Big Oil and the Hypocrisy of the Arts

In recent years, there have been several cases of artists and the public boycotting arts events and arts organisations supported by the fossil fuel industry. This comes from a desire for the arts not to be funded by industries that people believe are destroying the planet. Here are a few examples of recent cases:

Science Museum Boycott

In 2022, hundreds of teachers pledged not to take students to the Science Museum as Adani, a major operator of coalmines, sponsored a new exhibit. One of the headteachers, Ian McDermott, said:

‘I’ve brought many thousands of students to this place over the last 25 years. It makes me so sad that this magical building, that has done so much to benefit and inspire young people, is now actively harming them by allowing coal giants like Adani, who are destroying the future of the world’s young people by expanding mining, to greenwash their reputation at the expense of the reputation of the museum.’

BP and the National Portrait Gallery

In 2019, many leading British artists, including Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Sarah Lucas, called on the National Portrait Gallery to cut ties with BP. They published a letter online outlining their reasons:

‘A crucial role of art is to describe to future generations what it is to be alive now, and to provide an echo of our humanity to those who seek it in the future…The ethical red lines regarding art sponsorship are always shifting, tracing the curve of corporate behaviour and what’s regarded as the public good. This was clearly demonstrated when the NPG moved away from its partnership with tobacco company John Player thirty years ago and the Sackler family earlier this year. We believe that, today, the loss of BP as a source of funding is a cost worth bearing until the company changes course and enables future generations to make art in a world that resembles our own.’

This campaign was successful, and in 2022, the National Portrait Gallery cut ties with BP.

Mark Rylance and the Royal Shakespeare Company

At the end of June, Academy Award-winning actor Mark Rylance resigned from an honorary position at the Royal Shakespeare Company because it accepted money from BP to subsidise tickets for young people.

‘I do not wish to be associated with BP any more than I would with an arms dealer,’ Rylance wrote in his resignation letter. ‘Nor, I believe, would William Shakespeare.’

These are just some recent instances of the arts opposing oil companies. There is even an Art Not Oil Coalition that states in its aims:

‘Only a decade ago, tobacco companies were seen as respectable partners for public institutions. That is no longer the case. It is our hope that fossil fuel companies will soon be seen in the same light.’

They go on to call upon arts organisations to ‘stick to their principles and show leadership on moral issues such as this.’

I am in favour of greener energy and have been supporting it through my charitable giving for years. The switch to greener sources of energy to power the world is what we should be moving towards, and though there are some technological hurdles to make still, this world is a real possibility.

Sadly, climate change will likely have a catastrophic impact on our species. From my research, I am not convinced if it is a true existential threat to humans, but I am certain that it is an existential threat to many of the poorest and most vulnerable countries on the planet. In fact, we are already seeing this in action today. The reality is we have not acted quickly enough, and any changes we make now won’t save the people currently dying and suffering from extreme weather and the effects of climate change. However, there is still time to make a change and steer our species away from the most devastating impacts that could still come to pass.

The arts has a long-standing history of standing up for what is right, and it is great that we hold institutions to account for the relationships they cultivate. But there is an area that I feel is neglected in this discussion, namely the impact of meat and dairy on the planet.  

It is very difficult to get accurate and convergent data from different sources on the emissions of various industries. However, most of the sources I have found have meat and dairy as already surpassing oil or set to very shortly as the worst contributors to climate change. Some reports have projected that by 2050, meat and dairy farms will be responsible for 80% of emissions. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu already has meat and agriculture as worse for the climate, stating: ‘If cattle and dairy cows were a country, they would have more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire EU 28’. Chu believes that many estimates of the impact of meat and dairy grossly underestimate its effect on the environment and that it comes out far worse when you consider the impact of things such as deforestation and soil disruption. This is backed up by a 2009 audit by the World Watch Institute, which found that unaccounted emissions bring the livestock contribution up to 51%.

People often point out that we also farm land to grow crops for human consumption, impacting the environment in terms of land use and industrial agriculture. However, we breed approximately 80 billion land animals into existence for meat and dairy (not even mentioning the 1-2.8 trillion fish we kill), and these all need to be fed. In the EU, 71% of agricultural land is used to feed livestock, with the vast majority of European crops grown to feed animals. If you are concerned about the impact of growing crops and vegetables on the environment, meat and dairy are still huge factors driving this.

Added to this is the fact that methane and nitrous oxide, both byproducts of meat and dairy, are far, far worse for the planet than carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for longer, but over a 100-year period, methane is 28 times more effective at trapping heat and nitrous oxide is 273 times more effective. And these emissions are getting worse – this is unsustainable.

So, I want to call upon the arts also to make a stand against meat and dairy. We know that at an individual level, avoiding meat and dairy is the single most significant way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet. There are arts festivals near me sponsored by the dairy industry, and arts festivals created by food companies. None of these seem to get any backlash at all. And there is a case that fossil fuels until we can fully fund and switch to alternatives and phase them out, are needed to power our society and literally keep people warm and alive. Animal agriculture is not necessary to power our society. In fact, we subsidise it heavily to make it affordable. The vegan diet is consistently proven by world-leading food and nutrition experts to be ‘appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes’.

Furthermore, fossil fuel companies aren’t one of the leading causes of antibiotic resistance or the likely trigger of future pandemics. And they don’t require trillions (yes, trillions) of sentient creatures to be killed each year. This isn’t a demanding position for the arts to make – and although I think we should all be vegan if we have the choice, the arts going vegan doesn’t mean every individual within has to. Perhaps some people agree with it morally but struggle to stick to it – then why not help the industry switch to veganism? It may also assist you on that journey.

Many institutions are already moving in that direction. A Plant-Based Universities scheme has led to an increasing number of universities pledging to go plant-based. Most recently, the University of Kent, University of Warwick and University of Stirling have all passed motions to go vegan with calls for similar measures at Cambridge, Queen Mary University of London, Birmingham and London Metropolitan.

It would be great if there were a similar campaign in the arts. If the arts really wanted to make a stand, then why not make the food choices in all arts buildings vegan? Why not have all companies provide vegan food and alternative milk for touring productions and project work? This would effect a huge change and make a real difference. Leeds, where I am based, has an organisation called Sustainable Arts In Leeds. This initiative would be a fantastic way to help make the arts in Leeds sustainable and ethical.  

There is a lot of social and cultural kudos to appearing to be anti-oil in the arts, but whenever I have raised the issue of veganism, I am regularly met with silence. It is still a very minority movement. It is often derided and regularly misrepresented, yet it is the solution to many issues people claim to care about. Perhaps you weren't aware of the environmental damage of animal agriculture – hopefully, now you are. Let’s make the arts about action, which really matters, not just virtue-signalling statements.

To take Art Not Oil’s analogy with the tobacco industry, the huge concern was that smoking is a major driver of negative health outcomes. The problem with boycotting oil companies is climate change. However, one of the primary drivers of that is meat and dairy. I feel we, in the arts, to use smoking again, are more concerned about promoting breathing exercises and cardio to improve our lungs and are not talking about banning smoking.

Mark Rylance mentioned Shakespeare above, stating he would be against fossil fuels. Well, Shakespeare, reportedly a vegetarian, promoted the rights of animals in his plays:

Thou never didst them wrong, nor no man wrong;

And as the butcher takes away the calf

And binds the wretch, and beats it when it strays,

Bearing it to the bloody slaughter-house,

Even so remorseless have they borne him hence;

And as the dam runs lowing up and down,

Looking the way her harmless young one went,

And can do nought but wail her darling’s loss.

I believe Shakespeare would be a vegan today. If the arts really do care about the issues above, then why not pledge to be vegan? The arts sector has shown courage and integrity by rejecting oil money. Now’s the time to take it a step further by embracing veganism. SAIL, you can help to bring this about here in Leeds.

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