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. 

Resisting the Energy Vultures

Today’s New York Times Sunday Review piece by White House correspondent Mark Landler, “A New Era of Gunboat Diplomacy,” gives disturbing insight into the mindset not only of the men and women who preside over national foreign policies, but also into the media lapdogs who cover them.

Landler reports that China and the U.S., along with practically every other country in possession of a serviceable Navy fleet, are entering into “a new type of maritime conflict — one that is playing out from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arctic Ocean, where fuel-hungry economic powers, newly accessible undersea energy riches and even changes in the earth’s climate are conspiring to create a 21st-century contest for the seas.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of Landler’s sources, explains blandly that “This hunt for resources is going to consume large bodies of water around the world for at least the next couple of decades.”

Clinton has got the right metaphor there.  What Landler describes all too flippantly as “a watery Great Game” could well indeed “consume large bodies of water around the world.”

What neither Clinton nor anyone else interviewed for Landler’s article bring up is the cardinal question:  When the game is over, what will be left of the living beings that used to populate those waters in unimaginably vast numbers?

Landler describes the navies and drill ships of countries from China and the U.S. to Turkey and Israel jockeying for control of huge troves of oil and natural gas deposits that have been discovered beneath the sea.

Of especial interest to these circling energy vultures are the deposits beneath the Arctic ice.  Landler reports that “melting ice has opened up the fabled Northwest Passage,” making resource extraction in the Arctic more viable than before.

This offhand and veiled reference to climate change provides a window into the sociopathic mindsets of the men who rule the Energy Kingdoms.  The cowboys of global fossil fuel extraction are essentially warlords, relying on the national armies of their nominal countries of origin to clear the way of opposition to their reckless drilling.

From their warped point of view, global warming can be seen as a bonus.

If the Arctic ice melts, so much the better–it’ll make it easier to get those billions of barrels of oil out of the sea and into the global market.

No matter that deep sea drilling has been proven to be highly risky and lethal to the environment.  Hello, does anyone remember BP in the Gulf of Mexico?

Imagine a spill like that going on in frigid northern waters.

Imagine billions of barrels worth of oil or gas gushing into the Arctic Ocean, to be picked up by the currents and spread all over the world.

Imagine the destruction of marine wildlife, and indeed the entire marine food chain, that this would entail.

NY Times reporter Landler doesn’t waste time contemplating such grim scenarios.  The focus of his article is “gunboat diplomacy,” a glamorous new competition among national navies to dominate the oceans, seen strictly in utilitarian terms.  His only mention of fish, or indeed any maritime creature, is a brief aside that icebreakers are being sent into the Arctic circle by countries like China and Korea, “to explore weather patterns and fish migration.”

Landler’s article, which is billed as “news analysis,” reveals the extent to which the chillingly disturbing values of the Energy Kings have permeated not only the governments who are supposed to be regulating their industry and safeguarding the natural world, but also the media “watchdogs,” who are obviously sitting cozily in the laps of Big Oil.

Questions of environmental sustainability and health are simply outside the picture for these folks.  It’s not relevant to them whether or not the polar bears survive.  They don’t care about the coral reefs, or the plankton.  They don’t care about whales.  Their only concern is the bottom line.

What is the most effective opposition to such monomania?

Trying to think of persuasive strategies gives me a touch of hysteria.  We could appeal to their love of seafood!  Wouldn’t they miss their caviar and oysters?

They will figure out how to grow these in tanks.

We could appeal to them as property owners: what’s going to happen to their beachfront homes, not to mention their office towers in coastal cities around the world, when the waters begin to rise?

They will have armies of lawyers figuring out ways to make the taxpayers bear the burden of their lost properties.

We could appeal to their brand image.  Does Exxon-Mobil really want to go down in history as the biggest perpetrator of maritime omnicide in world history?

They will throw this back at us, and rightly so: they were just doing their job of giving the consumer what she wants, a steady supply of affordable energy.

It’s true that we all share the blame for this tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes. It’s also true that we have the power to stop it.

How? We need to demand that the rights of the denizens of the natural world be respected.  A new Declaration of the Rights of Nature has been written–it needs to be circulated, popularized and upheld.

We need to insist that our politicians report to the people, the taxpayers, not to the corporations. Yes, people want energy; we want cars, we want electricity.  But we want to direct our tax dollars into R&D of renewable sources of energy–solar, geothermal, wind–not into dangerous oil and gas extraction or nuclear fission, and not into dirty coal mining either.

We need to call the mainstream media on its dereliction of duty when it presents one-sided reports like Landler’s industry white paper today.

Extracting those billions of barrels of oil buried below the earth’s surface miles beneath the sea would not just be a death sentence for marine life.  It would drive the nails on the human coffin as well, along with all the other species on this planet who will not be able to adapt to the erratic climate extremes of floods, droughts and storms that will inevitably ramp up once the planet heats beyond the point of no return.

Under these circumstances, if the governments won’t listen, radical action may prove a necessity.  The French Resistance to the Nazis were considered criminals in their own time and place, but look like heroes to us today, with the power of hindsight.

We are in the midst of a new, much larger Holocaust now, one that threatens not just one group of people, but all of us, and our natural world as well.

Each of us has a choice to make.  You can go along with the crowd, watching impassively as the train leaves the station for the gas chambers, or you can dare to raise your voice in opposition, and maybe even to throw a wrench in the gears of power.

Each of us is going to die sooner or later.  Wouldn’t you rather die knowing you had done your utmost to make a difference, to safeguard the world for your children and all life on this planet?

%d bloggers like this: