Saturday, April 30, 2011

Graduation: Exxon Mobil or a Sustainable Future?

A storm is brewing at my alma mater, Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The CEO of Exxon Mobil is to give the commencement speech this year. Students are refusing to receive his words of wisdom. An incredible debate has engulfed the WPI community. If anything, it's getting people talking about some critical issues of our time. Here is my contribution to the conversation.

Exxon Mobile. The World's largest oil company, world-record profits in a time of global recession. Not only a particularly successful corporation (#1 or #2), a world economic force and world class tax dodger, but also a top spender on American politics. They are not just another company, they are at the head of what has become a new ruling class, a corporate plutarchy - a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of wealthy people. This is not a conspiracy theory, this is the world we're living in.

Thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court case, corporations, now considered legal persons, have a Constitutional “free speech” right to spend unlimited amounts of money influencing elections. That means they have a LOT more free speech than any other citizen, and are much more invested in the course of politics. Not coincidentally, the government, now effectively by and for the Corporations, is moving towards policies which are more conducive to the efficient production of wealth at all costs - environmental, social or otherwise. That means, for instance, limiting the powers of the of the Environmental Protection Agency to effectively regulate carbon.

Not only is Exxon Mobile directly influencing our politicians and regulatory mechanisms, they have been engaging in a well documented cigarettes-are-good-for-you style disinformation campaign for years, spending more than 16 million dollars funding junk science, climate skeptic front groups and echo-chambers to keep us confused and apathetic.

Of course, as the largest oil company, they see a future where we remain addicted to oil “for decades”, as Rex, himself, projects. Would it really be that hard to believe that as powerful as they are, they wouldn't be making moves stay in that position?

It's not enough to have us continue our suicidal addiction to fossil fuels. They are directly participating in what is recognized as the most environmentally destructive practice on Earth: the extraction of the Canadian Tar Sands. We can forget about past oil spills and other apparently excusable errors in management. We can look to today to see deliberate actions of destruction and exploitation in the quest for ever increasing profits.

With their Canadian subsidiary, Imperial Oil, Exxon is currently expanding tar sands operations in Alberta, which, if you haven't heard, are ripping up Boreal forest ecosystems on native land to extract oil from the tar sands, using ridiculous amounts of fresh water ( 2.5 to 4.0 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced) and leaving behind huge toxic lakes (visible from space), emitting record amounts of greenhouse gasses in the process (3 times more per barrel than conventional oil)- facts. Exxon is currently trying to figure out how to ship gigantic truckloads of mining equipment through indigenous lands, a federally protected corridor, in order to reach processing sites in Alberta as part of a 50 year expansion. The route and loads, if approved, will create a permanent industrial corridor right through the heart of Nez Perce (indigenous) territory in order to facilitate the exploitation of other indigenous territories in Alberta (Recent post from former VP Candidate and indigenous leader, Winona Laduke)

In short... there appear to be more than a few reasons why some people of conscience would hear a call to action when their alma mater decides to invite a representative and Chief Executive Officer of this corporation to offer his blessings to their graduating class. This presents a most serious and symbolic opportunity for each person who sees it as such to choose the vision they hold for the world: either one in which we remain addicted to oil and exploitation, or one in which we have a clean, efficient, and equitable economy. Some graduates will make a choice not to listen to the words of this man, and instead hear Richard Heinberg speak, thought leader from the Post Carbon Institute. Those students, may in effect be choosing to not complete the graduation ritual in front of their parents and friends, as they had once pictured. And when the commencement speech is interrupted, it very well may tarnish some memories for a few people. For others, it may represent their initiation into conscious global citizenship. Either way, in the scheme of things, climate change threatens all Life on the planet, and this guy is at the helm of a ship bringing us towards that future. The school made a big mistake inviting him to give the speech. Ultimately any fault for an interruption lies on them, as they have presented a choice of conscience that some can not turn down.

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