The Spill in Our Soul (Part One): Trauma and Industrial Violence in Louisiana’s Gulf Coast

Outrage over the North Dakota Access Pipeline have shown a remarkable public outcry against dirty energy.  Echoes of the BP oil disaster, spills in the Amazon, the decimated Niger River Delta, and Exxon Valdez haunt our cultural memory.  I wrote this very long essay in April of 2012.  Re-posted here in a multi-part series.

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It has been said that there is a brave new world just beyond the horizon. Deep below the surface, teams of men are drilling to record depths to quench our unquenchable thirst for oil. It has been a big initiative brimming with confidence in our energy security; we were comforted by the luxuries it afforded and the illusions of safety that were peddled. Then something went wrong. The 2010 blowout of the Deepwater Horizon shook our Gulf. The oil crept far away from its source, and for far longer than anyone even feared it would. It seemed unending, desperate, profound; and it left a lasting act of industrial violence. The final count was 5 million barrels, or 210 million gallons of crude oil.(1) This was the second largest oil spill in the world, second only to the intentional burn by Iraqi troops in the Persian Gulf War. At the peak of the spill, the oil had reached approximately 700 miles of coastline stretching from Louisiana to Florida.(2) And in the incident, as well as the aftermath of it, the industrial disaster distinguishes itself from any natural catastrophe. Because it is man-made, the catastrophe has the dimension of an act of perpetrated violence. The words “spill” and “accident” somehow don’t cover its magnitude, making it sound like some kind of snafu on the way to the presumed goals of industrial inevitability.

No, this story has the characteristics and social actors of a crime – of perpetrators and victims. It has colonists and colonized. Privileged and marginalized. And we often find ourselves caught up between these sides in this ongoing drama. For local communities, this disaster has stakes  apocalyptic in magnitude. Families, towns, and a way of life are endangered by industrial genocide. For a community that has survived many hurricanes, this disaster has a whole new dimension with much more menacing consequences.(3) Another way to say it is that this is a story of violence; a story about the lies we tell about our violence and the violence we have to back up our lies. It is a story that touches everyone living within the global oil economy, begging of us the vital questions of our existential relationship to the juggernaut of the industrial economy.

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I exist because of oil. I used to say, when asked what race or culture I am, I say “I’m a son of Exxon and AT&T.” Born into a white and petty bourgeois house in the energy capital of Houston, Texas, a model of the late 20th Century American city, and forth largest in the nation, the analogy seems like the obvious choice. The city conveys a briefcase-oriented economy, and largely, I feel myself to be a product its corporate culture. It consists of Skin Bracer and All Bran, perpetual air conditioning, suits, golf, squash games and theme restaurants; emblems of a work-ascetic culture that promises much to the world in the name of progress, the brain of technological wonder. It’s the kind of world Henry Miller feared for its disembodied one-dimensionality, an Air Conditioned Nightmare. Like most urban citizens with this odd heritage, I feel half-bereft, dislocated. I don’t feel my bare feet in the cold mud often. I don’t have a sense for the landbase, in large part because I have existed in an oil culture, a car culture, a culture of cultivated spaces and virtual realities, a culture of Exxon and AT&T. Normalcy means displacement; a world I see all around me, a world out of joint, full of bumbling creatures that are not as rational as the systems and machines they work within, and live dependent on. Those science fiction warnings from half a century ago look not so far off the mark.

 
My father recently (semi)-retired after more than forty years working in the oil business. A civil engineer, he is a kind of superstar in his field where he has been an innovative leader in research and development of offshore oil drilling. He worked in his corner office for Exxon for 25 years, and then with other, smaller firms, in Houston. (Much later he would be part of a team in Houston’s “energy corridor” on I-10, where BP’s Houston headquarters are located along with a slew of other consulting technology firms, working on various shoot-from-the-hip tactics to cap the spewing well more than a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf.) As a child, I grew up surrounded by the seeming omnipotence of oil, surrounded by toy trucks and tankers with the company logo on them. Exxon was our bread and butter, and my dad a prized company man. Visits to his office in the 1980s yielded a kind of technological utopian wonder – bulky computers, blueprints and scale models of recent constructions, big plans for a developing world. These trips were exciting voyages to a frontier where the aura of power and pride was not lost on my young eyes.

 
The modern industrial world is an oil world. It’s hard to imagine a life without the products of that black sludge. There is a sense of inevitability of the fossil fuel world that has conveyed the unalterable values of progress and destiny. But this aura is not without its faults. Sometimes things go wrong. I was twelve when my faith in oil began to wane as I witnessed television footage of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. It was a crisis of faith for my nascent mind, as it was for many. The pictures of puffins and otters and fish covered with the crude goo shocked my system. In aftermath of the disaster, my dad would minimize the damage with stories. He’d quote vague corporate statistics about how wildlife had bounced back and how the Prince William Sound was doing better than ever. These stories made it sound as if oil had done the Sound some kind of favor, as if crude oil was some sort of healing balm for ailing nature. He cursed the government for its regulations, the EPA, the alarmist environmentalists, and the “biased” media. For me, there was something wrong with this picture. And I seemed to spill out from my womb of oil, drifting from this worldview on some clandestine current.

 

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Houston’s Energy Corridor

There is a gulf between us all in the oil world. When things are functioning well, the conspiracy of surfaces manages to suspend the fantasy of Lord Man’s omnipotence. It is a symbolic space that we swim in, a space that protects us from other realities. When things go wrong, this faith breaks down. It may even be a kind of apocalyptic shaking of our consciousness that alerts us to the illusion of ourselves. The 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico is an exemplary of this shaking. The timing and location of the spill converge in a quasi-mythical space of the Louisiana Coast. For there are others in this story, others looking back from across the bayou; folks with a different kind of epistemology, a different kind of ontology, a different sense of reality.

 
Among these others are a wild assortment of coastal peoples, some living largely subsist hunting and fishing and crabbing along the wetlands of the Mississippi Delta. It’s a rich roux of cultures; a roux now profoundly endangered because of the oil industry. Among this marshy soup are Anglos, Cajuns, Creoles, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Native American tribes of the Louisiana Gulf Coast, including the Houma and the Atakapa-Ishak. These are peoples with a fundamentally different relationship with the landbase. They are not sons and daughters of oil companies. They don’t sit in front of computers and models. They are sons and daughters of the bayou. They have their hands in crawfish and crabs. Their culture, their music, and their language all reflect a profundity of place that is alien to the worldview of the capitalist semiotic universe.

 
In my research, I discovered how these communities, and their landbase, are facing potential genocide in the fallout from the spill. My investigation has really hit home, and I feel myself torn apart, and how the world is torn apart and helplessly suspended between these worlds; between colonial and colonized, between industrial economies and foraging economies; and between two heritages, and two different realities. It especially hits home knowing my wife is a descendant of Atakapa-Ishak people, a federally unrecognized tribe that was nearly wiped out a century ago due to this precise gulf of realities between the colonizer and the colonized. I witness people familiar across the proverbial bayou, and find myself stretching out, trying to make sense of this hole in the world. Between the global economic center and the margins is the spill in our soul, a gap of unmourned violence, and the real question of our place in this world.

 
This essay is an exploration including the spill, but pointing beyond it, seeking to ask the critical questions of what it means to live consciously and sustainably with the landbase with the language of eco-liberation psychology. In seeking to bear witness to this spill, we seek to understand our own relationship with the land, to step beyond our passivity; and if we are able to ask the right questions about our dependency on the cycles of abuse and dependency, we can glean a richer, deeper, and more profound sense of the land and the community. Only in the cracks of this mask of unmourned violence can we find new life beyond the spill in our soul.

 

The Industry

What is offshore drilling? Let’s first outline some of the facts. We know that there have been 50,000 wells drilled in the Gulf of Mexico for the last 60 years; the first by Kerr-McGee in 1946. We know that the Gulf of Mexico is the largest single source of domestic oil in the United States, accounting for 30 percent of supply today. In the last decade, the MMS,(4) the regulatory body in charge of signing new drilling leases, has opened deeper and deeper waters to offshore drilling. Deeper water requires much more research, development, and giant rigs that each cost billions of dollars to build. Deeper water promises high risk and high reward for the companies competing for new leases. The race to deep water became a race to a new frontier, not unlike western railroad expansion or the gold rush in times past.

 

British Petroleum was in the thick of the race. Former CEO Lord Browne, dubbed “The Sun King of the Oil Industry” by the London Financial Times, expanded the company through mergers and acquisitions, buying Arco and Amoco, to become the third largest oil company. They did something curious at the same time re-naming themselves BP, saying it stood for “beyond petroleum,” and promoted a new green mandala-shaped logo. Instead of fighting the media war on global warming along with the rest of the oil lobby,(5) BP sided with a consumer concern for the environment. This infuriated Exxon CEO Lee Raymond as well as Shell. But as a media campaign, it was just that, a conspiracy of images, what environmental activists call “green washing.”(6) In 2001, BP spent $200 million promoting their logo and slogan, far and away more than they ever spent on developing clean energy.(7)

 

It’s a bit ironic that the company enforced office building rules on cell phone use and smoking, as well as parking lot speed limits; but was demonstrated carelessness in industry. It was part of a system of images, denial, and a tight control on the narrative of the industry that would be all too apparent in the Gulf spill and the accidents preceding it. The Texas City explosion in 2005, the 2005 Thunderhorse rig mishap in the Gulf, and the Alaskan North Slope spill in 2006, all forewarned of a company that had been focused on growth and image rather than efficiency and safety. This was a company that faced record fines and had the worst safety records for refineries for the previous decade.

 

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Thunderhorse, one of the largest offshore rigs ever constructed on transport

 

The consistent narrative here is one of ambition, hubris and greed. Or, as Mike Tidwell, author of Bayou Farewell, called it upon boating around the thousands of rigs standing and floating offshore, “a brave new realm of fresh ingenuity and stubbornly unrepentant pride.”(8) This pride was made evident in the details of the Deepwater Horizon incident. After it exploded on April 22, 2010, BP revealed that it had no significant plan for cleaning up oil in the Gulf, enraging the world. They had a standard document prepared that had cookie-cutter responses for dealing with all spills. The manual for Gulf spills had on it a picture of a walrus – a fact that riled Congress as they grilled executives asking if they’d ever seen a walrus in Louisiana.(9)

to be continued in Part Two …

 

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NOTES

(1) Antonia Juhasz, Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011), 85.

(2) Ibid, 94

(3) Ruby Ancar, an Atakapa-Ishak native of Grand Bayou Village says of this, “Nature you can’t control. We can’t control a hurricane, and people cannot control a tornado. But when you have things that Man made that destroys a person’s way of life … or an entire village, or entire community, that’s uncalled for.” “BP oil spill threatens future of indigenous communities in Louisiana.” Democracy Now! June 7, 2010.

(4) Minerals Management Service, part of the Department of the Interior, in now re-named the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

(5) It has been well-reported that the oil industry gives away large donations to groups promoting global warming denial and mystification. The biggest funder is Exxon, which gives money to conservative think tanks like The Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity, which feed the media contrivances of doubt, re-framing climate change as a kind of pseudo-event that can be debated.

(6) Loren C. Steffy, Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011).

(7) Juhasz, 213-214.

(8) Mike Tidwell, Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003), 305.

(9) Juhasz, 232.

 

 

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