Future Beyond Shell Sunset

We have received the following obituary about Shell’s demise, from an author reaching us from the future. Reluctant to disrupt the arc of history bending towards justice, we are publishing it unredacted.

A Shameful Legacy
Colonialism, Wars and Apartheid
Environmental Devastation
The Price in Blood
The Future Beyond Shell

Sunday, 14 March 2032, The Hague

Almost two years ago, Appeals Court judges in the Hague ordered the final dissolution of Shell’s once-vast portfolio. Their decision set into motion the long process of closing all Shell’s books, winding down its operations, and dealing with the legal implications of its closure. The ruling included a provision for setting up a body to address the claims of some of Shell’s victims, who have been clamouring for justice. Two years after the giant multinational collapsed, they will at last get a chance to state their case and to seek reparations from Shell at the Shell Truth and Justice Commission (STJC) in the Hague.

It is a sweet irony that the hearings are being held at the company’s former headquarters in the Netherlands. The red and yellow company flag no longer flutters in front of the iconic building, but it is still a venue for protesters. Chaotic scenes were all over the media again this week, and the world watched the massive crowds that filled the Carel van Bylandtlaan when the STJC officially began its proceedings. Many came to celebrate, although others had come to mourn what for them was one of the last vestiges of Dutch global dominance. 

Shell’s demise has so far been a messy affair, and it is clear that the resolution of its legacy will be no different. The last two years have seen a flurry of activity, with legal claims and counterclaims. The Appeals Court ruling not only sounded the death knell for the once thriving multinational, and brought an end to the dizzying story of an antiques trading company that had developed into a vast monster; it also marked the end of an era in human history. As the only remaining fossil fuel multinational, Shell was the last of a dying breed, a relic from a different time. Just like many of the multinational giants that had fallen before it, Shell collapsed as much from external pressure as from inherent tensions. Decades of activism, lobbying, lawsuits, marches and street demonstrations, rigorous scientific argument, and appeals to basic human decency and kindness finally bore fruit. 

Shell’s demise is the victory of a vision that is diametrically opposed to the world that the multinational and its sister companies epitomised. It is also the birth (or revival) of another vision of the world, whose values have nothing in common with the logic that made Shell grow into the monster that it became. Indeed, the dramatic cultural shift and the broader turn away from fossil fuels following the Global Green Deal also played a role – the new global economy simply has no place for a company like Shell.

As the STJC gears up, the world is slowly but surely coming to terms with what Shell was and came to represent.

A Shameful Legacy

The Commission’s first week has already given some insight into how complicated it will be to deal with Shell’s legacy. For some observers in the Netherlands, Shell represented the best of Dutch ingenuity and business acumen. It will be difficult for them to accept the demise of such an iconic feature of the Dutch economic landscape. The legend goes back to the turn of the twentieth century, with the birth of the motor vehicle. The Royal Dutch Petroleum Company (in Dutch: Koninklijke Nederlandse Petroleum Maatschappij) later merged with the United Kingdom’s Shell Transport and Trading Company Limited (later British Petroleum or BP), largely to be able to compete globally with American Standard Oil company. This merger was the genesis of a vast multinational that would eventually generate spectacular wealth for its founders. However, it would also have a massive impact on the planet, being responsible for 2% of historical global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Thanks to this merger, a small company that had been trading oil in Indonesia grew to become one of the Seven Sisters that dominated the global petroleum industry from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s. The company was for a long time the world’s largest and most diversified oil company. It came to represent the Netherlands, and nationalism was probably behind the decision to maintain a distinct identity from its British wing following their historic merger. Even the name, Royal Dutch Shell, linked it to the monarchy, a source of pride for many Dutch citizens.

Any pride in the achievements of Dutch colonialism and imperialism must, however, tempered by the true price that was paid for them, and by whom. Those who mourn Shell’s demise must come to terms with the corporation’s chequered legacy – and chequered it is. The Shell Truth and Justice Commission, set up to ensure justice for those affected by the multinational’s long trail of destruction, will have to give a comprehensive account of Shell’s current victims, as well as affording a glimpse into the historical harm caused by Shell’s unbridled greed. 

Just this once, let us speak ill of the dead. 

Colonialism, Wars and Apartheid

In a laborious process expected to last at least 18 months, the Shell Truth and Justice Commission sitting in the Hague will hear cases from multiple aggrieved parties. The list of victims, past and present, direct and indirect, covers the globe. The Netherlands was one of the most voracious of the colonial powers, coming after Britain, France, Portugal and Spain in the number of territories occupied. It might be tempting to separate Shell from the colonial and imperial history of its two home countries. Wasn’t the massively successful corporation, after all, the fruit of that legendary European entrepreneurial spirit? The result of ingenuity, courage and hard work? Perhaps. But Shell was also involved in extremely questionable practices, both historically and also judged by contemporary standards. 

Europe’s development trajectory, and its current standard of living, came at a price too terrible for most Europeans to contemplate. The doctrine of white supremacy was invoked to rationalise the brutal plunder that condemned vast numbers of people across the globe to impoverishment, environmental depredation, and no means to earn a decent living. Even as it enabled western Europe to acquire the standard of living it is now used to, the extraction of resources, their processing and their transport to Europe’s commercial centres left bodies in its wake, most of them the black and brown bodies of colonial subjects. Born in the great imperialist scramble of the twentieth century, Shell rose to prominence during an era that will surely come to be known as the real dark age in human history. An era where European colonial powers’ belief in their entitlement to the world’s resources led them to place little value on human life elsewhere. They didn’t care either about working-class people whose labour consolidated their wealth, whether miners, factory workers (including child labour), or women in domestic service.  Their rapacious pillage ultimately led humankind to the brink of a terrifying precipice.

Imperialism placed the demands of the metropole ahead of any interests of the people and countries in the periphery, a hierarchy of lives according to a racial yardstick, with the white Europeans at the top, and those with darker skin colour at the bottom. Colonialism facilitated the needs of capital through the appropriation of natural resources, of mineral deposits, of culture, and of labour. That predatory logic and unbridled pillage was the wind fanning the colonial project, and part of the price paid to create western Europe as we know it today. It is a history that the Netherlands is still only beginning to come to terms with, if at all. Europe’s prosperity is, more than anything else, the result of the colonial project and its ever-present legacy. Corporations were a central pillar in that edifice. 

Shell is one of the many commercial companies that facilitated and benefited from Dutch and broader European colonialism, serving as agents for the brutal enterprise. Right from the beginning, the company was focused on extracting wealth for the enrichment of its shareholders in Amsterdam and London. Beginning in Indonesia, the company eventually had a presence in all the Dutch colonial territories and then beyond. With the typical colonial disregard for ancestral indigenous systems, disdain for local cultures and contempt for local knowledge, Shell used fair means and foul to obtain concessions and drilling rights, and in the process wreaked colossal social and environmental havoc. The wellbeing of the people in the zones of extraction was hardly ever a concern. 

It is no surprise, then, that in her opening statement at the STJC, Muntu Wezweni, a human rights lawyer and representative of the Shell Victims Union, gave some historical examples of Shell’s cynicism and lack of regard for human life. She recounted how, from early on in its history, in a bid to dominate the oil industry, Shell promoted the very antithesis of life and peace, being involved in multiple wars and conflicts, with the most egregious being the Chaco war (1932–35), between Bolivia and Paraguay. She spoke of how the territorial dispute over oil deposits discovered in the eastern Andes became a proxy war for the major oil companies. Shell competed for exploration and drilling rights against Standard Oil, which chose to back Bolivia while Shell supported Paraguay. The casualties were huge: Bolivia lost around 2% of its population, or between 56,000 and 65,000 people, and Paraguay about 36,000, or 3% of its population. Most of the dead were indigenous people drawn into a war the oil companies may not have instigated directly, but had definitely fanned. The legacy of that war has reverberated through both nations’ histories, the echoes of which can still be heard. 

The eloquent lawyer showed how this mercenary mindset was not just an isolated aberration. In the First World War, Shell was the main supplier of fuel to the British Expeditionary Force, 80% of the British Army’s TNT, and the sole supplier of its aviation fuel. The corporation even volunteered all of its shipping to the British Admiralty. Later on, Shell became involved in wars and conflicts around the globe, from the war to secure oil in Iraq, where Shell and BP gained oilfields, to fuelling, if not instigating the war in Algeria and elsewhere. 

Wezweni showed how Shell’s disdain for human decency and the quality of life of those living where it operated were also displayed when the corporation became involved in sanctions-busting for the illegal white settler regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and later BP-Shell, along with other major oil companies, played an active role in undermining the international sanctions on the former apartheid regime in South Africa. She showed how, in its final report to South African President Nelson Mandela in October 1998, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) condemned the mining and oil industries for their role in supporting the apartheid regime and its discriminatory policies. The report singled out in particular Shell, BP, Mobil, Caltex, and Total as “the most notable” of the oil corporations that did not respond to the TRC’s invitation to make a submission on their activities during the apartheid era. 

With such a damning historical record, it is hardly surprising that so many people are applying and lining up to testify before the STJC. The jurors will have to hear cases from far and wide, both geographically and historically.

Environmental Devastation

While we have only heard the opening statements so far, there is no doubt that most of the claims against Shell will concern its impact on the environment, which was unparalleled, if not unprecedented. First of all, from being a key player in the growth of the fossil fuel industry, Shell advocated and fuelled a development paradigm that drove the planet to a precipice from which it will take centuries to step back. Not only this, but Shell also deliberately concealed relevant information that could have bought a little more time to pull back. A public information film, ‘Climate of Concern’, which resurfaced in 2017, revealed that Shell clearly understood about global heating, even as far back as 1988 – a quarter of a century ago – but carried on with ‘business as usual’. In short, even before the fight against climate change became the rallying cry that finally led to the Global Green Deal, Shell knew. This parallels exactly the tobacco industry, which knew in the 1950s that smoking was associated with lung and throat cancer. They not only concealed this, but sponsored ‘research’ and funded articles proving the opposite; and undermined all WHO efforts to publish the truth. They even fought against smoking bans.

Beyond its broader impact on the development paradigm as an advocate and supplier of fossil fuels, Shell’s specific activities have caused some of the worst environmental crimes. The litany of offences is by now well documented in the testimonies narrated by communities who have litigated for decades. Perhaps most emblematic were the major civil court cases brought by the Ogoni people, whose community was affected by oil spills that devastated entire ecosystems. Who has not heard of the contamination of the Niger Delta, and the destruction of the Ogoni land? The name of Ken Saro Wiwa is one of the best-known martyrs in the cause against the oil company’s presence in Nigeria. In the years before its demise, the corporation was involved in multiple legal suits, ranging from lawsuits brought by Milieudefensie for Shell’s climate policies, to claims of murder and other harm brought against Shell in the United States, to legal challenges against fracking. In the now famous case brought by four Ogoni fishermen against Shell, a Dutch appeals court ruled in 2021that Shell Nigeria, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, be held liable for oil leaks which ruined farmland, and that it had to pay compensation to the four. While it triggered the beginning of the avalanche of legal losses that led is most directly credited with bringing Shell to its knees, that judgement did not find the Dutch parent company liable. So it is hoped that the STJC will do so and achieve compensation for all the people whose livelihoods were brutally destroyed by Shell’s activities.

The Price in Blood

Given all these transgressions, it is understandable that some will choose to speak ill of the dead. And that so many people have showed up to bid Shell farewell – or good riddance. Among the demonstrators at the Carel van Bylandtlaan are many activists who have dedicated years, and used vast amounts of their financial and other resources, to free their communities from Shell’s toxic grip. For even as Shell went about its nefarious business, this was never simply accepted by those affected. Every violation, every outrageous act, met with resistance from grassroots movements and local activists. 

The list of litigators at the STJC is made up of members of frontline communities who can no longer fish the same waters as their ancestors used to because of an oil spill, communities whose farmland is now wasteland covered in never-ending fires. Some of the witnesses are young children born with various defects due to toxic waste dumped on the land their mothers walked. Because of the crimes committed against them, they continue to march for justice. In the crowds outside the courthouse are anti-colonialists who have long sought justice for the victims of Shell’s activities – for the legacy of colonialism. Some of the demonstrators are trade unionists and workers whose rights were trampled upon at every turn; artists and scholars who have expended barrels of ink on why companies such as Shell should no longer exist. Despite Shell’s dissolution, and their fatigue at having fought for so long, they still march. Holding placards and singing victory songs, community leaders from indigenous groups such as the Mapuche in Argentina, who have engaged in a decades-long fight for their rights, and to stop Shell fracking on their land, still seek justice. And indeed, the Groningers who march for the exact same thing, holding their heads up high as proud Dutch people. 

Shell may have been dissolved, but the search for justice is far from over. 

The Future Beyond Shell

Far from the madding crowd, in Ogoniland, there are many for whom the news of Shell’s death is still meaningless. The ruling has not brought the fish back into their waters, it hasn’t removed the black oil slick from the trees, it hasn’t cleared the air of the choking fumes. For them, the pumps might as well be still pounding away, and in some places they still are, run by opportunists who are ready to sell the oil on the black market. Much like a rickety engine, Shell’s is a slow, sputtering stop. 

Ground-breaking as it is, the dissolution of the monstrous multinational and the institution of the STJC is just the first step on the path towards real justice. It is not enough to celebrate Shell’s demise and leave it at that. In fact, the major task is just starting. One of main questions is how to put right what has been wrong for decades. How can balance be restored? Can it be restored? 

The first step in any healing process is to acknowledge the damage that has been done, to describe it and call it by its rightful name. It is to recognise Shell’s activities as crimes against humanity, and crimes against the planet, atrocities that went on for far too long. It is to highlight the lines that connect the present to the colonial project that gave birth to Shell and its ilk, and to accept the complicated nature of their legacy. It is to realise that Shell had many diverse impacts wherever it had a footprint, and that while some of those may seem positive, they inevitably came at a cost that is way too high, and that past, present and future generations have to bear. The future that we build has to be based on an unwavering commitment to speak the truth, no matter how ugly it may be. 

Acknowledgement of the wrongs done must lead us to the question: What does justice look like? Justice for the Mapuche people in Argentina will not be exactly the same as that for the Ogoni in Nigeria. Justice for Code Rood activists in Groningen will necessarily be different from that for the oil workers in Algeria, or the people who are still suffering the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa, or victims in the Philippines, in Tunisia, in Indonesia, in countries across Latin America. In fact, the faces of justice for all of these diverse victims may actually be opposed to each other. There are no easy answers. There must be reparations for affected communities, and these should be collectively and democratically determined and administered. Where there are conflicts of interest, there needs to be the space to find mutually acceptable compromises, through processes that recognise and remedy the continuing power imbalances that are the legacy of Shell and the system that gave birth to it. Shell may finally be dead as a corporation, but the stench of its legacy will linger for a long time, and it is prudent to prepare for what that means. 

We do not yet know if the STJC will indeed expose the truth and secure justice to all those who demand it. We can only hope that this will be the case. What can be agreed, however, is that the death of Shell, as the last of the fossil fuel giants, offers an opportunity to do things differently. The world has seen a great cultural shift away from fossil fuels, and the Global Green Deal has already led to vast economic changes. The greatest changes will, however, need to be in our culture and in our worldview. A Future Beyond Shell needs to acknowledge the limitations of the paradigm that led people and the planet to the precipice in the first place. It requires re-examining the relationship with nature, acknowledging that human beings are part of nature, not removed from it. This means an end to attempts to dominate nature, but rather to seek balance within it. We must purge the mindset that led to the crimes of colonialism, and opt for sustaining life, and not destroying it for short-term gains. We must adopt a feminist stance, because the patriarchal alternative has led us down a path of destruction. We must revive and respect the teachings of indigenous communities who have lived on and have such an intimate understanding of their ancestral lands that the most advanced western science cannot hope to attain. 

We are at no loss for great ideas for the future. What we need is the commitment to carry them out. A commitment to carrying out a Just Transition, looking to feminist ways of managing society, to building a global society that caters to the needs of all, not just today’s wealthiest people and regions. A world built for everyone, by everyone.

We may speak ill of the dead as long as others can draw lessons from their mistakes.

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (Zulu saying)
“A person is a person, because of people.”