It has to be said that museums today have completely fallen out of favour. Their permanent exhibits often feel archaic and when they do have an exhibition that is popular, it’s impossible to grab tickets in time. In London, the British Museum is still categorised by ancient Roman and Greek periods as if all who visit are practising Classicists. It is now common knowledge that museums have filled their gargantuan halls with the stolen artefacts of countries once colonised by Europe. In fact, the British Museum has received the shameful title of being ‘the “largest receivers of stolen property.” Regardless of such information being out in the open, few museums have offered to return their loot. But wait, it gets worse.
Not only are these monoliths a constant reminder of a violent past that refuses to relinquish its marble grasp, but it also turns out museums have a hand in the violence of our future too. For the last ten years, the climate activist group BP or not BP? has been campaigning against the cultural institutions due to their association with oil and gas tycoons.
Some of you may not know this, but the British Museum is among some of the cultural organisations to receive sponsorship from BP—one of the world’s seven oil and gas ‘supermajors’. By teaming up with cultural institutions, oil companies create an image of themselves as ‘philanthropic’, distracting the public from their awful human rights and environmental record, their history of funding autocrats (including Vladimir Putin) and oil’s detrimental effect on climate change.
It is worth noting that BP’s plans to drill for oil in Australia and Argentina had it barred from any involvement in Cop26. As BP or not BP? Has stated many times in the past, oil companies use sponsorships to give them “a false veneer of respectability” while harming the oceans and wildlife with oil spills and continuing their deals with war-mongers across the world.
But finding an easy fix to their awful brand image doesn’t seem to be enough for companies like BP and Shell. By sponsoring Britain’s large publicly-funded venues, they can also use these spaces—to host events that allow the worst perpetrators of climate change and oil catastrophe to rub shoulders with government officials and lobbyists. These sponsorships do more than just control oil’s public image, they promise its profitable future while the world continues to burn.
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Ten years ago, many of Britain’s cultural institutions were sponsored by oil companies, most commonly Shell or BP. The climate activists at BP or not BP? set out to publicly shame the 20 institutions sponsored by oil, which included the Natural History Museum, the British Film Institute (BFI) and the National Theatre. BP or not BP? uses theatrical protests and dramatic performances that interrupt the institutions they set about to shame. One of its notable moments took place in 2020 when the organisation snuck a 13 foot Trojan Horse into the British Museum’s courtyard—a stark reminder of the violence perpetrated by an oil company that hides among cultural institutions, pretending to be nothing but a peaceful gift. BP or not BP?’s campaigns are a continued thorn in the side of the UK arts sector, one that also acts as a reminder to exhibition attendees and audiences of a venue’s climate culpability.
Alongside other activist groups such as Culture Unstained, Liberate Tate, Platform London and the PCS Culture Group, these protestors have forced many of the country’s art institutions to end their sponsorship deals with oil tycoons. SCREENSHOT reached out to BP or not BP? for a comment and a spokesperson for the organisation shared how proud they are of their work over the last decade, as they’ve witnessed “a huge shift away from oil sponsorship.” However, they added that they are also aware that their work is far from done. While many have since broken their ties with BP, “despite this sea change in the wider sector, a few institutions are still clinging grimly on to their outdated fossil fuel partnerships.”
Among the four holdouts still keeping their oil sponsorship in defiance of public opinion is, of course, the British Museum. A bastion to archaism, the institution seems adamant about remaining tied to the oil tycoon that is BP. Their sponsorship deal, due to expire next year, has met with opposition by heritage professionals and archaeologists, over 300 of which have signed a letter to the museum calling for an end to the deal. And yet, the museum’s Director Hartwig Fischer is still taking meetings to renew this sponsorship.
While the rest of the art sector has developed awareness following its past sponsorship mistakes, BP or not BP? is—among many others—baffled by the stubbornness of the British Museum. Sarah Horne, a long-standing member of the group, had this to say on the subject: “If the museum signs a new BP sponsorship deal, that would send the worst possible signal to the world about the role of fossil fuels in society right now.”
BP or not BP? wishes to invite anyone enraged by the museum’s colonialist history and its climate-damaging present to join them at the museum on 23 April “for a mass creative action to kick out BP once and for all.”
The promotion of an oil giant by Britain’s largest museum in the middle of a climate crisis is a shameful endeavour. And though the institution promises “two million years of human history and culture,” its continued involvement with BP is certainly putting our future at risk.
Let’s play a game: what do you reckon the energy Bitcoin mining requires is equivalent to in only a year? London’s yearly energy consumption? Higher. The Netherlands’? Higher. Okay, how about Argentina’s? Higher. The energy used to mine and distribute Bitcoin consumes 121.36 Terawatt-hour (TWh) per year. That’s above the entirety of Argentina, 121 TWh per year—and it’s catching up with Norway too, which consumes 122.20 TWh per year.
If that’s boggled your mind, trust me, it took me a while to get my head around it too. In simpler terms, the energy Bitcoin uses could power every single kettle in the UK for 27 years. Imagine that, if every single British household came together to make a cup of tea, it would take 27 years to use the same amount of energy that an intangible cryptocurrency uses in a single year.
If that hasn’t got my point across enough, let’s use another example: one Bitcoin transaction is equivalent to the carbon footprint of 735,121 Visa transactions, or to put it in ‘broke’ gen Z terms, 55,280 hours of watching YouTube. This is according to Digiconimist, which created the Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index—a fascinating graph that tracks the energy usage of Bitcoin, which shows a spike in consumption since March 2021.
If you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, let me briefly explain cryptocurrency for you. Of course, people have (and still are) writing books on this stuff, so a single 800-word article won’t do such a complex topic justice—but I’ll give it my best shot.
Cryptocurrency is a digital asset designed to work as a medium of exchange, similar to traditional money. However, unlike traditional cash, crypto is stored in a computerised database using cryptography to secure transactions, verify transfers and control the creation of additional coins.
Bitcoin is the poster child of cryptocurrency. It was invented in 2008 by an unknown person, or group of people, in Japan who use the name Satoshi Nakamoto—I know, it sounds like the start of a fictional drama. Despite its elusive origins, the decentralised currency that works on a peer-to-peer network without the need of intermediaries or a central bank has become the cryptocurrency of choice for most worldwide.
Bitcoin is created as a reward for a process known as mining, which is partly responsible for why it’s so energy demanding. Forget shovels and pickaxes though—think of Bitcoin mining as telling computers to solve mathematical puzzles, which are getting increasingly complex. Although over the last decade, several different cryptocurrencies have popped up, from Dogecoin to Trumpcoin—we’ll stick with Bitcoin for this example.
The Bitcoin boom has caused a digital gold rush, with thousands of Bitcoin farms popping across the globe, often in huge warehouses packed with computers running across the clock, like this one in Iceland. If you’re loaded, bored of not recycling plastics and want to screw up the environment even more than it already is, you can purchase a Bitcoin farm yourself, with a modest starter pack priced just shy of £50,000.
“As the resource intensity of running Bitcoin has increased over recent years, it has become a serious concern for its potential impact on health and climate,” data scientist Alex de Vries warned in the Energy Research & Social Science journal. And it’s only getting worse. David Gerard, the author of Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, warned “Bitcoin is literally anti-efficient. More effective mining hardware won’t help—it’ll just be competing against other efficient mining hardware. Bitcoin’s energy use, and hence its CO2 production, only spirals outwards.”
Why do we humans have to be so self-destructive? I can’t write a climate change piece without using the word ‘spiral’, which is quite depressing. Bitcoin’s carbon problem hasn’t slowed its price either—which is up about $8,000 from last year, clocking at around $50,000 per token. Luckily, we have a wealth of climate-focused companies and philanthropists with the means, and will, to save us from ourselves, right?
Wrong. Despite the fact it’s evidently clear cryptocurrencies are messing up our planet, Bitcoin has still pricked the ears who claim to care about our environment. The price of Bitcoin rose sharply in February 2021 after Tesla announced an investment into the cryptocurrency industry.
Critics such as David Gerard highlight how it contradicts the electronic car firm’s previous stance on the environment. “Elon Musk has thrown away a lot of Tesla’s good work promoting energy transition.” He told the BBC, “this is very bad, I don’t know how he can walk this back effectively.”
But there is a shred of hope. Bitcoin supporters argue that its carbon footprint is overstated—if computers mining the coin can be hooked up to renewable energy then the impact will be minimised. Supposedly, the ‘environmentally conscious’ PayPal who too has dipped its toes in the cryptocurrency pot, has stated: “more energy-efficient protocols are emerging.” Of course, if it was making a killing off Bitcoin, it would say that though.
Indeed, there are persuasive arguments that Bitcoin can actually create a positive change in the face of our doomed climate crisis. Almost two-thirds of Bitcoin mining happens in China, in regions with coal-heavy power generation, the scientific journal Joule notes. If imposed with a carbon tax, it could be an effective way of decarbonising the coal-centric economy.
Whether that’s wishful thinking though is anyone’s guess. With the blockchain, it’s hard to even place the blame. Is it the companies backing the Bitcoin? Is it Satoshi Nakamoto? Or is it all of us? I guess the answer lies in weighing up the pros and cons: I’m no economist, but the idea of a truly international currency, autonomous from any central bank has its merits, but I’d rather not see the destruction of our planet for it to happen.