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. 

Sweet stirrings of a new world: fringe politics overturning the barricades

The venerable social critic Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker contrasts the Tea Party with the Occupy movement in this week’s magazine, and finds the Occupy movement lacking in precisely what has made the Tea Party so strong: a willingness to get involved in (and take money from) the established American political parties.

“Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are both protest movements, not interest groups,” Hertzberg says, “and while both are wary, or claim to be, of established political figures and organizations, each welcomes their praise, if not their direction. Both have already earned places in the long, raucous history of American populism. But only one, so far, has earned a place in the history of American government.”

Are we supposed to be proud that the Tea Party has “earned” an infamous place as the launching pad for the new cadre of rightwing Republican zealots who have spent their time in Congress obstinately shooting down and stampeding every effort by President Obama and the Democrats to steer this nation towards a more compassionate and forward-looking political stance?

In its few years of existence, the Tea Party has happily wormed its way into the main arteries of American political power.  Hertzberg offers an apt metaphor of this tea as a new wonder drug, “injected into the scarred veins” of the GOP, which has quickly become addicted to this mainlined source of entranced, stupified frenzy.

“Now the Democrats are hoping the drug might be available as a generic,” Hertzberg continues, eying the Occupy movement as a way to enliven its own moribund political base.

I firmly hope that the Occupy movement does not allow itself to be used in this way by the political establishment, and I think it’s a reasonable, if remarkable, hope.

Remarkable because for so long Americans have been asleep, indifferent or unaware of what Hertzberg calls “the astounding growth of what can fairly be called plutocracy.”

Why it took so long for the sleeping giant of American popular opinion to wake up is a question for historians of the turn of the 21st century to ponder.

Why is it that Americans have been voting against their own class interests so long?  Why is the persistent myth of American equality, liberty and justice for all so teflon-coated?

We all want to believe that our country represents the moral high ground in the world, and that our leaders in government are as invested in upholding our idealism as we are.

Our public education system, which is responsible for the education of a great portion of the 99%, aids and abets this self-delusion by giving students the most doctrinaire and uncritical version of American history and civics, and teaching docility and proficiency at standardized testing above all.

Our media doesn’t help much; with the exception of a few poorly funded but stalwart independent outlets, the vast social landscape of contemporary media is focused at best on distraction, and very often on outright deception.

Under the pressures of this kind of social conditioning, it’s remarkable that the young idealists in the Occupy movement have had such success in galvanizing the country to wake up, shake ourselves, and stare around us with new eyes.

Hertzberg obviously intends his column as a signpost for the Occupy movement, pointing towards Washington D.C. as a more important battleground than Wall Street.  “Ultimately, inevitably, the route to real change has to run through politics,” he concludes; “the politics of America’s broken, god-awful, immutably two-party electoral system, the only one we have.”

Here is a glaring example of the kind of civics mis-education that has made our country so hard to reform over the years.

Who says our political system is limited to two parties?  Or at least, to the two parties we have now?

The Republicans and the Democrats have shown themselves to be chronically unable to lead this country out of the morass of special interests and ruthless corporate-driven capitalism that has bulldozed right over our cherished ideals of equality, not to mention the sacred ecological web that forms the real foundation of all our wealth and prosperity.

The Occupy movements are showing their intelligence in shying away from engagement with the established political system.  If anything, their political allies are more likely to be found in those perennial political organizations that have always camped out on the fringes of our electoral parks: the Green Parties or the Rainbow Coalitions.

Remember Ralph Nader, for example?  Remember how Big Media colluded with the established parties in denying so-called “outside” candidates a seat at the table at the televised Presidential debates?

This year the Ralph Naders of the political world have suddenly swelled their ranks dramatically, but without the figurehead of a single leader at the head of the crowd.  As Nader knows only too well, one man at the head of a true opposition movement is open to all the slings and arrows that the establishment can muster.  Even Gore and Kerry have felt the force of the muddy vomit pitched their way out of the far-right Republican swampland.

Far better for the Occupy movements to stay plural and collective, strong in the anonymity of the multitudes.  Those of us who are serious about doing more than simply rearranging the deck chairs on the great hulking Titanic of American politics realize that “America’s broken, god-awful, immutably two-party electoral system” is exactly what has to go.

OK, Hendrik, it may be the only one we HAVE HAD, but now the veil has been torn down, the people are awake, and we realize that another world is possible.  As Arundhati Roy famously put it, “on a clear day, I can hear her breathing.”

That clear day has dawned.

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