Preface: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
As the crude drifted ashore, so did uncomfortable questions about the industry out there. All the greenwashing and public relations seemed to blow apart and confirmed that the industry lives in an alternate universe. Everything speaks of a dissociated world where things just don’t add up. Such as it is with oil.
We have this strange relationship with this carbon goo. We all use it. It’s in our cars, roads, asphalt, rubber, plastics, fertilizers and fuels. The world population increases incredibly with the usage of oil. If oil is an orange, we are its mold. But we don’t want to see oil. Too actually see oil is like seeing shit. We make it, it’s useful, but it’s final reality is somehow denied, flushed somewhere out of sight. We tuck it away, like all industrial unpleasantness, beyond a hedge row, on the other side of the tracks, in a landfill. With oil, as with lots of things, it really is out of sight, out of mind. Such as it is with many parts of this story – it’s about what has been hidden, what has been dug up, and what must be dissociated from. We aim to take the most advantage of this substance, yet in some carefree bubble deny that it has any ill effects. Out of sight, out of mind, and into an unconscious militantly guarded . This is perhaps the most significant thing about greenhouse gases and climate change. It’s not readily apparent to the senses. Fossil fuel fumes in the air can be plausibly denied if invisible. In a sense, when we had oil in our water, it just became harder to deny what has been occurring all the time. It’s somehow more empirically real, but this was only when we are alerted to these bizarre and precarious juxtaposition of images – of dolphins and pelicans covered in the black tide. This horror made the denial all the more surreal and absurd.
It’s hard to hide 5 million barrels of oil from the public, but both BP and the government tried to minimize its knowledge. Planes were denied charters and journalists were restricted by the coast guard. BP had learned from Exxon’s mistakes with Valdez. They understood that things got much worse once the public had seen the National Geographic pictures of birds soaked in crude. Some media got through, but it wasn’t because of lack of attempts to control the narrative of the spill. One example of this is when independent researchers found evidence of giant plumes of oil drifting beneath the surface. The NOAA and BP denied this, and once shown the evidence, backpedaled and relabeled the plumes “ephemeral clouds.”
BP was charged with taking responsibility for the spill, but it did just as much to contain the image of the company. BP spent $93 million in advertisement between April and July of 2010, three times as much as the same span of time the previous year. Compare this to the $29 million spent on “safer operations research” for the previous three years combined. And they spent nothing on research into spill cleanup technology for those previous three years. $0. (1)
In the 86 days that there was a hole in the bottom of the sea, BP managed to collect some of the oil with boom and relief wells, burn some off, and finally used dispersants on the rest. Something north of 2 million gallons of dispersant were used, much of it applied directly to the water. It had been widely discussed the dispersant, called Corexit 9500, (get it? corrects-it?) was toxic, and had been already banned in the U.K. The EPA urged BP to use another, less toxic substance, but they had nothing of the quantity available as Corexit 9500, which they had millions of gallons of and could not use. This dispersant is an industrial detergent, and does what it says it does – breaks apart the oil into microbial parts. Instead of the sludge on the surface, the dispersant spreads out the oil, much of it sinking in the form of tar balls to the bottom of the Gulf. Workers on the Gulf at the time were forbidden from talking to the press about their health when many suspected the toxicity of the Corexit. (This had precedent, after all, because Exxon used a similar substance called Corexit 9527A in the Valdez disaster. That substance contained a chemical called 2-BTE, or 2-butoxyethenol, and the affected workers developed what they call the “Valdez crud,” which they continue to suffer from in Cordova, Alaska.) The community’s fears were validated by EPA whistleblower Hugh Kaufman, who claimed the EPA knew that Corexit would increase the toxicity of the oil. But out of other comfortable options, the EPA let BP use the substance. They then sprayed it directly into the flowing wellhead. The question is why. The government claimed shortly thereafter that the oil had vanished. The public wasn’t convinced. Five million barrels don’t just disappear, even thought that bespeaks of the adolescent corporate fantasy. Local fishermen grew suspicious of the secrets that continued to lurk under the water. Some call it the “blue plague.” Their concern is real, as scientists take core samples of the ocean floor, finding an 30-mile radius of sunken oil around the wellhead, as well as oil particulates in the microfauna upon which the microfauna will eventually consume later on in the food chain (macrofauna including ourselves).(2) Locals all seem to know that the real effect of the dispersants was dispersing the media. The horror still lurks under the water.
The thing that is striking about this story is the continual denial of the landbase by these corporate interests. The corporate state response and management of the land continues to fail to understand it. The industry applies large scale measures; trying to fix technological mishaps with more technology, mismanagement with more mismanagement with the bumbling attempts to fix the hole. We remember their names – “top kill,” and “junk shot,” which became symbols of an industry clueless and out of control. The fisheries meanwhile were halted just at the start of shrimping season. The corporation’s rule was complete, yet incompetent, as they hired the fishermen to help them sop up the evidence of the industrial violence that put them out of business. The irony and pain is not lost on the locals, but they were in a bind of helplessness. The use of Corexit was not scientific, but primarily ideological, preserving the aura of power of industrial omnipotence. It is a magic trick, or like wiping the prints off the murder weapon. By dispersing the oil, claimants have a much more difficult case to make against the company.
But it does something much more fundamental to our perception of reality, warping around our perceived dependence on the dark teat of oil, and creating a gulf of denial, and a kind of battered wife syndrome that protects the perpetrating power. When the spill happened, I was working as a therapist in a psychiatric hospital performing group therapy with schizophrenic patients. One of them professed to know much about the oil industry, as many people in Houston generally do. He told me the virtues of having oil in the gulf, that oil is good for the “algae,” (a freshwater plant), and that these microbes will eat up all the oil and benefit the ecosystem. One could say that these were the mere rantings of a mad man. But they are the exact sentiments of “sane” people who minimize violence and act as though the perpetration were somehow beneficial.(3)
I looked into what are known as “oil-eating microbes,” finding some truth to it, and they do exactly what their namesake says they do. However, the first problem is that there are far too few of these microbes to consume that much oil. And the second problem is that oil-eating microbes deplete the oxygen in the water in large swaths called dead zones which asphyxiate other species.(4) These dead zones have been plaguing the Mississippi Gulf for years as runoff from the mighty watershed brings phosphate-rich fertilizers (petroleum products) and pesticides down from the heartland and dumps them into the Gulf. So this man was wrong, just as some of the right-wing pundits who claimed that the oil leak was basically natural and that the oil leaks up from the bottom of the Ocean all the time, and that the “ocean can handle it.”(5) This sort of turning reality upside down it typical of industrial thinking, including the trademark defense mechanisms – denial, rationalization, minimization, and turning the conversation around to make it look like the colonial/industrial power is doing the land and the people a favor.
It was a bit perfect symbolically that BP CEO Tony Hayward would come to represent everything the locals in Louisiana hate. The prep school boyish looks and demeanor of this English gentleman echoed the deep past when the British Empire exiled the Acadian people from their home in Nova Scotia in the 1750s. Again they were alienated by a foreign power, and their plight could not be sufficiently empathized with by the disconnected corporate worldview that had been pillaging them for years. This plight was crystallized when Hayward told The Guardian, “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”(6)
We are faced with a fearful numbness to disaster, particularly when it is human-made. We seem no longer to see what is right in front of our noses. Robert Jay Lifton called it “psychic numbing,” a condition where we fail to identify with others. We fail to think as much as we fail to feel. Seeing the executives play the blame game in Congress, regurgitate slogans and canned responses, and as Congressman Henry Waxman called it, play “kick the can down the road,”, was emblematic of a failure of cognition as much as a failure of empathy. It’s like when Hannah Arendt wrote of Adolf Eichmann in her seminal book Eichmann in Jeruselem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of someone else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.”(7) Likewise, James Hillman writes, “the question of evil, like the question of ugliness, refers primarily to the anaesthetized heart, the heart that has no reaction to what it faces, thereby turning the variegated sensuous face of the world into monotony, sameness, oneness.”(8)
In the discourse around the spill, we anesthetize it, putting up filters from understanding it, unready to leave our comfortable fantasies. It is as if the oil itself conjures a dissociative plume in our epistemology. In their magnificent book Toward Psychologies of Liberation, Watkins and Shulman write that this form of denial in the psyche of a culture of perpetuated violence leads to a worldview that is not just banal, but one that we can disavow even being a part of. “The world itself appears diminished. Not only is the integrity of affects surrendered, but also the complex cognitive understandings that rely on affects, compromising our capacity to understand what is happening intrapsychically and in the world around us. One pretends to not see and to not know what one does in fact see and know.” (9) We seek what oil brings, its wealth and products, but deny its consequences. It seems to fit the mythos around oil, which turns reality upside down along with the processes of life and death. The substance, after all, is a fossil fuel, literally liquid death. Craig Chalquist notes the mythic roots of oil as an underworld substance:
“Petroleum” goes back to Greek words that mean “rock oil.” “Gasoline” refers to khaos, and “crude,” from the Latin crudus, and to “rough,” “raw,” and “bloody.” “Carbon” has a number of early referents: “black,” “burnt,” “singe,” “fire,” “coal,” “brazier,” and “smoke.” “Derrick” means “gallows” and “hangman.” The vocabulary of petroleum draws us down into a mythology of the Underworld, the place of Pluto … the dark death god whose Roman name means “wealth.” … To extract petroleum from the depths in order to burn it reverses the great geochemical cycles that built life on this planet. Plants and diatoms that poured oxygen into the air took its carbon down into the earth for safe storage. This cleared the way for other forms of life, including ours. When internal combustion (now there’s a metaphor!) releases carbon back into the atmosphere, the wheel of evolution on which all life depends spins backwards toward entropy, degeneration, and death. No wonder Native Californians in the Great Central Valley once used petroleum to make death masks.”(10)
What are the death masks like today? – the stonewalling testimonies to congress, the layers of crust, of anesthetically frozen hearts, the willful incapacity to feel and see what is right under our noses, the willful spraying of toxicity into a Gulf, an unwillingness to recognize limits, or to identify with others? This is how industry today, stripped of its veneer of economics, looks fearfully like holocaust.(11) This is more of a mechanical villainy than a maniacal one – dull, quiet, banal in its procession and its incapacity to access empathy for a dying coast where profits are privatized but risk is socialized. As Chris Hedges writes of this bureaucratic mind, evoking the Freudian version of the mythology, bureaucrats “serve Thanatos, the forces of death, the dark instinct Sigmund Freud identified within human beings that propels us to annihilate all living things, including ourselves. These deformed individuals lack the capacity for empathy. They are at once banal and dangerous. They possess the peculiar ability to organize vast, destructive bureaucracies and yet remain blind to the ramifications.”(12) It seems that if, as Marshall McLuhan said, “all forms of violence are quests for identity,”(13) the reinforcement of the bureaucratic-industrial identity comes at a violent price; one demands the plume of complicit silence.
In all of our simulacra where all our desires are met by the market, the only thing that can shatter our anesthetized heart is a jolt of pure shock and awe in the form of catastrophe. BP tried diligently to manage the narrative, both as a public relations move, a litigious move, and to preserve the public faith in the industry. When Congressman Markey ordered BP to make a live camera feed of the wellhead available on the internet, he allowed what had been denied – a glimpse of the hole in the underworld. The layers of thanatos, numbness, anesthesia and passivity broke apart. And the community became outraged. We began to see the other side of the story, the other side of the gulf between us; a far richer, surprising, and soulful culture of inhabitation parallel to the slick industrial veneer of Louisiana the oil colony.
When our industrial culture shows its failures, we have an opportunity to ask the right questions about industry. We have an opportunity to question our limits, our pride, the way we construct our meaning and culture. Jung called this a kind of necessary reckoning with our “Promethean debt,” writing, “… our progressiveness, though it may result in a great many and delighted wish-fulfillments, piles up an equally gigantic Promethean debt which as to be paid off from time to time in the form of hideous catastrophes.”(1) More than a simple failure, however, catastrophe begs the question of our fundamental relationship with the earth. The symbolic relationship with petroleum shifts. Our habitual use of this Promethean symbolic space is to draw up the oil, and then sublate the prima materia as a kind of burnt offering, a tribute no nothing less than a fantasy of privilege in the biosphere. When this symbolic relation is disrupted, however, as in this catastrophic happening that poisoned large swaths of the Gulf, this same substance no longer signifies freedom, or prosperity, wealth or power. It becomes, rather, more what it really is – ancient and noxious goo from the underworld. When this carbon is not hidden away in the sky, and instead spread over our wetlands in liquid form, it pulls our awareness back to the land, to a different sensibility of place, to a cultural order that is more varied, more ancient, and more rooted than the post-industrial spectacle could possibly conjure for itself.
There is another culture, another version of truth, a living culture in the Gulf coast with an entirely different symbolic relation with the land that is more open to its living presence, the methectic workings of the bayou, participating in centuries-old imaginal interactivity and subsistence life that it affords. The oil industry brings an agenda that seeks no responsiveness to the landbase. The oil industry is more than just a neutral technology because technology is never neutral; it always comes with an agenda, a worldview. These contrasting techne make coastal Louisiana is an excellent case in contrasting epistemologies, contrasting attitudes to the landbase, and a case where we find that the environment responds to us in the way we treat it, or as Chalquist wrote, “Nature turns toward us the face that we turn toward it.”(2) Cultures that are particularly embedded in the landbase demonstrate imaginal interactivity, a great trust for the water and the life that it provides. On the other hand, cultures that impose a heavy utilitarian and mechanistic view of the landbase are likely to encounter that land as hostile and recalcitrant, a place that needs to be tamed or improved.
The Louisiana Gulf Coast has been branded by the oil industry in a profound way since exploration began in the early twentieth century in along the coast and the Achafalya Basin, long before the rigs took to open water. Until this time, much of the coast was isolated from the global market geographically, culturally and linguistically. Industry, war, and public school introduced the markets and Anglophone world. Oil has been a mixed blessing, turning a myriad of faces to the landscape – bringing industry jobs on the one hand, and alienating a culture from the land and a subsistence economy steadily throughout the decades.
The oil industry was first met with careful suspicion of outsiders and city folk, exemplified in a rarely seen 1948 film called Louisiana Story by Robert Flaherty, (who did much to invent the documentary form with his Nanook of the North in 1922.) Louisiana Story depicts a Cajun boy and his pet raccoon living on the swamp. The boy becomes enchanted by some interlopers, oil workers, who come to drill in his neck of the woods. The locals had never seen or heard such a monstrosity, but show more curiosity than enmity until the derrick blows and spills oil all over the swamp. The workers spend days capping the blowout, and finally retreat to rest. Then something curious happens – the boy sneaks up onto the capped well and reaches into his shirt to pull out a sack of salt which he pours onto the wellhead. He then pulls out a frog from his shirt, mutters something inaudible (at least to my ears) and puts it back. (This is a Cajun folk superstition. When you don’t want someone to return to your home, once they leave, you are to spill some salt on the doorway to curse them to not come back. The boy was cursing the oil to stay underground.) The boy goes to tell the oil men that the well will be okay from now on because he performed a charm. They laugh at the boy and his face sours on these men and becomes distrustful of the oil men and their crazy contraptions. The film ends with the father opening Christmas presents with the family. The message is that the oil brings wealth, so Louisiana can accept the industry.(3)
It turns out that the industry has brought little wealth to Louisiana, and the coast has remained one of the poorest areas in the United States. The state is a paradise for privatization just as much as it is for sportsmen – the state gets very few royalties from the oil industry. The money slips through like the oil – going somewhere else in more refined states. Louisiana Story was another piece of disinformation. Far from a “documentary,” it was produced by Standard Oil.
Acadian people are long accustomed to their status as marginalized people. The subjugation to the corporate power plays like an old familiar record. They originally escaped political strife amid the Catholic-Huguenot struggle in France, settling along the wild coast of Eastern Canada and Nova Scotia. They made a subsistence living fishing those rich waterways until the French lost the Seven Years War (The French and Indian War) in the 1750s. The British knew that to disrupt a community the best way was to move them around. It was a tactic the Americans would use against native peoples time and again, most famously in the Trail of Tears. The Acadian diaspora lasted for a couple of decades and those communities were spread throughout the colonies. These Acadians, however, facing intolerance, language barriers, and a great sadness over their dislocation, found each other again in Louisiana, among other French speakers. For the genteel, the swamp is dark, dank, and inhospitable. But for a culture that bonded over a great sense of common loss, over a tribal sense of mutual aid, and who had the trapping and fishing skills to live off the land, the South of Louisiana is a land of milk and honey. As Longfellow wrote of it in his epic poem Evangeline, a romance set amid the diaspora, “Beautiful is the land, with its prairies and forests and fruit trees; Under the feet a garden of flowers, and the bluest of heavens Bending above, and resting its dome on the walls of the forest. They who dwell there have named it the Eden of Louisiana.”(4) And such as it is when a culture comes to trust the land and water it inhabits. The Louisiana tagline says it’s “sportsman’s paradise.” It’s said that all you need to grow is some potatoes, maybe some rice, and the land will provide everything else. As Terry Tempest Williams aptly wrote while visiting, “Magic lives in the world when we surrender ourselves to a place.”(5)
A remarkable thing about the Cajun people is that it is one example of a culture that has not just settled in a place, but that it has set its roots deep to indigenize with the landscape. The language and traditions are embedded there, as if emerging from the cypress roots and crawfish chimneys. It’s in the music, the language, and the food – a rooted sense of identity and place that is special among settlers in the Americas. Cajun people are not mere displaced French occupiers, but have become part of a syncretistic culture of Natives, Blacks, Acadians, Creoles and Anglos, part of a remarkable breathing diversity that displays an improvisation, an openness and an aliveness that is as textured and rich and fertile as the land, turning old haunts into celebrations of endurance. This endurance comes from a connection to the land, as Mike Tidwell, author of the great Bayou Farewell, writes, “For whomever these people are – French, southern, Indian, American – they are clearly citizens first and foremost of the deepest bayou country, defined by life on that outermost realm.”(6) For the locals, this means the deepest levels of freedom, the freedom of the water. A Cajun named Charlie explains to Tidwell what it means to have that knack for the water, to have the sense to be a citizen of this place. “’It’s a knack,’he says, ‘It’s a knack we got. Most people up nort’, dey couldn’t last a day down dese bayas like us. Dey’d starve, even wit’ all de fish and birds and gators around. But a Cajun, nobody gets de catch like a Cajun man…. For me, it’s when dat old mornin’ sun comes risin’ over my boat deck and de boat’s covered wit’ a ton of shrimp, and den I have me a big bowl of jambalaya wit’ de guys at de shed, and we all ever’body got money in de pocket. Dat, to me, dat’s bein’ Cajun!’”(7)
The Cajun people grew into the land, learning life ways Native Americans had been practicing since time immemorial. The Atakapa-Ishak viii people are divided into two general groups – sun up people (east) and sun down people (west). They have two different cosmogonies. The “sun down people” say that there was an ancient flood and when the water subsided, only they were remaining in the world. The “sun up people” say that people emerged from the water from the lips of a giant oyster. They have been living subsistence lives for centuries on the water along the coast from Texas to the Mississippi. These ties to the land bespeak of a radically different epistemology, and hence a different land ethic. Land is not disposable in this system. Yet, as I discovered, it is land that is being taken away. And for a culture that is so tied to place, the dislocation of place, the dislocation of people, and the disablement of the natural resources upon which a whole culture subsists on, constitutes that level of catastrophic event. It is where ecocide and genocide are the same crime. Rosina Phillipe is Atakapa-Ishak activist and community leader tells Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!:
“The life of our community is more than just ourselves. You know, we are part of this ecosystem. Everything in it, you know, we’re a part of, and it’s a part of us. People as us, you know, how long have we been here. We’ve been here forever. We still have our sacred spaces, you know, back – the landscape has changed. You know, it used to be forested. The land used to be high. Now we have no trees, and that’s because of saltwater intrusion, with canals that were cut for oil exploration. This is what nature has managed to come up with when all the trees are gone. You know, the land subsided. The other vegetation died off. So nature finds a way to bring something in. So this is like Spartina, a salt grass, and you know, it used to have small amounts of it, but over a period of time it took over, because it didn’t have anything else to compete with. So now we have this kind of prairie marsh.”(9)
When I began this research I kept thinking about the oil, the intrusion of the oil, the destruction of life from the spill. It turns out that the assault on the landbase had been going on for decades. I felt embarrassed that I had no idea this was going on. It’s a big secret in America that the Louisiana Gulf Coast is losing land at a rate faster than anywhere else on the planet. The oil and gas industry have dug 10,000 miles of canals through the marshland, canals that widen every year due to erosion as salt water intrusion cuts into fresh water plants and the sediment sinks into the Gulf.(10) Since 1930, Louisiana has decreased a Delaware in size. It loses a football field of land every thirty seconds.(11)
This land loss poses an enormous threat to a vital ecological niche. The Louisiana wetlands are breeding grounds to shrimp, fish and crab, feeding millions of people every year. These wetlands comprise an amazing 25 percent of all wetlands in the United States. And it contains the home of 353 species of fowl and 20 percent of all ducks. It is also a major stop for migratory birds, what biologists call the Mississippi Flyway.(12) This intensely rich ecosystem is desperately endangered, and the biggest most horrible ecological secret no one talked about – and that was before the Deepwater Horizon oil came and went.
Equally worse to all the canals dug from oil are the levees and canals made to channel the Mississippi built by the Army Corps of Engineers after The Great Deluge of 1927. It was a disaster that left more than a million homeless in its wake. The problem now is that the river is being channeled right off the continental shelf. Silt runs off to deep water and is not able to create new land in Louisiana. The land continues to sink. There are huge new plans to help fix this problem, to help set the Mississippi free again. But funding and political will lie elsewhere. This is a typical problem in the region fraught with histories of corruption, greed and the hubris to improve upon nature. A Freudian might even call it a repetition compulsion, a kind of neurotic re-patterning of the landscape in the image of a displaced industrial and urban identity. Meanwhile, the famous boot shape of Louisiana is vanishing precipitously. It took 7,000 years to create, and just 70 to destroy.(13) Or, as Rosina Phillipe of Grand Bayou says, “We’re facing the potential for cultural genocide.”(14)
In this case, vanishing a land and vanishing a people is saying the same thing. All of this land loss, combined with the loss due to the Deepwater Horizon blowout, has emerged into an apocalyptic event for the indigenous communities of Lousisiana. The feeling is one of alienation from the world and of victimization by the corporate state. Jamie Billot is a community organizer with the Houma tribe in the fishing village of Dulac in Terrebonne Parish. She tells Antonia Juhasz the cultural despair when the land is assaulted, “Our waters are bleeding. It feels like we are bleeding.”(15) United Houma Nation Principal Chief Brenda Dardar Robichaux echoed this sentiment in her testimony to Congress:
The relationship between the Houma People and these lands is fundamental to our existence as an Indian nation. The medicines we use to prevent illnesses and heal our sick, the places our ancestors are laid to rest, the fish, shrimp, crabs, and oysters our people harvest, our traditional stories and the language we speak are all tied to these lands inextricably. Without these lands, our culture and way of life that has been passed down generation to generation will be gone. … (it is) perhaps the greatest challenge in our history, as we are at risk of losing the heart of our culture – our homeland … (and it) looms as a death threat to our culture as we know it.(16)
The mounting despair opens like a crack in the world. The community grows wearier, more cut off, more suspicious, more despondent, and more cynical of globalizing powers and an unresponsive government. Louisiana is functionally an oil colony, and the psyche of the people is one of colonized people. And while that rich gumbo of exiles and marginalized people persist in the landscape, it may turn out that the Cajuns have run out of time. There are no more frontiers to escape to. And, astonishingly, it isn’t the people that are moving, it is the land disappearing from right under their feet. The maps have to be continually updated. And only time will tell the long term effects on the fisheries.(17) But history warns us from Valdez; we do know that fisheries were permanently affected in Prince William Sound, that you can still find oil there under the rocks, and that the migratory herring never returned.
All of this leads to a great and palpable fear and fatalism as thick as the crude, a pervasive sense of despondency, hopelessness and resignation that occurs in disenfranchised communities. This is another side of that thanatos-laden death mask. The fashion in which a community with strong ties to the land occurs as they undergo the traumas of the slow omnicide of the Gulf Coast. Watkins and Shulman explain how this calamity effects the community:
The key characteristic of traumatogenic events, whether a sudden shocking disaster or a slow insidious development, is that they bring about a calamitous emotional rupture in our sense of self-identity and community, disconnecting us from the ways of thinking, speaking, acting, and relating through which we previously made sense of the world. When trauma affects the whole community, particularly if the calamity was avoidable and human error or neglect played a role as in an oil spill, destructive social forces may set in, driving people apart. …While such calamities as earthquakes, mudslides and floods have always been part of the context of human life, what is new in Erikson’s view are large-scale toxic events that are human caused such as chemical explosions, groundwater contamination and nuclear accidents. These events cause despair, a sense that no one cares and that one’s life is expendable. … Individuals begin to feel as if they are completely on their own, and a sense of distrust about the world often develops. The individualism and isolation felt to be norm in modern urban environments may in fact be the end product of the traumatic disruption of communities over time.(18)
This is the sense, the palpable fear on the endangered coast increasingly aware, increasingly despairing in its creeping endangerment to an entire culture, disassembling their identity. In his travels on the bayou, Tidwell called it a “deep, paralyzing, and seemingly genetic sense of cynicism and hopelessness.”(19) That the land, and hence the culture, are gravely threatened, is a prospect that it difficult to comprehend, resulting in a mental paralysis. A fisherman named Big E tells Tidwell, “Maybe dere is no future for us … Probably dere is not. But where are we gonna go? Dis is where we belong. Right here. We’ll stay till de land’s all gone and maybe dat’ll be the end of us too.”(20) Antonia Juhasz reported this same sense of doom, finding people constantly worrying, suffering grief, depression and despair. Jamie Billot offers activities for the family and children of a community, trying to use cultural tradition to help heal the wounds of industrial violence and a tribe decimated by a disaster economy. She observed that drinking, drugging and domestic violence rise when the community feels this despair. The spill is feared to be an ongoing apocalypse, a horror with no clear or near end, as Billot tells Juhasz, “There is a whole culture that is literally being washed away because of the spill. This is not just about making a living … Our entire way of life is going to disappear.”(21) She says that half of the community fishes, the other half works in the oil industry.
The oil apocalypse poses a double-threat and not one without a sharp sense of irony. Although the oil industry has precipitated the catastrophe of a culture and way of life, that same industry is now the best hope for the economy’s survival. Either way, the supremacy of the oil industry looms large. It seems there is new land being created after all, trading in the wetlands for oil platforms; new acreage of space age technology floating on the ever stranger spaces of deep water.
Exploitation or Healing: Exploitation
I called my dad recently. I wanted to ask a few questions about his work and current thoughts on the state of the industry. My mom picked up and gave her testimony. She said he continues to work. My dad, now 71, has been trying to wean himself into retirement; something like settling into a hot bath. She reports that he’s said he is afraid of not knowing what to do with himself, of the quiet, of not waking up at 6 am. She says he’s constantly plugged into his computer, working on the order of 70 hours a week. She acts like she’s distraught over this, and I can’t really tell how much she’s playing it up for emphasis. “He’s obsessed!” she cried. I chuckled, knowingly. Then, I got my dad on the line. “How’s business?” I asked. He spoke of new developments happening in Peru, Brazil and the Gulf. He said the offshore waters have been reopened for drilling and that the companies have been waiting, preparing for this moment. He then quickly slipped into a politically-charged jeremiad about Obama the “anti-oil president.”
I knew this was a myth. In my thoughts I knew this wasn’t true and almost pointed out the facts of the matter on the oil moratorium to my dad. I had read about how the OCS moratorium that has protected the coasts from new leases was first enacted in 1981 by Reagan, and extended by Bush 41 and Clinton until the year 2012. I knew that the oil lobby has been fighting the moratorium for years. I had read that Senator Obama initially opposed new deep water drilling, preferring a policy of renewable energy. But Obama, shortly before winning the 2008 election, flip-flopped, supporting new deepwater oil leases as a concession to the industry for other regulatory measures that lead to cap-and-trade legislation.(1) In fact, 20 days before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Obama announced an end to the OCS moratorium on the Atlantic Coast, saying, “’So today we are announcing the expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration,’ the president declared. ‘Under the leadership of Secretary Salazar we’ll employ new technologies that reduce the impact of oil exploration. We’ll protect areas that are vital to tourism, the environment and our national security. And we will be guided not by political ideology but by scientific evidence.’”(2) The 2010 moratorium enforced by the MMA and the Department of the Interior, was to give time for the agency to do work it had not been doing for years. It gave time for the MMA to review leases it has signed for the previous 18 months. Lax regulation precipitated the BP disaster and the MMA was one body asleep at the wheel. Not only is the agency made up of former lobbyists and oil men, but they had just a handful of regulators for the more than 4,000 rigs in the Gulf region alone. And reports of cushy relationships between MMA regulators and corporate executives pervaded a culture of irresponsibility; including lavish gifts, golf trips, Super Bowl tickets and cocaine-laced parties. It was, as we say in the South, “like the fox guarding the henhouse.” Considering the magnitude of this disaster, a time of housecleaning was a prudent maneuver.
I bit my tongue. I knew my dad couldn’t hear this. There is much we can’t see and hear about this spill. There is much we are forbidden to see when we live in a parallel universe of money, progress and control. I’m reminded of Upton Sinclair’s quote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”(3).
There was a striking graffiti piece scrawled on a house in spray paint in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina that read, “Hope is not a plan.” What is clear about the whole affair is the air of blind hope. BP had no plan besides its corporate ambition. It’s endemic to the culture, one prone to making the same mistakes again and again. It might be called the Titanic syndrome. Just as that mighty ship was unsinkable, the faith in these platforms was infallible.
But the carelessness of the industry sits in stark contrast to this ambitious bubble. It portrays a kind of adolescent narcissism – concerned about image and persona, yet incapacitated from taking real social responsibility. Like the adolescent, the corporation has a kind of magical thinking that others will pick up the tab for all this risk; that big daddy government will bail him out, and that “Mother Nature” will clean up after him. Asking BP to clean up has looked a lot like asking an adolescent to clean his room – there is a kind of suspension of reality and accountability. And when set to task, he will try to hide his mess under the bed and claim he did a good job. That’s where the dispersants come in.
In the midst of this ungrounded ambition, they could not fully conceive of things going wrong. The industry practices how to drill holes, but didn’t prepare to clean up the mess they made. In a surreal twist from the seventies, we can see that BP released a corporate board game in which the goal was for players to make money on cleaning up a hypothetical spill in the North Sea. This was as much a plan as they had – a kind of corporate treasure map. You hire workers to clean up the oil, get ships out there. It’s an eerie, if cold blooded premeditation on covering one’s tracks to minimize liability and still make a profit.
This is what BP did in hiring their “Vessels of Opportunity,” fishermen out of work in peak shrimping season were hired to lay out boom, but signed contracts limiting liability for the company. The oil assaulted their livelihood, and now they were hired to help pick up the evidence. They had difficulty getting paid through payroll, and made far less than a healthy catch would have made. More than that, the program would soon vanish and the Gulf would feel untold impacts for a long time to come. In the end, the VOO project was hush money, a corporate bribe that plays on the Orwellian double speak that makes an act of violence seem like a benefit. It’s an extension of the corporate culture and cushy relationship between the industry and regulators. The aim is to continue to suspend the illusion of corporate and industrial beneficence. It creates an upside-down world where oil “helps” oysters and corporations are “job creators.” The locals can clearly smell something afoul in this confidence game, (or, as we say in Texas, “Don’t piss on my boots and call it rain!”), but feel like they have no choice.
Hayward agreed to a deal with Obama for a 20 billion dollar trust fund to help the region, including settlements with fishing communities and help in marine biological research. Locals felt forced to settle with BP. They were mindful of the delays a large corporation can endure. Exxon fought off the town of Cordova for 17 years, and finally got the Supreme Court to reduce the lawsuit by 90 percent. Indigenous communities in Ecuador have been fighting Chevron-Texaco in court for nearly 20 years without seeing either a dime or cleanup reparations. Taking on a large company is daunting, and kind of like a war of attrition in which only the corporation, an undead entity with limited liability, can withstand.
All of these tactics play into the increase in power of the global over the local, of the corporation over the community. And it is the spirit of neoliberalism’s ideal of radical privatization, as Naomi Klein described in The Shock Doctrine, her seminal critique of Milton Friedman’s Chicago School of Economics. The idea is that when a community faces a disaster through catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina, or the Haiti Earthquake, or the BP spill, or through acts of war, or financial manipulation, the government can use the loss of infrastructure and the traumatic shock of a community to push through initiatives that the community would have otherwise rejected under usual healthy circumstances. The more a community is shocked, the more pliant they are for social engineering. For post-Katrina New Orleans, this meant dismantling the public schools and hospitals and public housing in privatization initiatives; charters and contracts the government doled out. This is looked upon as a “vessel of opportunity” for the corporate state. It is a calculus that always increases the corporation with no sense of limits at the expense of liquidating public coffers.(4)
The problem with this is that it is more than about corporate power. There is another way of looking at this. It is a way of cultivating certain social ideals in a world that is stuck in an epistemological rut, a rut exemplified in the frozen adolescence of the corporate psyche. Morris Berman writes in The Re-Enchantment of the World, that the modern world is essentially in runaway mode in which we are addicted to our worldview of progressive, linear spaces – the spaces of the greens zones and virtual worlds the oil state suspends for itself. The corporate worldview is a system without negative reinforcement. It is always self-rewarding, garnishing itself with bonuses, prizes, incentives, stock options. Loss, accidents, any feedback inconsistent with the dominant narrative is denied. It couches exploitation as opportunity, and leads to a distorted worldview painfully disconnected from the way the rest of the world works. In short, it takes on the delusional quality of an addiction, and this characterizes the economy and industrial society today. Considering this, it is little wonder Eichmann regurgitated slogans and couldn’t put his thoughts together so that it seemed like there was a soul really present. There is no self-governance, no self-regulation, and no sense of limit, no plan in case of failure. I’m reminded of the Toby Keith song in that Ford commercial, “I ain’t got no boundaries, I don’t compromise.” Or, the corporate plaque in Tony Hayward’s office that read, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”
But failures do happen. And it is necessary to understand these failures and breakdowns. It isn’t enough for the president to ask whose ass needs to be kicked. What needs to be asked is about our breakdowns, our violence, our addiction, our limits, and the way in which the industrial culture creates bubbles of denial and dissociation. This corporate narrative is a system that requires limits, that needs limits, that needs a new way of self-regulation via a new culture of limits. In these breakdowns, we have an opportunity to ask these questions, and move from a self-reinforcing loop of the capitalist semiotic universe toward dialectical reason, toward otherness. Berman writes:
Unless such a system abandons its epistemology, it will hit bottom or burn out – a realization that it now dawning on many individuals in Western society. There is no escaping self-corrective feedback, even if it takes the form of the total disintegration of the entire culture. A mental system cannot remain in permanent runaway, cannot maximize variables and also retain the characteristics of Mind. It loses its Mind; it dies. On the individual level, we experience cirrhosis, heart attack, cancer, schizophrenia, and what has to be called living death. The ethics of the system are implicit in its epistemology.(5)
Berman’s Batesonian cybernetics call for a new awareness and a new holism that requires us to lift ourselves out of our ruts; out of the addictive mechanistic utilitarian narrative that is murdering the land and driving us insane. In these limits, we have our best teachable moment to break through the privileged adolescent fantasy of omnipotence.
Naomi Klein crystallizes this narrative in a recent speech:
This is our real master narrative: however much we mess up, there will always be more. More water, more land, more untapped resources. A new bubble will replace the old, a new technology will come along to fix the messes we made with the last one. In a way that is the story of the settling of the Americas, the inexhaustible frontier to which Europeans escaped. And is also the story of modern capitalism … Our economic system cannot survive without perpetual growth and an unending supply of new frontiers. Now the problem is that the story was always a lie. The earth always did have limits, they were just beyond our sights. Now we are hitting those limits on multiple fronts. I believe that we know this, yet we find ourselves trapped in a kind of narrative loop. Not only do we continue to tell and retell the same tired stories, but we are now doing so with a frenzy and fury that frankly verges on camp. How else to explain the cultural space occupied by Sarah Palin? Now, on the one hand, exhorting us to “drill, baby, drill,” because God put those resources into the ground in order for us to exploit them. And on the other, glorying in the wilderness of Alaska’s untouched beauty on her hit reality tv show. The twin message is as comforting as it is mad. Ignore those creeping messages that we have hit the wall, there are still no limits. There will always be a new frontier, so stop worrying and keep shopping.(6)
Exploitation or Healing: Healing
Now that the media has dispersed from the scene, the pictures of the oil no longer on the 24 hour news cycle, those of us remote from the coast have a convenient path to our standby mode of amnesia and complacency once again. We can return to life within the society of the spectacle, to live in the automatic, compliant mode. But the locals have a different reality, a different relationship with the land in which they cannot retreat into flat screens, virtual spaces of urban centers that offer a bulwark from the black tide. The locals are the ones who pay in the long run while the industry goes on drilling. They pay with their lives and the events will continue to haunt the region. And in a sense, it is a repetition of the same traumas from the past, a familiar story of marginalization, contributing to the myth of the people as outsiders, as bumpkins, as forgotten people. The Atakapa-Ishak are a forgotten people, scarcely mentioned in generally racist ethnographic record and are still unrecognized by the federal government as a living tribe. This marginalization is also a living reality for the Cajuns, long descendents of exiles, faithful inhabitants of the bayou, fiercely independent and suspicious of global powers. We know what is required. What change is required, and it goes far beyond policy. It goes to the heart of how we view ourselves in the world. The thing is that the rest of the world can learn a great deal from a resilient people and their lifeways. The very culture that the dissociated modern world seeks to purge is presents to us the healing balm for what ails the modern world. If we don’t destroy it, we have a chance of waking up from our long slumber.
In our world of complacency and fragmentation, catastrophe offers itself as an awakening event. The 1969 Unocal blowout initiated a flurry of public concern for pollution that resulted in our most significant environmental legislation under Nixon, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the establishment of the EPA. The Exxon Valdez disaster offered another wave of public concern twenty years later. And another twenty years, another disaster in the Gulf joins a slew of other environmental threats today like climate change, mountaintop removal, and the ongoing toxicity of the water table through hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”). Environmental degradation over all challenges the coherent narrative perpetuated by the dominant society. Old notions of faith and progress are undergoing a trial of confidence that breaks apart modern epistemology. A key to the fragmentation of the colonial self is the recognition of its relationship with the world, with the others, with the abject. Watkins and Shulman write:
The narratives of coherent history and identity of a modernist nation shatter under the weight of unmourned violence. Public discourse is recognized as being shot through with ideology, lies, and silence about the past that cannot be spoken. Collective accounts no longer match up with daily life, and we enter the pastiche of experience that is now called the post-modern. Chela Sandoval calls this situation “a violently fragmented condition.” Yet she suggests that the idea of solid identity in resonance official history was always a fantasy reserved for the privileged. The process of colonialism was always played out against a backdrop of the fragmented experience, “the shattered minds and bodies” of all those marginalized by power and position – the colonized, the enslaved, or disenfranchised. Today, in the process of globalization this process of disintegration reaches even the privileged.(1)
Increasingly the narrative of progress and privilege means up with the negative of this dialectic of power – the shame and guilt, and the tradition of violence that paved the way for the fantasy of entitlement.
The colonial self relied on the construction of, as Hegel termed it, a kind of negative identity. It defined itself by what it was not, by distinguishing itself from a maligned otherness. This is the hallmark of the heroic colonial self, defined by its order and cleanliness; its distance from what Julia Kristeva called the abject. Neocolonialist corporations operating in oil colonies like Louisiana rationalize their actions by claiming the privilege of being “job-creators” for a region considered abject. They litter the language with slurs in a manner of reducing the personhood of others, all the while claiming personhood for the corporation.(2)(3)
There is a kind of implicit Manichean mythology of power occurring in the Louisiana oil colony. The imperial ego has distaste for its perpetual liminality betwixt and between ambiguity and locality; traits the region has in its mixed race heritage, its bi-lingualism, its fluid and mutable placehood between dry and wet, land and water; and the superstitious and dark swampy gator-infested recesses of the Atchafalaya Basin bespeak of the unconscious and a landscape that absorbs the shadow projections of the colonial narrative. Popular imagination and literature around folk beliefs, voodoo, werewolves and vampires highlight our lore about the region. And that isn’t even to mention New Orleans, which has long been the conduit of the Mississippi, and is, in a sense, the ass of the country, absorbing the projections, raw materials, as well as the toxins, of the heartland. Once center of the slave trade, the Big Easy has endured through the strength of creative mythology embodied in its unique music, culture, food, and flair for language. It is an alchemical vas which has absorbed all of these cultures, all of these hardships, and yet jazz, the embodiment of American syncretism, emerged from its Congo Square.
The performance of the self in this culture is not bent toward pretensions, but by survival. This is a culture that endures, that has found a sustainable way of life, and is far more progressive than progressives. This culture offers itself as a lesson in rootedness and a sustainable future if we don’t cease our banalizing extirpation of it. “By their example,” Watkins and Shulman write, “those who have been relegated to the periphery teach those in the center a different mode of practicing the self.”(4) This self is a localized consciousness, one of embedded relationship, one of openness to the land and the people who live there where time slows down and the flat spaces of life find new dimensions. There are not molar models of being here, no blueprints, no flattened spaces. There is, however, the receptivity to land and water, to shrimp, crab, crawfish, to the metaphor and idiot, to each other, and to community. It is in the essence of gumbo: consisting of available ingredients, and is itself as rich and varied as the peoples who inhabit the land. Tidwell describes its origins well, writing that it reflects, “the ethnic mix and shifting empires of Louisiana history. The very name, gumbo, is derived from the West African word guingômbo, meaning okra – the popular southern seedpod vegetable added to most gumbos. The filé, again, is an old Indian spice. The hot peppers and Tabasco sauce commonly served with gumbo evolve directly from the early Spanish colonizers of Louisiana. And the roux, the soul of the dish, is, of course, French.”(5)
In my dissertation, I wrote that the path to redemption for the imperial ego was achieved through the surrender of the self to the sense of the land, to its natural limits.(6) That somehow the inability to love and respect difference is the same as the inability to mourn, to give in to a positive sense of fate in the world. An overflowing of fraternal affection for otherness not only promises a new and sustainable ethic, but a care for engaged action in the region. It moves us from our complacency and silence into our voice, and finally into ourselves. It is a sense of self that betrays the practice of the self we have been encouraged to attend to in this dominant culture. It creeps into our thoughts through dreams, flights of imagination and overflows of empathy. Some might call it our true self being awakened; maybe it’s the world soul. But lest these terms find their way creeping into the positivist solidification of nouns, let us say that the performance of self becomes more varied, responsive and adaptive the more our heart opens. Perhaps it is this open mourning that allowed the Acadians in exodus to take in the land, and let the bayous live inside themselves, its waters merging with their dreams. This is how to find a home in the world.
There is a curious story about one BP executive that kind of came to this point of mourning and surrender. BP lined up an ambitious oil rig in the early 2005 called Thunderhorse, only it was originally called Crazy Horse amid much controversy. The Lakota Sioux protested this sacrilegious namesake and threatened to sue, as they had previously filed lawsuits against companies abusing the name of their culture’s great warrior and spiritual leader. BP quickly relented to the Lakota. Bob Malone, who soon would be chairman of BP America in 2006, went to South Dakota to make amends with the community, a kind of token of penance for that “Promethean debt” Jung described. Malone offered the rig’s plaque bearing the name Crazy Horse and buried it there. “Tribal leaders wrapped him in a ceremonial blanket and proclaimed him an honorary Lakota. The ceremony was so moving that Malone’s wife, who is half Navajo, was in tears by the time it was over, and Malone himself would recall it as one of the most moving and emotional experiences that he had during his 30 year career with BP.”(7)
It strikes me that there is something far more at work in this testimony than a PR stunt. It is a crack to another world wanting to break through, a different sense of being underneath the banalization of the petroleum death mask, even if Malone himself didn’t fully understand this feeling. We glimpse here an opening to a new ethic that we also see in environmentalists moved to protect the environment. We glimpse this new ethic, this new green self in those lending their voices against neocolonialism and exploitation in new social movements and in those appropriately outraged by the atrocities. Naomi Klein concludes her speech:
We badly need some new stories. We need different kinds of heroes, willing to take different kinds of risks, those who confront recklessness head-on. That put the precautionary principle into practice, even if that means through direct action, like hundreds of young people willing to get arrested, blocking power plants or fighting mountaintop removal coal mining. We need stories that replace that linear narrative of endless growth with circular narratives that remind us that what goes around comes around. That this is our only home, there is no escape hatch. Call it karma, call it physics, action and reaction. Call it precaution, the principle that reminds us that life is too precious to be risked for any profit.(8)
If the region does survive the atrocities already occurring, it will only endure if there is a shift in our awareness in a very profound way that touches every aspect of our globalized lives – new awareness of bioregionalism, new awareness of oppressive systems, and a new concern for justice to preserve what is precious in life. Only this green apocalyptic understanding will generate the will for greater and more affirmative action in the world. And it promises to be a richer world, a world that has a great sense of living within the fabric of daily life. Call it what you will, a “knack,” a “lifeway,” a “joie de vivre,” it’s that sense that gets your zydeco rhythm zipping along once the tearful surrender has been conferred.
In a sense, we come back to where we started in this story. Like the industrial traumas of Louisiana, like the history of pillaging in an oil colony, we keep encountering the same experiences with the land, the same sins of history, the same genocide and pillaging the local for the sake of the global. Already the shock in the global has subsided as the country clambers for more carbon, and the “anti-oil” administration approves the massive Keystone XL pipeline that will transport oil across the heartland to Houston refineries. The new sacrifice is a large swath of boreal forests that grow over the Alberta tar sands. There is no end in sight. It is a story repeated over and over. We have seen similar dramas of corporate abuse and marginalized people in places like Nigeria, where Shell is so entwined with the military junta that there is not much hope for justice or democratic representation in a Delta that has had the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every year for the last fifty years. It is an enormous catastrophe that is endangering 20 million lives in the region.ix And there is the case in Ecuador, where the indigenous have been trying to sue Chevron for years for carelessly dumping millions of gallons of oil in the headwaters of the Amazon.x It would be a worthy project to examine more closely at how communities try to adapt to, and try to heal from, these industrial disasters. They don’t look to be stopping any time soon.
It’d be useful to see and hear and feel how communities exemplify new methods of healing from pervasive industrial shock. And as always, if we fail to ask the right questions, or feel our way through these matters, we will remain oblivious bystanders in a world increasingly callus and fragmented in the grip of violence and illusions. I’m reminded of a line from Leonard Cohen’s great song The Future, “I’ve seen the nations rise and fall, I’ve heard their stories, heard them all, but love’s the only engine of survival.”(11) That’s it – the door to sustainability that can heal the spill in our soul.
I’ll close with one last bit. I recently went back to watch the very first episode of the Beverly Hillbillies, which aired fifty years ago. It was puzzling to me why these rugged trappers and hunters would move to Beverly Hills when they leased their oil rich lands. They had no use for the pretensions of Hollywood or movie stars. Living in a shack in the woods, like Jed Clampett, conveys a richer, more textured sense of existential freedom and direct livelihood. Of course, it is a disconnected farce. The Clampetts would have no use for Rodeo Drive. Maurice Phillips is an Atakapa-Ishak fisherman of Grand Bayou Village, and brother of Rosina Phillipe. Boating through the salt grass marshes, he tells National Geographic, “This land to me is like movie stars and Beverly Hills. That’s my Beverly Hills – Grand Bayou. I love it. I love nature and everything about it. Everything God created, I love it.”(12)
(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.
(1) Juhaz, 180.
(2) Klein, Naomi, “The Search for BP’s Oil,” The Nation, January 13, 2011.
(3) This is exemplified further in a 1960 oil propaganda short film called “Progress Parade,” produced by the American Petroleum Institute. The film “demonstrated” how scientists allegedly debunked fishermen’s fears that oil was killing the oysters and depicts men in lab coasts dropping crude oil directly into tanks of oysters. They then claimed that the oysters were not dying, but in fact increased in their livelihood. The tag line was that the oysters, “Never had it so good!”
(4) Juhasz, 92.
(5) This was a right-wing slogan repeated by figures like Rush Limbaugh and Brit Hume of Fox, who said, “But you know where the greatest source of oil that seeps into the ocean is? It’s from natural seepage from subterranean deposits. That’s where most of it comes from, not from drilling accidents. So what’s badly needed here is on our energy policy, and also on the realities of what really goes on when it comes to oil spillage.” And, “We’ll see if it is. The ocean absorbs a lot, Juan, an awful lot. The ocean absorbs a lot.” (Cited in the Huffington Post, “Brit Hume, where is the oil?” May 18, 2010.)
(6) Tim Webb, “BP Boss Admits Job on the Line Over Oil Spill,” The Guardian, May 12, 2010.
(7) Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, ( New York: Viking Press, 1963), 49.
(8) James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World, (Dallas, Tex: Spring Publications, 1992), 64.
(9) Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman, Toward Psychologies of Liberation, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 73.
(10) Craig Chalquist, A Brief Mythology of Petroleum. (World Soul Books, 2010), Kindle locations 44-52.
(11) Derrick Jensen, The Culture of Make Believe, (New York: Context Books, 2002).
(12) Chris Hedges, “BP and the ‘Little Eichmans,’” Truthdig. May 16, 2010. Internet resource.
(13) Marshall McLuhan, Stephanie McLuhan, and David Staines Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2003), 264
(1) C.G. Jung and Meredith Sabini. . The Earth Has a Soul: Nature Writings of C.G. Jung. (Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books 2002), 123.
(2) Craig Chalquist and Mary E. Gomes, Terrapsychology: Re-engaging the Soul of Place. (New Orleans: Spring Journal Books, 2007), 49
(3) Robert Flaherty, Louisiana Story (Home Vision Entertainment, 2003).
(4) Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Evangeline, (Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition 2004), Kindle Locations 381-382.
(5) Terry Tempest Williams, “The Gulf Between Us,” Orion Magazine. Nov/Dec 2010. Internet resource.
(6) Tidwell, 235.
(7) Tidwell 50.
(8) The tribe is commonly called the Atakapa tribe. This was a Choctaw slur for the Ishak people, a Muscogean tribe of the Louisiana Gulf coast meaning “cannibal.” This kind of misnomer based on a slur is common throughout the colonial accounts of ethnology. The slur stuck, but the term the tribe has for itself is Ishak, meaning simply, “the people,” which is common for tribes to call themselves. Today, the tribe hyphenates Atakapa-Ishak to both offer recognition of the old way of understanding and offer a correction.
(9) “BP oil spill threatens future of indigenous communities in Louisiana.” Democracy Now! June 7, 2010. Internet resource.
(10) Tidwell, 36.
(11) Tidwell, 57.
(12) Tidwell, 60.
(13) The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com/speced/lastchance/multimedia/flash.ssf?flashlandloss1.swf
(14) “Oil Spill Threatens Native American ‘Water’ Village.” National Geographic. June 9, 2010. Internet resource.
(15) Juhasz, 87.
(16) Juhasz, 89.
(17) As reported by Al Jazeera and Discovery News is how fish continue to have spots, and shrimp are being discovered that don’t have eyes. The repercussions of the microfauna and biomagnification are yet to be fully understood. BP claims Gulf seafood is unchanged. (Wall, Tim. “Mutant crabs turning up in the gulf,” Discovery News. April 19, 2012. Internet resource.)
(18) Watkins and Shulman, 106-107.
(19) Tidwell, 80.
(20) Tidwell, 200.
(21) Juhasz, 178.
(1) Watkins and Shulman, 50.
(2) Like when BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg made this epic flub, “I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies who don’t care. But that is not the case in BP. We care about the small people.” AP, June 16, 2010.
(3) Cajuns have owned one of the slurs applied to them from other French – calling themselves “coon asses,” a term derived from a French term meaning something like “dirty whore.”
(4) Watkins and Shulman, 167.
(5) Tidwell, 93.
(6) Finn, Mitch. The Dialectic of Civilization: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problem of Anthropocentrism. (Carpinteria, CA: Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2012).
(7) Steffy, Loren. Drowning in Oil, 94-95.
(8) Naomi Klein, “Addicted to Risk.” TED. January 18.2011. Internet Resource
(9) Okonta, Ike and Douglas, Oronto. Where Vultures Feast: Shell, human rights and oil in the Niger Delta. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2001).
(10) Berlinger, Joe and Bonfiglio, Michael. Crude. (New York: First Run Features, 2009).
(11) Leonard Cohen, “The Future,” The Future, (New York: Columbia, 1992)..
(12) “Oil Spill Threatens Native American ‘Water’ Village.” National Geographic. June 9, 2010. Internet resource.