At the Norwegian Petroleum Museum in Stavanger, Norway, visitors watch a 3D video detailing the geological history of oil, narrated by Petro, a floating orange cartoon cat head. They climb through rusty oil control centers and even read about carbon emissions and climate change. At the exit of the climate change exhibit, guests are funneled into a small black chamber and presented with two doors. One, green. “It can go well.” The other, red. “It can go wrong.” On the floor, white letters spell, “What do you think? Will things go the wrong way or the right way?” I stood and watched a man pass through the red door. I wondered which door the museum’s mascot, Petro, would take.
A bright red boating hat materialized in the distance, bobbing over the bridge. This was our sign – told to us hours earlier by Fredrik Matre, the ever-confident seventeen-year-old leader of Nature and Youth Stavanger who had welcomed us to Stavanger. Under the red hat was Gustav Paulsen, a member of the Grandparent’s Climate Action campaign and our host for two nights. We shook hands and Gustav offered to carry some of our panniers on his electric bicycle. After three days traveling by boat, our legs weren’t particularly tired, but the smile on Gustav’s face sent Morgan reaching back for her rear panniers anyway. Soon he sent Morgan off in front, pedaling away on his electric bicycle. I waited behind while Gustav mounted the high crossbar of Morgan’s Surly with the poise of a ballet dancer, excitement radiating. I hope to be half as agile when I am older.
A retired Norwegian doctor soon arrived on the pier of Gustav’s boathouse on an island outside the city of Stavanger. I had fallen on my chain wheel during the ride to Gustav’s boat house and as a result, three crescent moon gashes smiled up from my left ankle. The scarlet river streaming down my leg and black chain grease accenting the cuts made it look more gruesome than it actually was. At least, that’s what I told myself. “No stitches,” the doctor told me as he taped the opposing sides of the wounds together. He gave me extra tape, Band-Aids and told me how to identify infection and what I should do if that happened. I had always heard positive reviews of the Norwegian public healthcare system.
Next to the medical supplies were four fresh crabs, a bowl of shrimp, slabs of smoked salmon and tubes of caviar. For the rest of the evening, we sat on the pier and talked. Having spent the previous two weeks biking and tenting through Iceland, simply sitting at a table felt like luxury. Fredrik, who had already spent the afternoon talking with us and showing us around the city, chatted happily away with Gustav. There I sat, leg freshly bandaged, across from a teenager and a grandparent. One seat and nine heart stints separated two individuals fighting for climate action in Stavanger, the oil capital of Norway. As Gustav showed Morgan how Norwegians clean and eat fresh crab, I noticed his smile. And to think, we felt like the lucky ones at the table. Imagine if the world’s economy ran on reciprocity.
At one o’clock on Monday afternoon, Gustav gathered together Bjørg Tysdal Moe, the Deputy Mayor; Susanne Heart and John Peter Hernes, representatives from the Green and Conservative Parties; another grandparent (child-filled stroller in hand) and a member of Nature and Youth for us and the local media to meet. We convened at a pink car-shaped bike rack, whose designer even stopped by, for a conversation on climate change.
With the sun shining, unusual, we were told, for a Norwegian summer day, it didn’t take long for discussion to heat up. Discussion of parking lots, market places and bike racks jumped to talk of travel – of one individual’s recent vacation to Thailand. Proverbial fingers were pointed, even if never directly at one another.
“I am not criticizing you, I just can’t imagine working on climate change and wanting to get in a plane and fly to Thailand for a two week holiday,” said Gustav, plainly, in response to Conservative party representative John Peter Hernes. A few minutes later, we were back to bikes. “Because of our abundant hydro-power, most of Norway’s carbon footprint is tied to transportation. We believe that in addition to encouraging incentives for electric vehicles, we can encourage more cycling by investing in more bike racks, bike paths, and a bike-share program,” touted the Deputy Mayor. And just like in the Norwegian Petroleum Museum, the elephant in the room grew larger by the minute.
Norway is one of the world’s largest producers of oil. To prevent warming above the internationally agreed upon ‘acceptable limit’ – 2 degrees Celsius – oil cannot continue to flow. Not through the Norwegian oil rigs in the North Sea, not through the oil refineries in Saint John, New Brunswick and not through the proposed Energy East pipeline across Canada. Talking about individual flights to Thailand and city bike paths is trimming grass around the toe of the elephant. I recognize that an immediate shutdown of the oil industry will leave thousands without jobs, and still I wonder – if Norway, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, is not the first nation to shut down their oil industry, who will be?
And yet, I remained silent. My “never-interrupt-someone-while-they-are-talking” ethic trumped my urge to redirect the conversation towards larger system change. An opportunity lost, I thought as we pedaled away from the pink bike rack. Frustrated, I vowed not to let another conversation slip by in Norway without mentioning the oil industry.
“Did we really just have an entire conversation about bikes and parking lots?” Morgan laughed, incredulous, as we biked yet again past the Norwegian Petroleum Museum. A chill ran through my spine as I thought of the red and green binary inside the museum, a rainbow door feeling much more appropriate for my feelings. The future cannot be painted ‘black or white’, ‘red or green.’ Yes, climate impacts are real, they are now and they growing more destructive. But this doesn’t mean it will all go wrong. Silly museum. It’s always darkest before the dawn, I sing to myself as a reminder. (Thanks Florence and the Machine.)
One thing is certain however – ignoring the driving forces behind the climate crisis will leave us colorblind, unable to discern “it can go well” from “it can go wrong.” Knowing the city of Stavanger is proudly paving bike lanes while side-stepping the impact of the oil industry sends me hobbling, awkwardly ramming my head into the wall between the red and green doors. Ouch.
Outside the museum, old oil platforms, communication dishes and rig posts jut out of ground – a concrete jungle for bikes and skateboards. Graffiti of every hue colors the metal and cement, a conflagration of refreshing complexity. Someone’s Sistine Chapel, I think to myself as I zip through on my bicycle, arcs of metal around me. Reductionist doorways, thankfully, were nowhere in sight.
“A door is green. A door is red.”
8″ x 11″