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The media ecologist

Digital media is just as dirty as oily celluloid and vinyl

Oil-powered. Shutterstock.

Two decades after Auty and Mikesell coined the phrase, the “resource curse” remains a constant theme of environmental analysis. Whenever we watch a film or listen to a record, we are connected to natural and geological resources.

In the old days, celluloid and vinyl were both oil derivatives; today, we boast that we are all about bits, not atoms, as Nicholas Negroponte so memorably put it. But we can’t escape nature so easily.

Our vast networks of digital machines need energy to run on, and as things stand, energy comes from atoms. Fossil fuels account for more than 80% of that energy, and oil for considerably more than a third. Electronic media always look clean, elegant, almost immaterial. But the slim leads they plug into run inexorably back to underground deposits of long-dead plants and animals.

Getting oil out of the ground, converted to power and conducted into our offices and homes is a dirty job. It has been since the ancient Mesopotamians used oil seeping from the ground in what is now Iraq to fuel their lamps. But the business has not got any cleaner.

The other thing energy is made of is law. Not just the laws of physics, but the legal structures that now extend across the planet, just like the tendrils tying tablets, laptops and phones to the electricity grid. The point of law is to provide justice. That may or may not work within a single nation: when law goes international, it becomes a lot more like politics. And the calling of politics is not justice but power.

Shell, the Dutch multinational, recently won a striking victory in a UK court against the Bodo community of the Niger Delta over the spilling of half a million barrels of oil on their lands. Quite why this case was heard in London rather than Lagos is hard to tell. The case has been heard in Lagos too: maybe one side or the other wanted a different result.

Either way, by Shell’s account, Justice Akenhead’s ruling means that they were not responsible for spills due to theft, a common though dangerous practice in the Delta. On the other side, Leigh Day, the law firm acting for the Bodo, believe they are. Shell is offering £30 million compensation; the Bodo are seeking £300m.

Those figures work out at either £6 or £60 a barrel. Quite honestly, neither figure looks anything like adequate to pay for the clean-up, let alone for the illness, loss of animals and crops, and the sheer unpleasantness of years of pollution.

London or Lagos, Shell or the thieves? There are no white hats in this business. But as we produce and consume our media, we should contemplate, with at least a shiver of embarrassment, the banality of this kind of dispute arising every day on every continent. We do not need a civil war in Iraq to remind us that wherever oil has been discovered, it has been a curse to the people who live nearby.

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