Commentary  Refocusing the conversation

Reflections on Petrocultures from Divest McGill

The Petrocultures conference hosted by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada was, at some parts, a difficult experience. This was especially the case when delegates were expected to sit through presentations by people who only serve to manufacture debate (and in some cases outright fallacies) that stops necessary climate and human rights action from happening.

Divest McGill did walk out on Ezra Levant after the first three to four minutes of his talk when he reduced all female activists into one sexist denominator, without making any points on the intended topic. Liz Hannah, the Vice-President of Communications at Cenovus Energy, was given the stage for a full 30 minutes. In comparison, Katherine Koostachin and Janelle Baker, two of the few aboriginal voices in the days’ program, had about ten each, and grassroots voices had no speaking time whatsoever. Despite the polite exterior, the extent of the propaganda Hannah pushed on us was chilling. While many laughed in scorn at Levant, dead silence pervaded the room when Hannah gave her monologue, likely because of the danger of the type of mindset that she, as a corporate fossil fuel representative, was propagating in our midst.

In 1988, the World Meteorological Organization declared that human-made emissions of atmospheric pollutants are a “globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences […] represent a major threat to international security and are already having harmful consequences over many parts of the globe.” They predicted “severe economic and social dislocation for present and future generations” and stated “it is imperative to act now.” It’s been over 25 years since that call to action, and the increasingly terrifying effects of society’s addiction to fossil fuels are happening right now. Consensus on the dangers of climate change, as well as the imperative to stop dumping carbon into our atmosphere, is stronger than ever, and yet meaningful action has been slow to materialize. Why?

The few interests who will profit financially from fossil fuel exploitation in the short term have worked to undermine our democracy and manufacture debate on climate change, when the science is clearly settled. To suggest that we should continue expanding the fossil fuel industry is, quite frankly, a flawed business plan at odds with our very survival. It is even more imperative for us to act now than it was 25 years ago, and yet we’re still stuck on the debate of whether we should keep using our atmosphere as a dump for greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change.

This is why it was extremely concerning to see the legitimizing platforms provided to fossil fuel proponents at Petrocultures. When 60 to 80 per cent of current fossil reserves must remain unburned to keep the globe within 2 degrees Celsius of further warming, it is clear that a transition to a low-carbon future is both positive and necessary. Thus, it is incredibly frustrating to hear people arguing for continued exploitation of fossil fuels, of our environment, and of people who are on the front lines of extraction projects and the effects of climate change.

Despite many moments of frustration, I am ultimately glad that I was able to attend Petrocultures, and that Divest McGill had a strong presence there. I overheard someone wearing our button saying that our spirit was infectious, and there were lots of tweets congratulating the group on “keeping it real” with our “tenacious, smart and witty interventions.” It seems we were fairly successful in our aim of shifting the discourse towards questions more constructive than: “Are we a petroculture?”

I would say that we gained allies, with many delegates coming to thank us for our work and inquire about our campaign. Some of the speakers also verbally endorsed us while wearing our buttons. Stephanie Lemenager and Darin Barney were among our supporters, and Tzeporah Berman gave a particularly strong call to action:

“Divestment is no longer a fringe idea. When store brands announced that they were going to divest $74 billion from coal last year it became an entirely different ball game […] The responsibility of academic institutions is to help build leadership, to build the world to come, to educate. How are we preparing our students for the future if we are unwilling to lead? I support the divestment movement here at McGill. I urge McGill to ensure divestment. It’s only 5 per cent of your holdings. You can do it, and should do it.”

Overall, the #LockOutPetrocultures action (unaffiliated with, but supported by Divest McGill), as well as our own #NotreFutur rally outside the conference and active questioning inside of it, played essential roles in bringing the dialogue back to what we really need to focus on: not whether fossil fuel extraction is a problem, but how we can work toward solving one of the most urgent challenges of our generation. I am grateful to all those who not only remember what’s at stake in this struggle, but help us all keep a clear sense of purpose in the face of what can seem like overwhelming challenges. Now let’s start turning dialogue into concrete action to push for systemic change!

Kristen Perry is a U2 Environmental Science student and organizer for Divest McGill. Divest McGill is campaigning for McGill to take its investments out of the fossil fuel industry as one of over 500 fossil fuel divestment campaigns worldwide, and recently sent a delegation to the MISC Petrocultures Conference.