RODDICK: Shareholders Protest Shell Oil
The most ridiculous thing I've read in ages popped up in the New York Times this week. "News stopped happening, oh, a good two or three months ago," wrote the appropriately named Michael Wines.Now that it's the electronic media that break the stories, more conventional media such as newspapers and TV news are fishing for ways to hang on to their audiences. And they're increasingly opting for "soft" news -- health and consumer stories, crime, celebrity gossip. Which makes me even more convinced that some news stories are getting buried because they are simply too big for the media and their public to wrap their heads around. I'm sure that's the case with NASA's Cassini probe which is headed for Saturn this October powered by a payload of 72.3 pounds of plutonium-238 mounted on top of a notoriously unstable Titan IV rocket.Anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott told me one pound of plutonium-238 evenly distributed in the earth's atmosphere is sufficient to lethally dose everyone on the planet with deadly radiation, NASA's claims to the contrary. So "lethal" x 72.3 = pretty hopeless. When I wrote about Cassini a few weeks ago, I was still reeling from the implications of the project but once I started trying to follow up the story, I was spooked by the almost total ignorance of NASA's plans, even among those environmental organizations that we would normally rely on to at least have some kind of back-up material. Only John Brierly at the Yorkshire office of the CND knew what I was talking about, and he too was gobsmacked that this expedition was forging ahead with so little public awareness about its potential for global disaster.John put me on to Bruce Gagnon at the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice, which is coordinating international resistance to Cassini, including non-violent attempts to occupy the launch pad in October. For three years, the Coalition has been trying to place stories in the media about nukes in space to so little effect that Gagnon says it's impossible not to see censorship at work. He can't even get anti-Cassini articles placed by a popular writer like Helen Caldicott in newspapers that are usually eager to publish her. Is it conceivable that anti-nuclear activism strikes people as a relic of the Cold War, meaning it's old hat and not really front page stuff? Or is there something more sinister at work?Certainly, the information that Bruce Gagnon relays about NASA is enough to reawaken any latent nightmares about nuclear holocausts. In fact, if there wasn't ample documentation backing him up, I'd feel like I'd just dreamed my way through the umpteenth Alien sequel.NASA has a new Bible. Its full title is Mining the Skies: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets and Planets. Plutonium-238 will provide the power for nuclear mining stations on the Moon and Mars. The US Space Command compares itself to Christopher Columbus.The badge which its operatives wear on their sleeves proudly proclaims "Master of Space". They pledge to protect military, civil and commercial highways to the Moon and Mars, "like navies protecting sea commerce". But it's the line in the Space Command mission statement about "the ability to deny others the use of space" that sets my alarm bells ringing.It looks like humankind's first exports as space traders are going to be war and greed. If we consider Cassini as the stalking horse, the test case for military plutonium in space, then we have a good reason to stop the Saturn probe. Once I would have thought it ludicrous that my grandchildren might see Star Wars as a work of prophecy. More fool me!Like I said, perhaps some stories are so big they encourage feelings of ineffectuality, rather than inspire activism. The US military-industrial complex is a tough nut to crack at the best of times.Fire it into space and it becomes even more elusive. But if you look back over recent history, you'll see that the righteous outrage of thousands of ordinary people can make a difference. Eighteen months ago, a multi-national like Shell would have seemed a hell of a lot less vulnerable going into its shareholders' meeting than it does today.Now Shell is under pressure from church pension funds and Pirc, the campaigning investment advisory service which holds 12 per cent of Shell's stock, to clarify its commitment to environmental protection and human rights.Shell's managing director supports such a commitment but the sticking point for the company, as with other multi-nationals who are trying to change their ways, is the issue of transparency, or how far to publicly open up their operations to verify that they are actually doing what they say they're doing. Pirc has proposed a resolution for the shareholders' meeting on May 14.Among its key points: make someone on the committee of managing directors personally responsible for seeing that Shell honors its commitments to the environment and human rights; establish an effective auditing process to guarantee that words and actions match; and publish a progress report to shareholders, specifically in relation to Shell's operations in Nigeria, by the end of 1997. Pirc is actually making Shell's life easier.If it adopts this resolution, the company won't have to lose any sleep about whether it really is turning its words into actions. What a drag then that the board of directors is advising shareholders to reject the resolution. Their action raises a rather obvious question: if you're giving transparency the thumbs-down, what do you have to hide? Still, even if Pirc's proposals aren't approved the mere fact that they have been made is cause for celebration.How often do you hear obligations to shareholders invoked as the reason why a company is unwilling to change? And yet here we are on the brink of an era where it is those very shareholders, and their pension funds, who are demanding ethical behavior on the part of the companies they're investing in.I think such a shareholder revolution makes perfect sense. After all, how comfortable will your old age be if you're spending it perched on a nest egg feathered with blood money?