It’s been one month since BP’s Deepwater Horizon sank. The levels of human incompetence and political corruption that have been revealed are breathtaking. Most prominently, the role of the federal Minerals’ Management Service as pimp for the oil industry has been stripped bare for all to see.
Of course the full impact of this disaster is unclear, largely because BP will not allow scientists to calculate how much oil is being released each day and because the government will not force them to reveal this information. This is another aspect of this tragedy that has illuminated the dark, dark corners of our polity: the U.S. government is utterly dependent on a corporation it is supposed to be regulating to fix this life and land threatening disaster.
With our consequent lack of knowledge about actually how much the ocean is being polluted in mind, it’s worth looking at the live video feed of the oil gushing out of the damaging equipment 5,000 feet below the surface of the sea. It’s quite literally an infernal image. Check it out here.
In a powerful essay on the impact of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the geographer Neil Smith argues that “there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster – causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction – the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.”
Sometimes the social construction of disasters is hard to see. Take the recent earthquake in Haiti, for instance. There’s nothing anthropogenic about the shifts in tectonic plates that produce earthquakes. But there is a clear social calculus to the historical changes that put people in harm’s way when the earth begins to move.
Haiti is 99% deforested, and has experienced massive soil erosion. Many mountains in Haiti are now bare, leaving the limestone beneath the soil bare. The destruction of Haiti’s landscape is a product of the collapse of Haiti’s agricultural sector, which has led to the vertiginous decline of the country’s peasantry.
Why did this collapse happen? In the 1980s, under Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, one-third of Haiti’s cultivated land was shifted to export crops. U.S.-promoted agricultural policies that forced Haitian rice farmers to compete against subsidized agribusiness in North America cost an estimated 830,000 rural jobs according to Oxfam, while exacerbating malnutrition. The decimation of Haiti’s peasantry through such neoliberal policies led to mass displacement into urban areas. Along with the promise of abundant jobs of US-supported export processing zones, the decline of Haiti’s agricultural sector fueled rural migration into flimsy shantytowns in cities such as Port-au-Prince.
Sometimes, though, the social construction of disasters is easy to see. As I write this, the first waves of oil from the massive British Petroleum spill in the Gulf of Mexico are beginning to wash up onto the fragile marshes of the Mississippi delta in Louisiana. This promises to be a disaster of massive proportions, in an area that has already suffered grievously from man-made disasters, such as the flooding of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Let’s hope that something good comes of this catastrophe, beginning with massive reparations for the people of the area from BP and other fossil fuel companies, building to a decisive challenge to the Obama administration’s plans to open coastal waters to oil drilling, and concluding with a massive, Apollo-style project to shift the U.S. to renewable energy sources .
Following up on my last post, things have gotten even more nightmarish in the Gulf of Mexico. BP is now trying to contain the oil belching out into the Gulf of Mexico at the (approximate) rate of 42,000 gallons per day by burning it off.
What a horrible disaster – as if we needed more evidence of the need to shift to renewable energy sources. Reminds me of Werner Herzog’s infernal film Lessons in Darkness, which focuses on the burning oil wells in Iraq after the Gulf War.
In some more hopeful news, I read in the New York Times that the federal government has, after a nine year review, finally given the green light to the U.S. first extensive wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod. Now we just need to shift people’s mentalities towards less consumption…
Speaking of which, one of the best, most concise discussions of the illness of consumer culture is Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff. This brief and witty video is something that all U.S. residents should see, since we are the ones who, above all others on the planet, suffer from this malaise.
I arrived back in the U.S. still filled with elation from the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. Unfortunately, I was quickly reminded of the odds that we face in challenging the fossil fuel industrial complex.
In the news as I flew back, in fact, was the story of a massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. According to an article in the New York Times, at least 42,000 gallons of oil are leaking into the ocean from a ruptured pipeline 5,000 feet below the surface. This right on the heels of the disaster at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia.
The article says that robots are working to seal off the leaking oil well, and quotes government officials who say that the oil spill does not appear to contain crude but only a “thin sheen of oil-water mix.” But this mix is 600 miles in circumference and, as the photo above shows, is clearly visible from the air. In addition, apparently planes (government?) are dropping chemicals that are toxic to marine life onto the spill in order to break it up.
This spiral of toxicity seems typical of the way we behave in reaction to the environmental contradictions of contemporary capitalist society. We create a massive problem through our unsustainable exploitation of the planet and then we make things worse as we try to rectify the problem. As John McPhee brilliantly shows in his book The Control of Nature, we tend to view natural systems in linear, isolated, and mechanistic, when in fact they are complex, extended, and organic. The result is that our interventions to control nature always catalyze unforeseen complications.
By the way, the banner ad above the Times article promotes “advanced deep sea technology” (i.e. oil rigs) for an unidentified interest called “EnergyTomorrow.org.” If you click on the banner, you get taken to a website that allows you to lobby Congress to “allow expanded access to oil and natural gas” resources. Talk about tone deafness!