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Inside the Trojan horse

fossil fuels
The occupation began with a 13-foot Trojan Horse being hauled into the Great Court by activists, and culminated in a 1,500-strong protest at the BP-sponsored exhibit ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’. Credit: Hugh Warwick
The thirteen foot Trojan Horse is play on the BP-sponsored exhibition ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’. Credit: Hugh Warwick
Last weekend activist theatre group BP or not BP? mounted the biggest protest in the British museum’s 260-year history. The occupation began with a thirteen foot Trojan Horse being hauled into the Great Court by activists, and culminated in a 1,500-strong protest at the BP-sponsored exhibit ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’. Following on from high-profile withdrawals from oil sponsorships at other institutions, the 51-hour protest aimed to pile pressure on the museum, which has been widely criticized by artists, activists and many others for lending legitimacy to a firm that is still 97 per cent invested in fossil fuels. Phil Ball gives a first-person account of why he took part in this action against Big Oil.

For me, it was a no-brainer. When the British Museum announced its new BP-sponsored Troy exhibition, it was hard to ignore the parallels to the famous Trojan horse. That’s what the sponsorship money is, effectively. It may look like a gift, but their endowments have nothing to do with philanthropy. It’s to do with smuggling in their damaging and allegedly corrupt business right under our noses, getting a social license to carry on their dirty, polluting work at the expense of everyone on the planet. BP likes to talk about the ‘green side’ of their industry, but that creates the impression that they invest equally, when really, 97 per cent of their funding is in fossil fuels.

Whatever fancy adverts the oil industry comes out with, whatever exhibitions they pay to splash their logo on, there’s no getting around it: To knowingly base your business model around something which will lead to catastrophic climate change is more than irresponsible. If emissions rise unchecked, science tells us that vast numbers of people will die, and because our society has been built around oil, we’re told this is OK. It’s not.

Fifteen years ago, when I looked at my son for the first time, I had a brutal realization. What had I done? How could I have brought another person into this world, knowing the future he could be facing? That was when I decided to make an active change to fight for climate justice.

Ironically, it’s taken me away from my kids at times – to a Russian jail, for instance, where I spent 67 days in 2013 after taking on Big Oil in the Arctic. But I’m doing it for their futures, and the futures of everyone’s children. For those in the Global South whose lives are already far more affected by the climate crisis, and for those in the oil industry who are on the wrong side of history. All the money you get from working for BP might get your kids a nice roof over their heads now, and all the toys they want, but if it’s robbing them of their future, I think you’ve got your priorities wrong.

Meanwhile, BP’s continued expansion in Turkey, the site of ancient Troy, is swept under the rug. They bang on about looking for answers while lobbying against climate regulations. At BP or not BP, we work to shatter that illusion, so we had the idea to bring in a real Trojan horse. We hoped that ‘Hector’ would provide a striking visual metaphor for BP’s donations to the British museum.

I’ve been involved in some pretty hardcore direct actions: climbing oil rigs; boarding coal ships; invaded power stations, coal mines, extraction facilities; scaling the front of hotel with a mining conference inside. I’ve also had my hand in more symbolic, artistic actions. The sweet spot for me is where the two meet – where you’ve got a direct action beautifully presented, or an artistic action that isn’t just for show. Our Trojan horse is this spectacular, beautiful thing, but that’s not all it is. It means business. And it carried in a strong message: BP must fall.

As an activist, often you’ll rock up, get told what the plan is, get nicked, and everything will be dealt with like painting by numbers. It can be daunting to have to figure things out, but the technical expertise and artistic flair that came together gave this project an energy. It was a genuine group effort, with a huge team of brilliantly talented people putting their love, sweat, and ingenuity into the project, and a glorious angry horse gradually taking shape out of a mound of reclaimed timber.

But small changes won’t be enough. It’s about prioritizing change in big business and in politics without getting conned into thinking that buying a bamboo toothbrush is going to cure the problem. As long as there’s this cosy relationship between our cultural institutions and Big Oil, that’s not going to happen.

In 2013, in that Russian jail, I discovered first-hand how warped states’ priorities are, how fiercely they protect their relationships with fossil fuel companies, and what can happen to those who tarnish their image by telling the truth about the criminal business practices they sanction.

My experience pales into insignificance next to how indigenous land defenders are treated when they attempt to protect their lands from resource extraction around the world. BP will do anything to protect their reputation. They’ll say that they agree with our message but they don’t agree with the way we say it, or ‘We wish BP or not BP would engage with us,’ (we have tried). They’ll rattle off the old spiel, but they will be doing as they have always done: polishing their halo while pushing hard to relax climate laws that would curb their dangerous, unreasonable activities that disregard our children’s futures.


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