AURORA – A Victory for Environmental Activism?

Me with Aurora, posing with a ‘Save the Arctic’ card.

This summer I found myself sitting inside a polar bear puppet the size of a double-decker bus parked (illegally) outside of the Shell UK headquarters. I had volunteered with Greenpeace and joined their highly publicised ‘Aurora Is Here’ Save the Arctic Campaign. Shell’s recent decision to stop drilling in the Arctic was warmly welcomed by environmental activist who attributed U-turn at least in part to this Greenpeace campaign.

‘Aurora’ has been helping Greenpeace communicate to the public the dangers of Arctic drilling for several years. Her debut was in December 2013 when she walked through the streets of London accompanied by a large parade before being parked in front of the Shell HQ. This year it was deemed time for her to return and the campaign received the celebrity backing of Emma Thompson. The protest was against Shell drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. By doing so they were putting a uniquely pristine ecosystem at risk. Also, damaging the Arctic in order to pump out reserves of oil which would in turn damage the Arctic through greenhouse gas emissions is nothing short of ironic.

The opportunity to be personally involved in such a positive and accessible environmental campaign was incredibly exciting. Although Greenpeace has a good relationship with the police it was fascinating to interact with officers and shell’s security staff. Greenpeace did not have legal permission to park Aurora on Shell’s property and yet through fear of public backlash the action remained relatively unchallenged. This is not to say that there were not difficulties. A dedicated team of volunteers were required to camp overnight inside Aurora for the duration of her stay to ensure she could not be removed.

Shell announced this September that it would halt its exploration of gas and oil reserves in the Chukchi Sea. This is dramatic decision as they had invested a reported 7 billion and stand to lose 4 billion in future earnings. The decision came in light of plummeting share prices as a result of their increasingly tarnished public image. As Shell was the world leader in Arctic oil exploration, this has dealt a massive blow to Big Oil. The White House has now cancelled two Arctic oil drilling leases and the trend seems set to continue. This has of course been hailed as a huge success by environmentalist groups. The decision is undeniably linked to the growing public outrage that campaigns such as Aurora encourage.

One of the most striking features of this campaign was its desire to include the public. Aurora’s design included a mane which was composed entirely of the names of all those who had signed the petition to stop Shell drilling in the Arctic. The message that everyone could be part of the protest is a very welcome part of environmental activism. The beautiful and striking polar bear highlighted literally highlighted the scale of the problem the species is facing. The deliberately piercing eyes seemed at all times to be both sorrowful and fierce. Aurora’s regular roars served as a loud and unavoidable reminder to those working inside the building of the anger of activists and supporters. These features were not lost on the public. Shell’s HQ is situated in a very busy part of London and as such thousands of people would pass Aurora every day. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Controlling Aurora’s head and roaring at the many curious children that came to visit was an experience I am unlikely to forget. I had to learn the function of fourteen buttons, each of which controlled a different type of roar, and the impact of pulling four different ropes. The entire team was lovely and gave me lots of support. I was briefly tutored in how to be a polar bear, how I should snuffle and how gradually I should move the head etc., before I was let loose to frighten/ delight small passers-by. It felt simultaneously like being backstage on the West End and being at the forefront of environmentalism in the UK. Senses of grandeur aside, being able to speak to the public and spread the message that our shared planet is under threat was genuinely important. I spoke to many avid environmentalists, one of whom gave me vegan peanut butter choc chip chick pea blondies (gluten free). I also spoke to many people who had never heard of Arctic drilling or its dangers. Shell’s step back from Arctic drilling demonstrates the importance of activism and crucially the importance of getting the wider public involved.

The impact of a single campaign on such a large issue can be difficult to gauge, but in this instance Greenpeace’s tireless efforts to stand in the way of Shell truly deserve high praise. There has been some scepticism about the impact of Aurora herself. For example, I was able to speak to one of the passing Shell employees briefly. I asked whether they believed campaign was having an impact on Shell’s management. His response was, rather humorously, to question why a puppet would scare a company out of making billions of dollars. And indeed this is a valid point. But it is campaigns such as Aurora that capture public attention. This can create petitions that encourage political institutions to act, as Obama has recently done to further limit Arctic drilling. It can also rightly tarnish a public image to such an extent that a company’s value can fall.

Aurora was not just a gimmick. It was a fascinating combination of artistic creativity and environmental activism. The role I played, though very minor, has convinced me of the importance of protests with wider public appeal. This is not just because they are fun and feel-good but because they are the most accessible way of promoting change. If we are going to secure the future of the Arctic and our planet, we need more polar bears the size of double-decker buses.

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