As I’ve said elsewhere, exploration is a term that is almost too malleable to be useful, a word that has can be almost anything you want it to be. This point was driven home as I watched this Chevron advertisement at the beginning of the PBS Newshour:
We are explorers, humans are, endlessly curious, always looking for answers. Today there is a new frontier: the search for energy. Where is it? How do we find it? We’re trying to answer those questions in ways once unimaginable: cleaner ways, smarter ways, mapping uncharted territory five miles below the sea, long before a single mark is ever put in the ground so we drill more intelligently, more efficiently, more respectfully, finding energy in places thought impossible as people demand more energy we must look everywhere for it… to power the new explorers. This is the power of human energy.
The Chevron ad begins with images of iconic explorers, Admiral Richard Byrd and an Apollo astronaut, in regions well known to those of us living through the late 20th century, Antarctica and the Moon. These images are juxtaposed with an African man, perhaps Maasai, walking on the Sahel and a European or Euro-American man biking along the side of the road. The ad builds an argument of inclusiveness: explorers are not simply at the polar regions or out in space, they are us.
The ad now shifts its focus to speak about the search for energy, a “new frontier.” The shift is subtle. From speaking about this large, inclusive group of explorers, the ad now urges us to see exploration itself as a large, diverse project. That is, its not just about Antarctica and the Moon, but about places beneath the earth. There are no drills to be seen here. Indeed, the narrator tells us that Chevron is “mapping uncharted territory five miles below the sea, long before a single mark is ever put in the ground.” Guiding this narration is a montage of school children, jellyfish, and sea divers. There is a mother and child on a moped (petroleum helps get child to school, mom to work?). The ad ends with two students in a science class watching their teacher conducting a demonstration with bunsen burner (using natural gas?) as the narrator tells us that energy is required to “power the new explorers.”
No surprise that Chevron would put out an ad emphasizing how green its oil exploration has become. Chevron’s got a pretty spotty record, including an 18 billion dollar toxic wastewater dump in the Amazon rainforest by one of its acquired businesses, Texaco; poor control of toxic sites in Richmond, California which have lead to hundreds of accidents, along with 95 other Superfund sites tagged by the EPA as requiring clean-up.
This being said, Chevron seems to be trying to change the way it does business, increasing its funding of R&D in alternative energy sources. It’s own site claims that it has become the biggest supplier of geothermal energy in the world.
The ad is very forward-looking, but in emphasizing that we should think about resource extraction as a viable form of exploration, it harkens back to the 19th century where governments would routinely demand economic payoffs to “discovery expeditions” to unknown parts of the globe. Most of these economic arguments for exploration were shelved around the turn of the century for more symbolic, nationalistic goals, a practice which continued through the Soviet-NASA space race in the late 20th century.
So perhaps the Chevron ad signals that we are coming back full circle, moving into a new phase of exploration which is based upon multi-national commercial goals rather than unsustainable national competitions. Or perhaps its just a good way to sell more oil.