduse.X (2014), ink on paper
Artist: Antoine Brodin

Despite common knowledge that carbon-based fuels are leading to rapid and irreversible changes in the Earth’s atmosphere (and no matter what a few voices say, the knowledge is common and the scientific consensus is resounding), the U.S. government and others continue to subsidize, promote, and approve fossil fuel development.

The word that comes to mind is ‘hubris’. In modern usage, hubris means exaggerated confidence or pride.

Shell is one of the most powerful companies in the world, as well as one of the richest. It also has a long track record of overestimating oil reserves, of regular oil spills on a large scale, of inconsistent safety for workers, inhabitants and environment alike. Shell oversaw oil spills in Nigeria that were the size of the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill – not just once, but annually over the course of years.

Hubris implies arrogance so great that suffering or humiliation will follow.

Usually, though, the humiliation or suffering is experienced by the party demonstrating hubris.

Birdy (2014), blown glass, sandblasted Photo: Antoine Brodin

Birdy (2014), blown glass, sandblasted
Photo: Antoine Brodin

In the case of Shell, the humiliation is never experienced by the company. Not by the individual decision-makers, not by the company as a whole.

The humiliation and suffering is experienced by anything affected by the inevitable oil spills and the damage done by exploitation and drilling. People can argue in favor of jobs or for energy independence, but in the end, it is the company that makes the money by using the resources, land and environment that should belong to everyone.

While these lands and waters are being exploited, they belong to the company exploiting them – at least until the inevitable spill.

When it comes to the damage and clean-up, suddenly the soiled lands and seas belong to all of us again.

Corolla (2014) blown glass Photo: Antoine Brodin

Corolla (2014) blown glass
Photo: Antoine Brodin

It’s like a gambler who only gambles with someone else’s money, keeps any winnings, and assigns any losses to the foolish lender.

In ancient Greek, the word ‘hubris’ implied an shameful act perpetrated for personal gratification that brought shame upon both the victim and the perpetrator. Its contemporary equivalents might be closer to what we think of as ‘contempt’ or ‘insolence’.

And considering this decision to drill in the Arctic, a region under severe environmental pressure already due to carbon emissions, perhaps the ancient Greek version of hubris is more suitable. This plan shows genuine contempt for the Arctic, for the environment, and for anything that doesn’t turn a profit.

If only a company could feel shame.

Hubris (2014) Hot glass sculpted Artist: Antoine Brodin

Hubris (2014) Hot glass sculpted
Artist: Antoine Brodin



Telling Time

There’s a new chill in the morning air, in spite of unseasonable warmth. Winter is still around the corner, according to the calendar, but it’s still as warm as late summer. We wore shorts yesterday. A few roses shoot another round of late blossoms that might cost the plants dearly, a couple of the tomato plants are pushing out tiny doomed tomatoes even as the leaves turn and fall.

I can see the confusion all around me – I live in an area that, while under heavy construction, still counts as rural. Out my front windows are houses, Geneva in the distance; behind the house are only meadows, forest, a stream and then the Jura mountains. Here, nature and I still interact directly, I can see her changes and moods beyond temperature and precipitation.

Over half of the world’s population now live in cities. That number is expected to rise to between 70-80% by 2050.

World urban population by country. The countries with the most rapidly expanding urban populations are China, India and Nigeria. This infographic is from 2007, but the projections are still considered valid. Source: Guardian/UNFPA Click the image for a full view.

World urban population by country. The countries with the most rapidly expanding urban populations are China, India and Nigeria. This infographic is from 2007, but the projections are still considered valid.
Source: Guardian/UNFPA
Click the image for a full view.

And that means that, even more than today, most people will have a relationship to the natural world that is determined by city planners, landscapers, with human needs and requirements paramount. How are we supposed to understand sustainability when most Earth dwellers won’t be directly confronted with changes to the natural world that still lays outside the cities, but which impacts the cities every day?

We live by our human clocks – nature’s clock runs on its own time.

Bril, a Japanese design collective, has designed a clock that tries to import nature’s time into human homes.

The Coniferous Clock Image: Bril/Dezeen

The Coniferous Clock
Image: Bril/Dezeen

It’s a Coniferous Clock, a time-device made entirely of cedar, with no hands or numbers.

It starts the year green and slowly browns over the course of an entire year.

According to Dezeen, “The Coniferous Clock references traditional sugidama, also known as asakebayashi: boughs of fresh cedar branches tied together, clipped into a sphere and hung up when sake – Japanese rice wine – was pressed following the rice harvest. When the cedar leaves had dried and the sugidama had turned completely brown, it was a signal that the sake was ready to drink.”

Bril co-founder Fumiaki Goto is quoted as saying, “We could feel the seasons in our homes as if we were in forests.”

A Coniferous Clock, later in the year. Image: Bril/Dezeen

A Coniferous Clock, later in the year.
Image: Bril/Dezeen

For the moment, my neighbors and I continue to treat our homes and gardens as if the seasons still follow the regular course we’ve come to know. We are, after all, creatures of habit. It’s in our nature. Even if we don’t move from our old house here in France, if we are still around in 2050, we will live in an urban area.

Our habits have changed those of nature’s, and those changes are only news stories to many people living in cities, the resources all come from elsewhere.

How well and quickly will we be able to adapt our habits to the world that lives beyond city borders, but which affects everything that goes on within those borders?

The Champagne Mirror

12390037_sAccording to Spiros Malandrakis, Senior Alcoholic Drinks Analyst at Euromonitor International, “Champagne has historically not only provided a rather accurate mirror image of the prevailing macroeconomic environment, the category actually appeared to precede the boom and bust cycles – a fact making it the proverbial canary in the coalmine, raising the alarm before an upcoming downturn.”

So with 2012 Champagne sales down in France as well as in all the largest export markets – the United Kingdom, the United States – it comes as a bit of surprise to find out that the second largest projected growth market in terms of actual Champagne volume, coming in right after France, isn’t China or Brazil, or the United States. map_nigeria

It’s Nigeria.

Euromonitor predicts exports to Nigeria of up to 1.3 million bottles by 2017. While this remains a fraction of the 19.4 million bottles exported to the United States in the first three quarters of 2012, but nonetheless, Nigerian consumption in 2011 was valued at almost 8bn naira (US$ 47m) and is predicted to more than double by 2017.

It seems odd that in a country where over 60% of the population (160 million) live on less than US$1 per day and 40% don’t have ready access to fresh water, Champagne would be such an expanding market, but this has one simple explanation: Nigeria’s oil economy. There are vast oil reserves, and the wealth generated by oil sales accounts for the majority of the country’s government budgetary revenues, and almost all of its export earnings. The current government has undertaken a path of reform, aiming for a more mixed economy. After all, Nigeria used to be an agricultural exporter, but with the reliance on oil it has become a net importer of food. According to the World Bank, 80% of oil revenues benefit 1% of the population.

If Champagne sales are a reliable indicator, as they have been in the past, then Nigerians are in for a future of strong oil sales and popping corks. Or at least, some of them are.

Several articles stated that Nigerian hip-hop videos feature conspicuous consumption of Champagne, and I invite you to view this music ranking chart to check for yourself. Yes, many of the videos show Champagne, but that might be a factor of the hip-hop rather than the artists’ Nigerian origins. The video below isn’t particularly new and doesn’t have any Champagne bottles, but I thought it was catchy.


Euromonitor blog post – Champagne: Nigerian Chic and European Doldrums

The Guardian article – Nigeria’s love of champagne takes sales growth to second highest in world by Afua Hirsch

The Nigerian Voice essay – Champagne Nigerian by Prince Charles Dickson