Can Shell's 'stress nexus' change the conversation about natural resources?

When the opportunity presented itself to interview a senior executive from one of the world’s major oil companies, my initial inclination was to pass. I’ve watched oil companies enter and exit the global sustainability scene over the past 25 years, and I haven’t been impressed. They arrive with an aspirational slogan — Beyond Petroleum, People Do — along with a CEO speech extolling the company’s commitment to a better and responsible future. And, as if on cue, environmental and human rights activists decry the messaging as disingenuous at best, fraudulent at worst. And away we go.

Then something happens — an incident or lawsuit involving indigenous people in developing countries, a spill or other “event,” or maybe just the ephemeral cycles of marketing campaigns. And the company’s outreach fades away, with only a digital archive of articles, images and blog posts to show for itself. As for the company itself, not much has changed, sustainability-wise.

But something about Royal Dutch Shell piqued my interest. I’d been hearing for the past year or so company execs talking about a “stress nexus” involving energy, water, and food, and the implications of those stresses for the environment, the economy and society. It didn’t sound quite like the same-old, same-old. It took a cross-sectoral, multidisciplinary systems view of the world: not just beyond petroleum, but beyond energy. At minimum, I thought, it was a message worth hearing out.

It’s not that Shell has been exempt from controversy. It is currently under attack by activists for its plans to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic. It is being scrutinized and criticized for its human rights record in Nigeria. Like other oil and gas exploration and production companies, it is the subject of protests related to the drilling process known as fracking.

But in a world where fossil-fuel energy companies aren’t going away any time soon, and where there’s a hunger for leadership, a longer-term vision and an open dialogue about sustainability problems and solutions, the “stress nexus” seemed a provocative conversation for Shell to be having.

And so began my recent conversation with Ruth Cairnie, Shell’s executive vice president for strategy and planning, about the link between energy, water and food: why this had become a strategic focus for Shell, and what the company hoped to achieve from talking about it.

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