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sHell No: Deniers Double Down on Purity Test Trolling

July 2015

Cover Story

sHell No: Deniers Double Down on Purity Test Trolling

by James Wells

James Wells is the author of “The Great Symmetry,” a science fiction novel that may be set 300 years in the future but is definitely about our world right now.

Protests against Shell’s plan for Arctic drilling have received global coverage. From the actions of kayaktivists around Seattle to Shell’s annual stockholder meeting, Shell has been receiving a lot of unwanted attention when it comes to the Arctic.

When this much action is being taken to protect our climate and environment, a backlash is totally expected. But what’s interesting is the specific type of response — Purity Test Trolling. While that’s an annoying form of obfuscation, the fact that this is the main response of deniers is revealing. If the Purity Test is all they’ve got, they’ve got nothing.

I first wrote about The Purity Test in 2012. The fundamental concept of the Purity Test is:

1. If you have any environmental impact at all, then you have no standing to express concern about any environmental impact anywhere, no matter how egregious.


2. Everyone has environmental impacts,


3. No person has any standing to act to protect the environment.

The tactic remains the same as ever, but the use of Purity Test trolling has escalated.

When hundreds of kayaktivists conversed on Seattle to protest Shell’s plans to use the Post of Seattle for their Arctic drill rig, the purity trolls came out in force. “You’re in plastic kayaks,” they said, “which are made from oil. So you can’t protest any aspect of drilling for oil.”

This was nicely riposted in The Stranger an independent Seattle paper, with

“Yes, We Protest Shell Oil with Products Made from Oil. Duh. Now Join Us.”

As Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes told The Nation when asked about the “but we all use fossil fuels” argument: “Of course we do, and people in the North wore clothes made of cotton picked by slaves. But that did not make them hypocrites when they joined the abolition movement. It just meant that they were also part of the slave economy, and they knew it. That is why they acted to change the system, not just their clothes.”

Of course we all have impacts — that’s the point. Our mission is to find ways to change our energy and other systems so they have less impact on the world around us.

Still it’s easy to get sucked into the morass with a denier. The best thing to do is to identify the tactic — it’s Purity Trolling — and just move on.

And — take encouragement. Because the Purity Test is a kind of last refuge of diversion from the issue at hand.

Let’s just have a quick look at a few facts about Shell’s plans for drilling the Arctic.

Shell Oil plans to go into one of the harshest weather environments in the world, which also happens to be a stunningly sensitive area of critically important ecological resources. Their spill response plan includes use of an oil containment dome from the Arctic Challenger — a dome which was “crushed like a beer can” during a trial in the calm waters of Bellingham Bay.

The adventures of Shell’s drill rig the Kulluk, which wrecked off the coat of Alaska, are well known, especially thanks to excellent reporting by McKenzie Funk.

And all of this is going on as we watch the massive oil spill off Santa Barbara, an area with very mellow conditions where the oil industry has had decades to get it right but clearly can’t.

No reasonable person can make an argument on the merits that Arctic drilling is wise and prudent.

All they have left is Purity Test Trolling.

So that’s good news, in a sense. Ignore the deniers and their obfuscation. The sHell No protests are doing what they should — shining a bright light on plans that, if allowed, will inevitably destroy one of the few pristine places that remains on our Earth.

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