In Oil Politics: Echoes of Ecological Wars, a collection of his essays, talks, blog posts and sundry reflections on the hot topic of the environment, Nnimmo Bassey takes a cue from a speech by Álvaro García Linera, Vice President of Bolivia, who restates Rosa Luxemburg’s famous poser ‘socialism or barbarism’ as ‘Mother Earth or barbarism’. In this important book, Bassey expounds the view that climate change is a product of the crisis of capitalism and ‘its attendant creed of expansion and unlimited economic growth and profits,’ adding that the current inability to confront the climate change crisis ‘is due mainly to the vice grip on the global systems by the powerhouses of imperialism.’
I take Álvaro García Linera and Nnimmo Bassey further, perhaps, than they might or could have intended by wondering if the Christian variant of the belief in life after death to be lived in a heavenly domain, supposedly outside earth, has anything to do with the West’s unwholesome attitude to climate change. ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through,’ sang the American folk musician Jim Reeves to the rapturous delight of millions. So the question must be posed to the Christian, capitalist West, is earth our home? The capitalist West holds itself out as the bastion of Christianity, but so preponderant is the evidence of its hugely disproportionate contribution to global warming that direct evidence is not needed. In short, in the court of environmental justice, circumstantial evidence alone would be enough to convict the West. If, however, you insist on hard facts, here’s something to consider: although the United States of America constitutes a mere five percent of the world’s population, it emits, nonetheless, about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases. And together with Europe, is responsible for fifty percent of the non-naturally occurring carbon in the air, even though their combined population is only about ten percent of the world’s inhabitants.
What, then, does it say about the western/capitalist attitude to the environment that in the United States, for instance, the ranks of the most strident deniers of climate change are too often filled with conservative Christians who have formed happy cause with Wall Street lords of mammon? Why have there not been loud and strident cries from the pulpits decrying the market mechanisms forced by the West on the rest of the world to ensure unrestrained environmental plunder, mechanisms that have crippled all the conferences of parties, from Copenhagen to Cancún and Durban, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change? These mechanisms—including the much trumpeted Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, a UN-sanctioned initiative—literally give carte blanche to corporate polluters to keep despoiling the environment but to salve their conscience by buying ‘carbon credits.’ What are ‘carbon credits?’ many will ask—as I did until Bassey explained the dubious term to me in Oil Politics. It is the asinine, but profit-grabbing, idea that a big corporation, say ExxonMobil or Shell, can pollute the immediate environment of any of its undertakings—an oil field or a refinery, for example—to its heart’s content but then to offset the looming danger through a purported ‘green’ project elsewhere, say a vast mono-culture plantation, almost always in the Third World. In its more cynical form, it is the unvarnished view that the alarming rate of pollution of the highly industrialised and consumerist West—which, in its strictly economic sense includes China, ‘the factory of the world’ and other titans of the capitalist plundering of the earth—is proportionately offset by the vast stock of carbon credits in the rest of the un- and under-developed world in Africa, South and Central America and Asia.
What might happen to the economic ethos of the more polluting West if it embraced the not-so-esoteric idea that this earth is, after all, our home? In April 2010, following the predictable failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Conference Of Parties (COP) which ended without an agreement—the government of Bolivia hosted the more forward-looking Cochabamba World Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. For the concept of Mother Earth, as Álvaro García explains ‘is not just a slogan. It means a new way of producing, a new way of relationship with nature and with one another. This relationship is one of equality and not domination, a relationship of dialogue, of giving and receiving. It is not merely a philosophy or folklore.’
Bassey is in the front lines of the earth-is-our-home ethos. Oil Politics ought to be read by all concerned about the unsustainable path of mindless corporate greed, its counterpart in thoughtless consumption, and the stiff price of both paid by our earth. The environment can seem, ironically, too intimate and yet too far-fetched all at once. We live in it, yet its immanence, its seeming infinity, makes it sound alarmist to speak of human activity bringing it to an apocalyptic end (though billions have no problem believing in an apocalyptic end caused by sin). The oceans rising and swallowing up coastal countries? Bah! Deserts creeping on savannahs and turning loamy plains into parched acres of sand? Thank you, but over here where we are, our problem is flooding caused by endless rains! Always, we tend to misread the signs or deny them outright because they do not accord with our immediate experience.
Bassey explains in lay terms, often with humour though each topic he tackles be ever so grim, some of the esoteric terms in which climate talk is often discussed such as: ‘greenhouse effect’, ‘carbon credits’, ‘carbon capture’, ‘global warming’, ‘market mechanisms’ and what a two degree Celsius rise in temperatures would mean for tropical Africa as opposed to Greenland, or a one metre rise in the sea level would to littoral communities in Nigeria. At about the same time that Bassey served out his term as president of Friends of the Earth International, and passed on the torch of leadership of Environmental Rights Action, Nigeria’s premier nature NGO, he set up Health of Mother Earth Foundation, through which he currently does most of his advocacy. Yes, the earth is his home and ours too.
A moment like this calls for some story-telling. I first met Bassey as a sophomore in law at the University of Benin where he was the principal architect. Bassey would later lead the university’s physical planning team to design the temporary administration building and the vice-chancellor’s lodge. That was during the turbulent period of General Babangida’s invasion of the universities in search of radicals and extremists. The vice-chancellor, Professor Grace Alele-Williams, gladly delivered several scalps, among them those of Dr Festus Iyayi, president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities at the time, and Professor Itse Sagay, dean of law. This was meant as dire warning to all outspoken members of the increasingly restive universities, whether on the faculty or in the administration. Bassey, a regular on the op-ed pages of The Guardian and Vanguard, became visibly disenchanted—or ‘disgruntled’ in the power-speak of the time—and soon enough quit the Ivory Sewer to set up Base Consult, his private architectural practice, just outside the university. And it is here that the idea of a human rights approach to the defence of the environment took seed, bloomed and flourishes now to worldwide acclaim.
The Environmental Rights Action (ERA), partner group of global watchdogs Friends of the Earth and OilWatch, began as a project of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) where Bassey was a member of the governing board and chairman of its southern zone. This project yielded several shocking exposés on the mindless devastation of the environment by oil and timber companies such as Shell in Iko (Akwa Ibom) and WEMCO at Omo Forest (Ondo), to cite only two examples. The effect was as crucial for the emergence of an environmental consciousness in Nigeria as CLO’s uncovering in 1987 of the horrors of Ita-Oko, an off-shore prison built under General Obasanjo as military head of state, as it was for the emergence of consciousness of civil liberties. It was soon clear that ERA needed a wider field of vision than the CLO’s fulcrum of political liberties would allow. Not even the compromise of semi-autonomy marked by the new name, ERA/CLO, would widen this field by the needed acreage. The debate was often passionate, for ERA had come to deepen CLO’s work in a way that added to its prestige at home and abroad, but CLO voted wisely to let the child strike out and come into his own.
This decision freed ERA under Bassey to synthesise its mission from indigenous principles of harmonious natural resource management, Christian teachings on egalitarianism and the international declaration of human rights. The result is a charter of struggle for the attainment of social justice. Driven like only a pastor—in the true sense of herdsman, shepherd—can be about his flock, it is no surprise that Bassey’s e-mail signature is a plea, borrowed from the great Psalmist, to the principalities and powers of earth on behalf of the oppressed, exploited and downtrodden: ‘How long will you keep judging and favouring evil people? Be fair to the poor and orphans. Defend the helpless and everyone in need. Rescue the weak and homeless from the powerful hands of heartless people.’ These are the slogans that inform Bassey’s vision of a habitable and sustainable earth. And for his steadfastness, he was driven underground for four months in 1994 as his brother-in-law was held hostage, arrested and detained by the secret police, the Nigerian State Security Service (SSS) for several days in October 1997 and had his passport impounded for long periods.
Bassey, who has published four collections of poems, including the grim title, We Thought It Was Oil But It Was Blood, has also been General Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors. Let us pay heed to the Reverend Nnimmo Bassey, a hero of the environment, and, even more, be ourselves in small and big ways architects of a sustainable earth.