activism books energy

Book review: Stopping Oil

Just Stop Oil has been a high profile campaign in the UK in the last year or so. It has one simple demand – to stop all new development of oil and gas. And as the debate that they started rumbles on, it’s helpful to take a moment to look at a success story. Stopping Oil tells the story of the opposition that emerged in response to New Zealand’s move into fossil fuel extraction, and how it was ultimately curtailed.

Starting around 2008, New Zealand’s government began a concerted effort to grow the country’s small fossil fuels sector. The arguments were familiar: “that economic growth is essential, that oil was an untapped resource, and it would be irresponsible not to make use of it.” As overtures were made to the industry to invest in NZ’s offshore oil and gas, activists began to organise against it under the banner of the Oil Free movement.

Some of this campaign echoed protests elsewhere, and there are certain similarities with the anti-fracking movement in the UK. Other parts found a distinctive local expression, such as the school strikes. Known as School Strike 4 Climate regionally, an impressive 3.5% of the population were mobilised to take part. There are also parts of the campaign that are uniquely Kiwi. Maori groups drew on indigenous concepts of responsibility to the land, as well as colonial era treaties that promised consultation.

As usual, there was a push-back against this organising. One of the strengths of the book is its media analysis of how the protests were reported – how protesters were stereotyped and their demands misrepresented, and how the newspapers rallied to the cause of economic growth. The government also responded, bringing in new laws to restrict protest rights. The book describes the various attempts to “control, tame and delegitimise the message and various actions of the Oil Free activists.”

It also analyses the messages that found an audience, and looks at their strengths and weaknesses. For example, the movement built alliances around oil spills, tapping into the cultural significance of the beach to New Zealanders. That helped to bring people into the campaign, but possibly at the expense of messaging around climate change or justice.

In 2018 the newly elected Ardern administration announced that there would be no new permits for oil and gas. Oil had effectively been stopped, with a couple of caveats – existing licenses remained in play, and a change of government may yet overturn the victory and restart drilling.

Stopping Oil is a useful study of this story, academic but accessible, specific but full of universal insights. It’s like a debrief on the movement and what we can learn from it, for the benefit of the rest of the world. When you look at where Just Stop Oil got to last year, it’s clear that we need to learn as much as we can from others. What works? What resonates? How do we build strategic alliances? Otherwise, we risk looking like hippies throwing soup.

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