Ed. note: Part 1 of this series can be found on Resilience.org here.
Stories of Bad Governments and Bad Businesses in a warming world
“The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed; the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress.”
Unless you are an environmental geographer or a regular reader of The World at 1°C, chances are you apply the term “natural disaster” to events such as Hurricane Harvey, the landslides in Sierra Leone which claimed 1000 lives, or any of the other countless climatic shocks felt over the last month.
The fact is that nothing could be more unnatural:
“In every phase and aspect of a disaster […] the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.”
This is true enough of events which occur irrespective of human activity, such as volcanic eruptions, but when it comes to the droughts, storms, floods, and famines (and, actually, even some earthquakes) caused by climate change or extractive industries, the term natural disaster hides not only a truth about differentiated impacts — it also masks a truth about where responsibility lies.
ExxonMobil, for example, has known that its continued existence causes climate change for decades. And ExxonMobil lied about having this knowledge with such abandon that now even their ex-employees are suing them (in addition to Californian communities affected by climate change). A journal article published this month was the first to analyse all of Exxon’s communications about climate change. It concluded that the corporation knew the facts thanks to its own scientists, yet continued to peddle doubt and foster confusion (including through paid editorials in liberal papers like the New York Times).
The very same ExxonMobil, which now has a major ‘in’ at the White House via Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has been repeatedly let off the hook by authorities. One emblematic story recently published in The Intercept explains how the company has been poisoning a black community in Beaumont, Texas, for decades, by pumping millions of tonnes of toxic chemicals into the air while refining “sour crude.” The community, where people suffer from high rates of hair loss, birth defects, asthma, and cancer, tried to get the EPA to do something (the Exxon refinery regularly broke the law), but were ignored for 17 years. Those who could afford to moved away. Those who could not still live in the shadow of Exxon’s stacks, which stand as monuments to greed and indifference to human suffering.
The market-based “logic” of greenwashed capitalism is that if corporations must pay for doing things like ruining people’s lives or even ruining the planet, then they won’t do it, or at least not as much. But that is demonstrably untrue. Last year, Exxon’s Beaumont refinery illegally released 2,125 pounds of carbon monoxide, sulfur oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. They were fined $7001. Even when companies are fined much more — as Exxon was when one of its decrepit pipelines burst in 2013, flooding an Arkansas community with 200,000 gallons of Tar Sands oil — they are often able to appeal, as Exxon did.
If a conviction somehow sticks, corporations are sometimes able to ignore the ruling altogether, as these 3 companies appear to be doing in Indonesia. Following successful convictions with penalties in billions of dollars, the Indonesian government has been unable to collect. While the corporations make billions exploiting Indonesia’s vast mineral reserves and precious forests, the communities in the way are left destitute and savaged by both corporate mercenaries and state military forces.
Cognizant of (negative) publicity, corporations are careful to cover themselves with the fig leaf of “corporate social responsibility” and other such meaningless phrases which sound good but don’t mean much in practice. In a case that has echoes of ExxonMobil’s climate change cover-up, Monsanto was recently exposed in The Poison Papers as having made and sold a toxic industrial chemical known as PCB almost a decade after being told by their scientists that:
“The evidence proving the persistence of these compounds and their universal presence in the environment is beyond questioning.”
In addition to covering up the horrendous health impacts of its PCB products, newly revealed documents show that Monsanto also conspired with a consultancy firm to “ghost write” a supposedly independent review of the health impacts of its flagship herbicide Roundup. Monsanto has since attempted to force the documents offline, out of sight.
What these examples make clear is that the ways in which people are made to suffer under the dominant social, political, and economic systems are not natural or innate. People suffer by design. And the designers have names like Exxon and Monsanto.
More often than not, the State can’t hold these corporations accountable because it is beholden to them. In Australia, for example, there are signs that the federal government is caving to a long campaign of the mining industry and will target tax concessions for environmental advocacy organisations, removing support for any activities other than environmental remediation.
At the same time, an Adani lobbyist is ‘volunteering’ to help run the re-election campaign of the state premier who holds sway in the approval of a $1 billion public infrastructure loan that Adani is vying for. While the actual construction of the mine is being delayed by a legal challenge from Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owners, two previous legal challenges were dismissed by the federal court last week, and Adani has declared that they will begin construction of related infrastructure next month.
This month, as the Death Valley set the record for the hottest single month ever recorded, and as a federal climate change report shows temperatures in the U.S. have risen dramatically over the last four decades, Trump’s administration formally notified its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The idea that such moves are good for American labour are laughable: wind turbine engineering is the fastest growing job sector in the U.S.
In Brazil, the situation continues to worsen following last year’s ouster of President Rousseff. With new President Temer in power, corporate power and state power are becoming coterminous. Temer himself is under investigation over corruption charges involving the State oil company, Petrobras.
Since Temer took power, Brazil has opened up thousands of kilometres of Renca — a huge, previously protected Amazon reserve — to mining, in what activists have called the ‘biggest attack’ on the Amazon in 50 years. This comes at a critical time for the Amazon, with a new study this month showing an urgent need for more socio-environmental effort and law enforcement to combat illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon. Such mining requires massive deforestation: this month, scientists claimed that gold mining is to blame for 4,437 hectares of forest which have been lost each year since 1999.
Be it gold or black gold, the greedy plunder of the Amazon’s resources is having world-shattering effects — the Amazon is considered to be the “lungs of the earth.” Setting aside for a moment the environmental and economic costs (it’s estimated that the contamination clean-up cost for a handful of oil sites in Peru is in excess of $1 billion), the immediate human impacts of the destruction underway in the Amazon are barely comprehensible. Earlier this year, Peruvian newspaper El Comercio reported that the temporary settlements around the illegal gold mines of the Amazon were centres of torture and sex trafficking, including of children.
Of course, this modern branch of extractivism shares roots with the historic conquest of the Americas. The familiar story of a greedy culture seeking to erase “other” cultures, ontologies, and ways of being was given new visuals this month as maps show how the extractivist development of the Amazon — through dams, roads, and oil and gas operations — is closing in on isolated Indigenous communities. Illicit cattle ranching is responsible for a 23% decline in forest cover across Central America’s biggest forests; mining is threatening 89 Afro-Ecuadorian communities, comprising some 80,000 people; and coal mining continues to devastate Indigenous Wayuu and Afrodescendant communities in the La Guajira region of Colombia, where the national government has officially allowed fracking against the will of many communities.
Greed comes in many forms. In Honduras, Garifuna peoples are being forced off their lands by tourism companies as the government establishes “free trade zones” to entice foreign companies into building resorts for tourists from Canada and the U.S. Rather than respect the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, many States continue to subject aboriginal communities — and in particular aboriginal women — to racism, destructive development projects, and paramilitary violence. States deny Indigenous Peoples equal access to services and, above and beyond anything else, access to and ownership of land.
This question of Indigenous land title has been central to many recent inspirational social movements. From Chiapas, where Zapatista communities have shown the world what one alternative looks like, to Bolivia, where in 2006 legitimate people power put Evo Morales in the Presidency, the assumptions of capitalist “development” were suddenly called into question and a new vision of the relationship between humans and their environments was articulated by the grassroots movements that aimed to confront neoliberalism.
These challenges to the established order offered hope not just to Indigenous Peoples around the world but all movements struggling for a socially just and ecologically harmonious world. Because of this, it has been especially disappointing and hurtful to witness the Bolivian government remove protections for the Amazon as it pushes a controversial road project directly through the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS).
Morales has dismissed the relentless opposition to this road as “colonial environmentalism.” It’s a cynical use of a term which does indeed have precedent — exactly the kind of environmentalism we have no time for. But in doing so he reveals his insecurity that the dissenting voices are loudest in the Moxeños, Yurakarés and Chimanes communities who will be further marginalised by the road, in order to roll out neoliberal infrastructure plans.
“Evo Morales is not a defender of Mother Earth, or indigenous peoples. He’s in favour of extractivism and capitalism. We know that the road means the destruction of our territory, we don’t need anyone to tell us.”
The reasons to oppose the road are as obvious as they are numerous; the inevitable consequence will be more of the same deforestation and land grabbing, and also new oil and gas extraction. In fact, the Bolivian government has already passed legislation in order to open the area for hydrocarbon extraction.
Of course, to only focus on greed-driven destruction as it manifests in the Amazon would be to miss the point. Globally, governments spend around 6.5% of annual GDP, around $5 trillion, in subsidizing the fossil fuel industry even though many studies have shown that a transition to renewables is far easier than anticipated. A new study this month claimed that renewable energy could power up to 139 countries and generate 24 million jobs.
At the same time, another groundbreaking new study on the economics of fossil fuels shows that we are past the carbon tipping point, with the costs of production rising while the return on investment is falling. Essentially, a lot of energy is required to extract a little bit of energy. The study went on to say that economic growth in GDP “cannot plausibly be decoupled from growth in material and energy use, demonstrating categorically that GDP growth cannot be sustained indefinitely.”
Nafeez Ahmed’s understanding of the study’s implication is that
“The 21st century represents the tail-end of the era of industrial economic expansion, originally ushered in by technological innovations enabled by abundant fossil fuel energy sources.”
Governments like that of the U.K. continue to drag their heels over renewable projects while going the extra mile (including going to court) for unwanted and unnecessary fossil-based projects like fracking at Preston New Road in Lancashire. Many people would benefit from a clean and democratic energy system but only a few benefit from the current system. What could explain the endurance of such a system apart from that the greed of a few has poisoned not only their own souls, but all of our lives?