(Ellen Cantarow, Tomdispatch.com, July 18, 2010)
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Think of oil civilization in its late stages as a form of global terrorism.
If you live on the Gulf Coast, welcome to the real world of oil — and just know that you’re not alone. In the Niger Delta and the Ecuadorian Amazon, among other places, your emerging hell has been the living hell of local populations for decades. . . . Three federal appeals court judges with financial and other ties to big oil were rejecting the Obama administration’s proposed drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico. Pollution from the BP spill there was seeping into Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans. Clean-up crews were discovering that a once-over of beaches isn’t nearly enough: somehow, the oil just keeps reappearing. Endangered sea turtles and other creatures were being burnt alive in swaths of ocean (“burn fields”) ignited by BP to “contain” its catastrophe. The lives and livelihoods of fishermen and oyster-shuckers were being destroyed. Disease warnings were being issued to Gulf residents and alarming toxin levels were beginning to be found in clean-up workers. . . . None of this would surprise inhabitants of either the Niger Delta or the Amazon rain forest. Despite the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 and the Exxon Valdez in 1989, Americans are only now starting to wake up to the fate that, for half a century, has befallen the Delta and the Amazon, both ecosystems at least as rich and varied as the Gulf of Mexico. . . . The Niger Delta region, which faces the Atlantic in southern Nigeria, is the world’s third largest wetland. As with shrimp and oysters in the Gulf, so its mangrove forests, described as “rain forests by the sea,” shelter all sorts of crustaceans. The Amazon rain forest, the Earth’s greatest nurturer of biodiversity, covers more than two billion square miles and provides this planet with about 20% of its oxygen. We are, in other words, talking about the despolation-by-oil not of bleak backlands, but of some of this planet’s greatest natural treasures. . . . Through photographs, you can glimpse life in the Delta under the shadow of big oil. Derelict shacks slouch on river banks amid an extravagance of garbage and waste. Children bathe in lifeless ponds. People live and work in the heat and amid toxins released by flames roaring from flare stacks. Flaring is universally agreed to be wasteful, but is also a way of maximizing oil production on the cheap. Much of the gas burned could be used productively, but in places like the Niger Delta big oil just doesn’t want to spend the money necessary to reclaim it. The flames belch toxins and methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The U.S. prohibits such flaring. Officially, Nigeria does, too, and scheduled its first “flare-out” for 1984. To date, however, its governments still keep eternally postponing the deadline for stopping the practice. . . . The sheen, sludge, and slime of crude oil that Americans living on the Gulf coast are just beginning to get used to have been omnipresent facts in the Delta for so long that most people know little else. Average life expectancy in the rural Delta, says Bassey, “has never been lower than it is now” — 48 years for women, 47 for men, and 41 if you escape subsistence farming and petty trading by becoming an oil worker. In other words, years shaved off lives are the personal sacrifice those in the region make to big oil. . . . Oil corporations have penetrated vast parts of the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. Consider just one part of that Amazonian immensity, the Oriente region of Ecuador in the Amazon basin. Humberto Piaguaje of the Secoya people still remembers how life there used to be. With a staggering abundance of birds, plants, animals, and foliage, with streams and tributaries winding through a humid lushness to the Amazon River, the region seemed like a blessing rather than something that could be owned by anyone. . . . “Own” wasn’t even a notion: the endless stretches of rain forest were literally common wealth. The oil beneath the ground, says Piaguaje, was “the blood of our grandparents — our ancestors.” The rain forest was a university that conferred its knowledge on those who lived there and their shamans. Its medicinal plants made it the people’s hospital; its vegetables and animals made it their marketplace. . . . For Texaco, however, the jungle invited domination. Emergildo Criollo of the Cofan people remembers how it all began. In 1967, when he was eight years old, a helicopter suddenly appeared in the sky. He’d never seen anything like it and thought at first it was some strange bird. Later, even stranger sounds came from within the jungle itself as Texaco set up shop. Within six months, the first oil spill appeared in a stream near where his family lived. After he grew up, Criollo lost two children: an infant stopped developing after he was six months old, and an older child who bathed one day in the oil-polluted river, swallowed some of the water, and later began vomiting blood. He died the next day. Criollo sums up his sorrow in 13 stark words: “They came and spilled oil, they contaminated the river, and my children died.” . . . Forty years of oil exploration and production have translated into the slow poisoning of Oriente’s land, its people, its animals, and its crops. With no other water source, local tribes are forced, as in the Delta region in Nigeria, to use contaminated water for drinking, bathing, and cooking. A Harvard medical team and Ecuadorian health authorities have described eight kinds of cancer that result from this sort of contamination. Birth defects are legion in the region, as are skin diseases, which torment even newborns. . . . Here’s the simple, even crude, lesson these ambassadors offer: whether Americans like it or not, we are all connected in new ways — and not ways the advocates of “globalization” once promised — now that we’ve entered what resource expert Michael Klare calls the age of extreme energy. Think of it as a new kind of blowback. . . . Our addiction to oil is now blowing back on the civilization that can’t do without its gushers and can’t quite bring itself to imagine a real transition to alternative energies. Humberto Piaguaje might say that the wound BP gashed in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico has unleashed the wrath of the Earth’s millions-of-years dead. . . . Put another way, corporations presume that it’s their right to control this planet and its ecosystems, while obeying one command: to maximize profits. Everything else is an “externality,” including life on Earth. “What we conclude from the Gulf of Mexico pollution incident,” says Nnimo Bassey, “is that the oil companies are out of control. In Nigeria, they have been living above the law. They are now clearly a danger to the planet.” . . . Think of oil civilization in its late stages as a form of global terrorism.