Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Crude Behavior: How Big Oil Tries to 'Artwash' Itself
A prominent performance artist accuses Big Oil of focusing more on cleaning up their image than their business’ collateral damage... and charges cultural institutions that take Big Oil sponsorship money as accomplices to that crime.
As British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig spewed enough crude into the Gulf of Mexico to be seen from space in late April 2010, the Tate Britain saw fit to celebrate their long-standing sponsorship by BP at their annual summer party. While oil stuck to shorelines and wildlife, the black mark of ecological destruction failed to stick to BP, at least for that night. Artist-activists Mel Evans and Anna Feigenbaum and the Liberate Tate crew crashed that party with performance art protesting both the polluters and those who associated with them. Now, five years later, Evans revisits the relationship between “Big Oil” and “Big Art” in Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts. Evans accuses Big Oil of focusing more on cleaning up their image than their business’ collateral damage and charges cultural institutions that take Big Oil sponsorship money as accomplices to that crime.
At the Tate summer party back in 2010, Evans and Feigenbaum gashed open bags of molasses “oil” onto the marble floors before donning BP ponchos and failing to contain the “spill.” When Tate personnel surrounded their performance with black screens to cordon off their activism, the women “thanked” the Tate for assisting with the cover-up of their botched efforts — a perfectly ad-libbed touch completing the metaphor of what the party itself was about. Evans coins the term “artwash” from predecessors “whitewash” and “greenwash” to identify this phenomenon. In contrast to the sticky, slippery mess Evans made that evening in protest, Artwash presents a clean, coherent argument that should gain traction with anyone interested in the arts, the environment, or both.
Evans identifies the normalization of a global oil-based economy as a key roadblock to taking on Big Oil. If we all need oil to run the world, then polluting the environment is simply the cost of business, right? “Crude behavior” becomes everyday behavior. Evans argues no. Humanity survived before oil and can survive after oil. “Alternative sources of heat, transport, and power both exist and evolve,” Evans writes in defense of alternative energy sources (which Big Oil and their proxies have gone out of their way to hinder in selfish self-defense). “Oil dependency is a social standard constructed daily by those who benefit from the vast profits made possible by extreme risk and exploitation of land, homes, and habitats,” Evans suggests. Myths such as the “American love affair with cars” fall apart when you look at them as marketing campaigns. Thus, Evans concludes, “[t]he use of oil can be questioned, and so too can oil sponsorship of the arts.”
But who really pays attention to sponsorship? “If the sign had no impact whatsoever,” Evans counters, “it simply wouldn’t be worth putting it up.” Evans masterfully traces how British Petroleum accentuates its “British-ness” by linking itself to the most British of cultural institutions (click to read BP’s own PR links): Tate Britain, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. BP never lets the reality of their majority ownership by US banks, institutions, and individuals get in the way of their PR fantasy. Such cultural connections give BP and similar companies “a social license to operate” (as one executive bluntly put it) that really amounts to a “license to spill” (the name Evans et al. gave to their 2010 performance piece). When BP faced its deepest criticism over Deepwater Horizon, the Tate Britain’s then-director Nicholas Serota rushed verbally to its defense, thus providing what Evans sees as “vital solidarity” in the PR war to keep oil dependency the unquestioned status quo.
The standard defense of Big Oil money for the arts as a necessary evil is that cultural institutions need it to survive. In reality, as Evans fully demonstrates with tables and charts, “Oil sponsorship is one small, replaceable thread in the multi-coloured cloth of the organisational incomes of large galleries in the UK, North America, and Europe.” Perhaps the survival argument would float if Big Oil were helping out the little guy in the culture field, but Big Oil only loves Big Art because Big Art can only provide the big PR impact it’s looking for. Evans links this part of the normalizing of oil culture (as savior of the arts) to Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal policies dating back to the 1980s. Thatcher wanted government out of the arts and touted business and the invisible hand of the market as the future funders of culture, even if that invisible hand came covered in spilled oil. Thus, the “Iron Lady," Evans concludes, “was molding the logic that would inform arts funding debates for decades."
But why art? Isn’t there an easier and more public way for Big Oil to “wash” its reputation? BP’s sponsored the British Olympic and Paralympic teams to “sportswash” its reputation, but sports doesn’t have the cultural cachet that the arts does. Evans argues that the arts serve as the high priests of the contemporary religion of good taste. Therefore, “[n]othing counterbalances the sins of harmful impacts endemic to the oil industry better than a good dose of holiness.”
In addition to this “saved by association” assertion, Big Oil’s affiliation with Big Art silences artists who would challenge the status quo of acceptance. In addition to censoring or at least blunting the bite of challenging contemporary art focused on the environment, BP logos would provide “an uncomfortable contradiction” in galleries featuring the landscapes of J.M.W. Turner and John Constable or works by ecologically minded performance artist Joseph Beuys. Art dangerous to Big Oil is undermined by sponsorship. One also has to wonder how connected to this sponsored undermining is the undermining of arts education by big business and its proxies. Just recently, UK Education Secretary Nicky Morgan had to walk back negative comments about arts degrees. If an education policy maker denies the value of the arts, then Big Oil (and business in general) has done its self-protective cover-up job far too well.
Americans might read Artwash and its British focus and say it can’t happen here, but it’s already happening. Look no further than The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new $65 million David H. Koch Plaza, or the $100 million David H. Koch Theater (home to the New York City Ballet and New York City Opera), or the $15 million David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History that, according to the website, helps answer the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Would you rather have the oil-refining, climate-denying Koch brothers (who have also funded scientific and educational institutions) or untainted cultural institutions telling you what it means to be human?
As Evans says in a video introducing her book Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts, the movement against Big Oil’s culture-based cover-up is building and just needs “a good shove” to topple BP and other giants over. On the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon spill, Liberate Tate reminded people of the human cost of Big Oil’s crude behavior by pouring oil over one of their members curled up on the marble floor of the Tate (image shown above). Art such as Human Cost is exactly what Big Oil wants to control and stop because it could awaken the masses from the petroleum-cultural-government-military complex nightmare we’re all living to our disadvantage and their huge profit. Passionate but never shrill, emotional but precise in her logic, Evans makes a compelling case for arts saving the world from its addiction to oil. If we are to imagine a new world free of Big Oil and its damaging consequences, artists and art—if we let them — will help us picture the way.
[Many thanks to the University of Chicago Press and to Pluto Press for providing me with a review copy of Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts by Mel Evans. Many thanks also to Mel Evans and Liberate Tate for providing me with the image above.]
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Brain cells snap strands of DNA in many more places and cell types than researchers previously thought.
The urgency to remember a dangerous experience requires the brain to make a series of potentially dangerous moves: Neurons and other brain cells snap open their DNA in numerous locations — more than previously realized, according to a new study — to provide quick access to genetic instructions for the mechanisms of memory storage.
The extent of these DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) in multiple key brain regions is surprising and concerning, says study senior author Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT and director of The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, because while the breaks are routinely repaired, that process may become more flawed and fragile with age. Tsai's lab has shown that lingering DSBs are associated with neurodegeneration and cognitive decline and that repair mechanisms can falter.
"We wanted to understand exactly how widespread and extensive this natural activity is in the brain upon memory formation because that can give us insight into how genomic instability could undermine brain health down the road," says Tsai, who is also a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a leader of MIT's Aging Brain Initiative. "Clearly, memory formation is an urgent priority for healthy brain function, but these new results showing that several types of brain cells break their DNA in so many places to quickly express genes is still striking."
In 2015, Tsai's lab provided the first demonstration that neuronal activity caused DSBs and that they induced rapid gene expression. But those findings, mostly made in lab preparations of neurons, did not capture the full extent of the activity in the context of memory formation in a behaving animal, and did not investigate what happened in cells other than neurons.
In the new study published July 1 in PLOS ONE, lead author and former graduate student Ryan Stott and co-author and former research technician Oleg Kritsky sought to investigate the full landscape of DSB activity in learning and memory. To do so, they gave mice little electrical zaps to the feet when they entered a box, to condition a fear memory of that context. They then used several methods to assess DSBs and gene expression in the brains of the mice over the next half-hour, particularly among a variety of cell types in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, two regions essential for the formation and storage of conditioned fear memories. They also made measurements in the brains of mice that did not experience the foot shock to establish a baseline of activity for comparison.
The creation of a fear memory doubled the number of DSBs among neurons in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, affecting more than 300 genes in each region. Among 206 affected genes common to both regions, the researchers then looked at what those genes do. Many were associated with the function of the connections neurons make with each other, called synapses. This makes sense because learning arises when neurons change their connections (a phenomenon called "synaptic plasticity") and memories are formed when groups of neurons connect together into ensembles called engrams.
"Many genes essential for neuronal function and memory formation, and significantly more of them than expected based on previous observations in cultured neurons … are potentially hotspots of DSB formation," the authors wrote in the study.
In another analysis, the researchers confirmed through measurements of RNA that the increase in DSBs indeed correlated closely with increased transcription and expression of affected genes, including ones affecting synapse function, as quickly as 10-30 minutes after the foot shock exposure.
"Overall, we find transcriptional changes are more strongly associated with [DSBs] in the brain than anticipated," they wrote. "Previously we observed 20 gene-associated [DSB] loci following stimulation of cultured neurons, while in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex we see more than 100-150 gene associated [DSB] loci that are transcriptionally induced."
Snapping with stress
In the analysis of gene expression, the neuroscientists looked at not only neurons but also non-neuronal brain cells, or glia, and found that they also showed changes in expression of hundreds of genes after fear conditioning. Glia called astrocytes are known to be involved in fear learning, for instance, and they showed significant DSB and gene expression changes after fear conditioning.
Among the most important functions of genes associated with fear conditioning-related DSBs in glia was the response to hormones. The researchers therefore looked to see which hormones might be particularly involved and discovered that it was glutocortocoids, which are secreted in response to stress. Sure enough, the study data showed that in glia, many of the DSBs that occurred following fear conditioning occurred at genomic sites related to glutocortocoid receptors. Further tests revealed that directly stimulating those hormone receptors could trigger the same DSBs that fear conditioning did and that blocking the receptors could prevent transcription of key genes after fear conditioning.
Tsai says the finding that glia are so deeply involved in establishing memories from fear conditioning is an important surprise of the new study.
"The ability of glia to mount a robust transcriptional response to glutocorticoids suggest that glia may have a much larger role to play in the response to stress and its impact on the brain during learning than previously appreciated," she and her co-authors wrote.
Damage and danger?
More research will have to be done to prove that the DSBs required for forming and storing fear memories are a threat to later brain health, but the new study only adds to evidence that it may be the case, the authors say.
"Overall we have identified sites of DSBs at genes important for neuronal and glial functions, suggesting that impaired DNA repair of these recurrent DNA breaks which are generated as part of brain activity could result in genomic instability that contribute to aging and disease in the brain," they wrote.
The National Institutes of Health, The Glenn Foundation for Medical Research, and the JPB Foundation provided funding for the research.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
- A new study proposes the "babble hypothesis" of becoming a group leader.
- Researchers show that intelligence is not the most important factor in leadership.
- Those who talk the most tend to emerge as group leaders.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.