The Eco Paddler: Oil and Ice

Were the Seattle kayak protesters hypocrites or heroes?

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By Ken Campbell

The Polar Pioneer, a massive offshore drill rig owned by Royal Dutch Shell that was at the center of some fairly impressive kayak protests in Seattle earlier this summer, may soon be operating in the Arctic Ocean. Shell received final approval from the Obama administration on Wednesday to begin drilling in the Arctic despite the findings of the operation's draft Environmental Impact Statement, which concluded there is a "75 percent chance of one or more large spills occurring over a 77-year period, and a 25 percent chance of no spills occurring."

While the rig was docked near the city, the local paddling community came together for several well-publicized actions to speak against the opening of the far north to oil development and, in the process, became the subject of some fairly pointed scrutiny.

"Hypocrites!" That's the most common accusation that has been directed at the protesters. The logic goes something like this: Since the demonstrating paddlers, aka "kayaktivists," use plastic kayaks and canoes, they are supporting the very industry they are protesting. The idea of paddling a boat made out of oil to protest oil development is worthy of hearty scorn from certain segments of the twitterati. "And they probably drove there by themselves in their gas-guzzling SUVs too," is how the invective usually continued. There may be more, but I have never stayed to hear it.

Here’s a typical anti-protester tweet (via The Stranger) –Eds.

There is an irony to the situation, to be sure, but I don't think that it rises to the level of hypocrisy. There is a difference between owning a plastic kayak and being in favor of opening the last pristine and fragile parts of the ocean to one of the dirtiest and most destructive industries that the planet has ever seen. Just because people use petroleum products doesn't necessarily mean they support going to any lengths to get extract more of the stuff. To speak out and give voice to this simple fact is hardly hypocrisy; in fact, the duality involved is part of what gives the message resonance. It's an implicit acknowledgment that modern life is inextricably bound up in fossil-fuel dependence, whether we like it or not.

As to how the protestors got to their events, I wouldn't know. I would be surprised if there were many fuel-sucking SUVs though, and I would be inclined to wager that there was a whole lot of car-pooling involved. The fact that it is being given such wide play among those on the other side of the issue may give some indication of the level of cognitive dissonance that they are comfortable with in their own daily lives. Most people are not like that.

Beyond their snark, however, these are cynical and misleading charges. They effectively ignore the larger issues related to wilderness, sustainability and Arctic oil development, first pretending the message doesn't need telling and then deliberately shifting the focus to the messengers. It is a word-salad version of three-card monte, designed to blur the narrative and end any discussion. It is a dishonest and momentum-killing position to argue that since people have contributed to a problem, they are somehow ineligible to work towards its solution.

And there is nothing wrong with confronting our personal inconsistencies. To the extent that we are all guilty of an imperfect symmetry between what we say and what we do, there is room for each of us to improve, specifically with regard to our use of oil and the products that are derived from it.

Many of us hypocrites began working in this direction a long time ago.

More from the #sHellNo Protests:

Photos of Seattle’s Kayaking Protesters

Video: Inside the sHell No Kayaktivist Protest

Kayak Protesters Detained after Attempting to Block Shell Oil Rig

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