Written for publication in March 2005.

As John Major rose to answer questions in the House of Commons one Tuesday afternoon in 1995, Chris Fay, then Chairman of Shell UK was flying back to Britain from the Hague. Questioned on the Brent Spar, the Prime Minister delivered a robust defence of Shell’s decision to dump it into the ocean.

Had he known what Chris Fay knew he would have been less forceful. Fay was returning to Britain to announce that Shell’s top leaders had decided to a drop the proposal in the face of a massive public protest led by Greenpeace.

This decision cost Shell a lot more than the goodwill of the British government. It undermined confidence of Shell personnel around the world in their leadership. By making Shell’s behaviour as a corporate citizen such a high profile story it drew attention to Shell’s operations in Nigeria. Within months an issue that had been smouldering quietly in the margins of public attention for some time burst into furious flame.

The Brent Spar became an icon for environmental campaigning. If Shell could be stopped in its tracks anything was possible. Oddly enough, the whole campaign was something of an accident. It began with Greenpeace’s search for an event to dramatise and draw attention to the soon to occur Fourth Ministerial Conference on the North Sea.

These regular meetings were always a focus for intense lobbying by environmental groups but mostly dealt with rather technical issues. In the absence of any other eye-catching proposals Greenpeace adopted an idea from their German branch to occupy the Brent Spar to protest the damage the oil industry was doing to the North Sea.

It became the classic David and Goliath story graphically broadcast to the world in stunning footage of what looked like Shell trying to shoot down a Greenpeace helicopter with a water cannon. For an environmental organisation positioning itself as a green David against a corporate Goliath is perfect tactics. Everyone knows two things about this story: whose side they are on and who won. No-one ever remembers what they were fighting about.

But perhaps the most important lesson from the Brent Spar was its clear demonstration of the importance of the cultural dimension in shaping public opinion. For most people, the ocean exists predominantly in the imagination. It is a cultural construct experienced through music, poetry, paintings and photographs. In European culture it is a symbol of purity, of sublime and pristine beauty.

Huge numbers of Europeans experienced the proposal as a personal assault on something they cherished deeply. The smallness of the Brent Spar in comparison to the vastness of the ocean – a point Shell and the British Government repeatedly stressed – meant nothing to them. Brent Spar loomed very large indeed in their imaginations.

The strength of the public response caught everyone by surprise – including Greenpeace. Shell and the British Government never did understand that the facts were not really the issue. The environmental community seems never to have understood the potent lessons of their accidental venture into the cultural realm.