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Campaigners cheer a bad week for Shell

Anti-Shell protest

Campaigners in Canada protesting proposed drilling in the Arctic. Tavis Ford under a Creative Commons Licence

It’s been a bad week for Shell. On the international stage, a lawsuit from indigenous communities and environmental groups has scuppered their chances of drilling for oil in the Alaskan Arctic, while in London, it was announced that Shell was no longer going to be the sponsor for the 14/15 Classic Series at the Southbank Centre. Two events of a very different scale to each other, and on different sides of the world, but connected through the concept of the ‘social licence to operate’.

In order for an oil company to produce oil and transport it to the global market, it needs either the support or the silence of the population in those areas of the world where this takes place. Where the necessary support – or ‘social licence to operate’ – is not forthcoming, the ability of that company to carry out its business becomes seriously impaired.

The building of this social licence takes place to some extent in the countries of the distant oil fields, but to a far greater degree in the cities of the Global North, such as London. BP and Shell have between them sponsored almost all of London’s most prestigious museums and cultural institutions over the course of the last decade. Shell wasn’t sponsoring classical music at the Southbank because it was a benevolent patron of the arts; it was doing so as an integral part of its business strategy in attempting to carry out controversial, risky drilling places like the Arctic.

Pressure has intensified on the Southbank Centre in the last year over its dubious relationship with Shell. The Shell Out Sounds choir conducted creative interventions, performing ‘harmonic disobedience’ at Shell-sponsored events. When anti-fracking activist Yoko Ono curated the Southbank's Meltdown festival in June, campaigning group Platform highlighted Shell’s global fracking plans. Margaret Atwood raised the issue during her talk there. And on the 18th anniversary of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution, a number of artists who had performed or lectured at the Centre, including Mark Rylance and Helon Habila, signed a public letter calling for Shell to be dropped as a sponsor.

Ken Saro-Wiwa remains a particularly resonant figure in the face of the environmental devastation and social injustice caused by Shell. While Shell seems keen to spend money on cultural sponsorship in cities like London, it has yet to start paying the $1 billion that a UNEP report in 2011 stipulated is needed as an initial sum to start cleaning up Ogoniland in the Niger Delta after five decades of pollution. As Celestine AkpoBari from Social Action in Nigeria said in 2013, ‘The arts sponsorship that Shell is giving out is blood money, because people in Nigeria are suffering and even dying as a result of Shell’s operations.’

There’s a lot of work still to do in preventing the British cultural sector from being exploited by oil companies. This particular arrangement between Shell and the Southbank Centre may no longer be happening, but there’s a need for arts institutions to develop ethical funding policies that explicitly exclude oil money in the way that they might do about tobacco money. And BP’s five-year sponsorship cycle with Tate, British Museum, National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House will be up for renewal in 2016.

Disrupting the sponsorship relationships with arts institutions will not on its own prevent the destructive practices of oil companies, but it is an important step in both stigmatizing them and undermining their powerbase, which in turn strengthens the hand of other campaigns and social movements going up against them. The Southbank Centre has a real opportunity to show leadership in being one of the first of the major cultural institutions to explicitly turn its back on oil money made from trashing the climate and devastating communities.

Platform's interactive timeline shows the activities leading up to the Southbank decision:

Kevin Smith works for Platform London. Follow Platform on Twitter.

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