Chevron is Us. But we can change, and they can too

It’s not for nothing that the cliche “a picture worth a thousand words” was invented.

I came across such a picture in an unlikely venue this week: the current issue of The New Yorker, in a long article by Patrick Radden Keefe on attorney Steven Donziger’s efforts to represent the indigenous peoples of Ecuador whose lands have been been ruined by the toxic oil extraction practices of Texaco/Chevron.

Here’s the picture:

Attorney Steven Donziger talks with indigenous people from the Lago Agrio region of Ecuador. Photo by Lou Dematteis

What fascinates me about this image is the huge differences evident between the indigenous people with their face paint and beads, and  the oversized white American lawyer, with his conservative haircut and business attire with watch and tie.

And yet despite the differences in culture and background, these people are on the same side.

The fact that I found this picture in The New Yorker speaks volumes about the success of Steven Donziger’s heroic crusade to bring justice to bear on the oil barons who have desecrated the rainforests of Ecuador.  The New Yorker has been known upon occasion to publish some anti-establishment material–think Elizabeth Kolbert‘s hard-hitting series on climate change, or Seymour Hersh‘s series blowing the lid on Abu Ghraib.  But by and large, the magazine doesn’t do much to challenge its cultured, white, upper-class New York readership.

But this is exactly what Keefe’s article on Donziger manages to do.

Keefe’s article describes how Donziger, a fellow of Barack Obama’s from the Harvard Law School Class of 1991, has spent the nearly two decades shuttling back and forth between Ecuador and New York, fighting a monumental court battle against Texaco/Chevron.

The reason we’re hearing about this case now is quite simple: Donziger’s efforts have led to the recent court decision ordering Chevron to pay the indigenous plaintiffs $18 billion dollars.

No, that is not a typo. That’s $18 billion with a b. 

Of course, Chevron’s army of lawyers is hitting back just as hard, and the case is going to be tied up in litigation for a lot longer.  As Keefe writes in The New Yorker piece:

“Chevron has been especially defiant in the face of the Lago Agrio accusations, which its lawyers have labelled “a shakedown.” In addition to defending itself in Ecuador, it has fought the case in more than a dozen U.S. federal courts, hiring hundreds of lawyers and producing what its own attorneys have called “an avalanche of paper.” Donziger has maintained that Chevron is motivated not merely by fear of an adverse judgment but by a desire “to destroy the very idea that indigenous people can bring an environmental lawsuit against an oil company.” In 2008, a Chevron lobbyist in Washington told Newsweek, “We can’t let little countries screw around with big companies like this.” One Chevron spokesman has said, “We’re going to fight this until Hell freezes over—and then we’ll fight it out on the ice.””

Not surprisingly, the fight has turned personal and nasty: Chevron has sued Donziger personally on civil racketeering charges, further muddying the murky waters of this gargantuan case.  It’s a rather classic attempt at defamation, reminding me of the Swift boat tactics used against John Kerry’s run for the presidency in 2004.  A good portion of Keefe’s article is dedicated to exploring the charges against Donziger, and questioning whether in his zeal to prosecute the environmental crimes of Chevron, he himself began gaming the system.

By doing due diligence and presenting both sides of the case, The New Yorker clearly aims to placate those readers and advertisers who are more likely to be on the side of Chevron than on the side of the indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian rainforest.

But still, I’m heartened by The New Yorker‘s willingness to take the risk of angering its establishment readers and advertisers by printing a story that presents the sad tale of the destruction of the rainforest environment from the point of view of the Davids rather than the Goliaths.

As Keefe explains, “Chevron, which operates in more than a hundred countries, is America’s third-largest corporation. Its annual revenue, which often tops two hundred billion dollars, is nearly four times as much as Ecuador’s economic output. The plaintiffs, who named themselves the afectados—the affected ones—included indigenous people and uneducated settlers in the Oriente; some of them initially signed documents in the case with a fingerprint.”

The devastation left by Texaco/Chevron’s heedless oil extraction practices defies language–I can’t think of a strong enough word to express the disgust I feel reading Keefe’s description:

“During the decades when Texaco operated [in the Oriente state of Ecuador], the lawsuit maintained, it dumped eighteen billion gallons of toxic waste. When the company ceased operations in Ecuador, in 1992, it allegedly left behind hundreds of open pits full of malignant black sludge. The harm done by Texaco, the plaintiffs contended, could be measured in cancer deaths, miscarriages, birth defects, dead livestock, sick fish, and the near-extinction of several tribes; Texaco’s legacy in the region amounted to a “rain-forest Chernobyl.”

What’s especially sickening to contemplate is the fact that Chevron and all the other big oil corporations, despite their recent stepped-up efforts to brand themselves as “green,” are engaged in these kinds of destructive extraction practices all over the world.  Have you seen any images from the Niger Delta recently?

And next up: the boreal forest of Alberta, Canada.

Let’s be honest here.  Chevron is us.  We have created Chevron, all of us Americans, by our wasteful, unthinking consumption of fossil fuels wrenched from the earth at horrendous cost to local–and ultimately global–ecosystems.

The poisoning of watersheds and razing of forests has been going on for a long, long time–out of sight, out of mind of most of us here in the heart of empire.  But now the chickens are coming home to roost.

Hydro-fracking is getting so much attention because now these toxifying energy extraction methods are beginning to happen in our own backyards–that is, the backyards of the wealthy, educated readers of publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times.

What can we do, now that we’re aware of the scope and gravity of these issues?

Well, I am inspired by Steven Donziger’s determination to use his privileged educational background in the service of environmental justice, to hold the oil barons to account.  His fight, documented in the recent documentary film CRUDE: The Real Price of Oil, stands as a shining model for others coming along to emulate.

For example, this year’s graduating class at Harvard Law School.  I’m talking to you. 

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