Sustainable Catastrophe

by S. Wesson

It’s as if a religious force compels us not to question capitalism as the fundamental problem behind the oil geyser. It can never be the focus of our anger. Our incapacity to set our sights on capitalism persists even though the relationship between capital and the world is so incompatible that the world is rapidly deteriorating, the extraction and consumption of it expanding eternally.  There is opposition springing into action against BP’s atrocities and the state’s complicity in them, but from it we find no assurance that the destruction won’t continue. In fact the vanguard of dissent against BP, the leftist environmentalists, only offer capitalism a badly needed makeover, keeping us in calm hypnosis to the idea of its perfectibility.

Examining the premier disputants of BP and the state, we don’t get much critique of industrial society, but we do find insight as to where it’s heading.  Weighing in on the left corner are the usual suspects, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) leads us to believe there’s also a federal ally making policy for environmentalist programs. These dogmatists of a sustainable future are grappling for leadership roles over the defense of the Gulf and its inhabitants. Their tactics, however– contests for the best satirical BP slogan, the federal seizing of BP’s assets, more sustainable practices in the near future achieved with peaceful protest and petitioning– all suggest they’d rather be selling collectible coffee mugs than discussing the wanton destruction of Earth.

To be fair, environmentalist organizations are discussing the coming ecocrisis (as characterized by peak oil, climate change and our planet’s 6th mass extinction, to name but a few of the indisputable facts of our time) on some level.  They claim to have the answers, maintaining we can get through these trying times if we uphold a society run by an affluent few overseeing a massive exploitable underclass, just as long as that society becomes “sustainable.”  Perhaps they’re right; a lucky minority may get to enjoy cottage homes run by solar energy in carefully protected patches of nature while the rest of us toil amidst the apocalypse, but it serves very few peoples’ interests to see these ends furthered.

The green pitch of a serene society harmoniously in step with nature is, in reality, capitalism forever requiring the degradation of the earth, maintained by an ever-growing class divide. Changing to solar would require massive amounts of carbon-emitting fuel to produce the manufacturing infrastructure.  To stay profitable, panel production will also demand a continued source of cheap labor to exploit, probably found in easily polluted and manipulated third-world countries. Other options are no better: converting to biofuel would require mono-cropping all of Africa to provide one third of current oil production. Wind, geothermal, and tidal energy, even if exploited to their maximum via currently non-existent global facilities, wouldn’t even cover a third of our current consumption.

Such global maxims are becoming harder and harder to downplay. The Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute and the rest of the business leaders are quite aware of this, and have long been leading a massive propaganda machine to alleviate the public’s concerns.  But the Shell-induced environmental catastrophes and attempted annihilation of indigenous peoples in Nigeria are hard to miss.  And, as we’re learning, the Gulf catastrophe is just one among dozens of other “accidents” occurring all the time.  Several more oil spills have occurred in the US alone since the BP debacle began.  People are making the connections, and the companies’ worst fear is the day when everybody’s despair over the state of the world rooted in capitalism.

Recognizing our restlessness over its hostilities, capitalism must constantly preempt our revolutionary outrage.  Submitting our satirical concept ads to Greenpeace, donating money or buying merchandise from the Sierra Club and then showing our support in front of the cameras at the occasional peaceful protest are some of the limited ways we’re allowed to take action.  The more effective dissuasions play on our self-image and morals.  A Greenpeace ad in the New York Times said, “It wasn’t the Exxon Valdez captain’s driving that caused the Alaskan oil spill.  It was yours.”  Taking our enmity towards the perpetrators of ecocide and turning it inwards, into self-consciousness, green capitalism guilts us into believing change will come only if we micro-manage ourselves.

In reality, lessening our individual waste and carbon output makes next to no difference except to help distract us from the upper class as they jet about the globe. Regardless of our consent, industrial agriculture and the war machine will keep utilizing the bulk of earth’s resources.  It’s true that Americans consume at exorbitant rates, but when it comes to commodity culture we have little say in our overall participation. We are forced to go to the market for the items we need, and whether it’s from Rouses or Whole Foods hardly matters when corporations monopolize everything and their production persists.

It’s alleged by environmentalists that if we garner enough support for the right politicians, they’ll in turn pass the right policies, fund the right organizations and everything will be ok.  But it’s from politicians specifically that we can expect nothing.  Their trustworthiness has most effectively been dispelled by liberalism’s victorious elections of Obama and the Democratic House majority; instead of fulfilling campaign promises, they only continue the mad neoliberal trend of every government lineup since Reagan, deregulating commercial safeguards like those regulating offshore drilling.  Why do politicians, along with bankers and executives, all deny the suicidal tendencies of industrial society? As MIT professor Noam Chomsky recently put it, “Their task is to maximize profit and market share… it is their legal obligation.  If they don’t do it, they’ll be replaced by somebody who will.”  Politicians are as obedient to profit as the oil execs that have them in their back pocket.

Environmentalism apologetically dubs the oil geyser a catastrophic accident stemming from society’s need for some adjustments.  There’s no room left for such excuses; the well blowout, a scenario that’s always been a calculated risk, occurred while capitalism worked under optimum performance.  It’s a truth we have to acknowledge and try to stop, not try to fix.  Right now there are people across Louisiana coming to the realization of capitalism’s ruthlessness.  A few weeks into the spill, fishermen from Jefferson Parish saw the oil creeping inland, and had to break rank from BP and the coast guard just to fight it.  It was a losing battle, but when the fishermen saw the oil creeping in to strangle their home and livelihood, there wasn’t a single government official, BP rep, or Sierra Club spokesperson alive that they were going to wait on.  In New Orleans it might seem like we’re removed from that kind of urgency.  But what about the existential shock to a place that’s always been fed on fish and oysters now that its seafood source is destroyed and we’re being fed is all imported?  What about the family and friends we have living on the coast that lost everything, for perhaps the second time in a decade?  What about all the beautiful places along the Gulf that we can no longer enjoy or retreat to?  What about everyone that will have cancer in 10 years from living next to the world’s biggest superfund site?  And what are we going to do now that we know, without a shred of doubt that capitalism is going to keep doing this?