Have the messes we’ve been making finally reached a point where they can’t be cleaned up?
Aside from the occasional asteroid and volcanic outburst, human beings are responsible for the greatest messes on the planet. We’ve polluted the air and water, punched holes in the ozone, and pumped enough carbon into the atmosphere to overwhelm the global thermostat. Nor is this merely a modern attribute of homo sapiens. As Jared Diamond points out in his book Collapse, we’ve repeatedly taxed the limits of our environment, from the heart of the Mayan civilization to far-flung Easter Island. We’ve hunted countless species into extinction and exhausted the soil to feed burgeoning populations. And what we once did on a local basis, we are now applying on a global scale.
There is certainly an element of sadism in how humans have behaved toward other species. But the messes we have created throughout our relatively brief reign on Earth have also been self-inflicted. We are consummate sado-messochists: We specialize in inflicting messes on ourselves. Has any other species been so thoroughly successful in fouling its own nest?
Which brings me to BP and the latest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The pursuit of oil and the price paid in human suffering is well known to all those who saw the film There Will Be Blood, or read recent books by Peter Maass, Antonia Juhasz, and others. BP is no exception to this rule. It made its money on oil extracted — stolen, really — from what would later become Iran. These enormous profits sustained the British Empire in its dotage. When Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadegh threatened to nationalize Iranian oil in 1953, BP was a key reason behind the Anglo-American destabilization of his democratically elected government. Later, BP would make out like a bandit during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through its sales of bulk oil to the Pentagon.
Nor is BP a stranger to environmental disasters, considering its oil spills in 2000 and 2005, and the Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 workers in 2005. In the last three years, two BP refineries were alone responsible for 97 percent of the worst environmental and safety violations in the industry. And now BP is behind the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history. The gush in the Gulf sends the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez into the waters every four days.
There are many villains in this tragedy. BP executives promised “safety first” and instead pursued profits first. The Minerals Management Service granted exemptions for the environmental impact statements that should have been required for the Deepwater Horizon rig (among others). The Obama administration, attempting to curry favor with the “drill, baby, drill” faction, opened up previously off-limits waters along the East Coast and the Gulf Coast to offshore drilling only a few weeks before the disaster. The financial crisis was a result of a go-go spirit infecting Wall Street; the BP disaster was a result of a go-go spirit infecting Big Oil.
But really the biggest villain is us: our voracious desire for energy. We want energy to be like breakfast at Bob’s Big Boy: lots of it at a rock-bottom price. Yes, Americans want an alternative energy future, but we also refuse to pay more at the pump to fund research into creating this future. This bottomless pit of need has pushed us into what Michael Klare calls an era of “extreme energy.” We’ve already extracted the easy stuff. Now we’re pushed to the margins — the Arctic, the bottom of the ocean — to get at what remains at the bottom of the bottle. We’re pumping toxic cocktails deep into the ground to release natural gas from shale: a disaster in the making for our water supply. Our relentless pursuit of coal has already produced fly-ash spills that have done more damage to our environment than the Exxon Valdez. And of course we expend hundreds of billions of dollars to fight wars in energy-rich lands.
We believe, in our naïveté, that we can operate safely and effectively on the margins. “This Gulf coast crisis is about many things — corruption, deregulation, the addiction to fossil fuels,” writes Naomi Klein in The Guardian. “But underneath it all, it’s about this: our culture’s excruciatingly dangerous claim to have such complete understanding and command over nature that we can radically manipulate and re-engineer it with minimal risk to the natural systems that sustain us.” The serial messes we’ve made do little to undermine this false confidence.
Those who made the messes are often quick to promise to make things whole again. But that rarely happens. The environmental movement, it’s true, has worked long and hard to restore devastated areas like the Adirondacks and the Hudson River. We can plant trees and dredge rivers. But we can’t magically bring back old-growth forests or remove all the PCBs from the river. The Gulf, meanwhile, was already compromised before the oil spill. To give only one example, agricultural and livestock industries along the Mississippi have been dumping nitrogen into the river that produce an oxygen-poor area known as a “dead zone,” which stretches as much as 7,000 square miles along the Gulf Coast.
We are, in other words, piling messes on messes. Stricter regulations, a sustainable energy program, making an example of BP so that others toe the line: all of this is necessary to rid ourselves of these sado-messochistic tendencies. But we might have passed the point of no return.
According to folk wisdom, if you put a frog in a pot of water and gradually (and sadistically) increase the temperature, the frog will not notice and eventually boil to death. Frogs, it turns out, are not that stupid. We homo sapiens, on the other hand, will climb into the pot and jack up the temperature all by ourselves. Then, instead of climbing out, we argue among ourselves. “The water isn’t getting hotter at all,” says one group. “Great hot tub!” says another. “Don’t worry,” opines a third, “Mr. Market will come along eventually and turn down the temperature.” And now BP has added tens of thousands of gallons of oil to the simmering soup that we find ourselves in.
At this point the great sage Oliver Hardy would look us in the eye and conclude, “Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”
The Messes Continue
We’re currently making another mess of our relationship with Mexico. In the last month, U.S. Border Patrol has killed two Mexican citizens. As Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Laura Carlsen explains, the deaths have elicited a strong reaction from the Mexican government, which is already upset about rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States.
“The growing criminalization and dehumanization of Mexican undocumented immigrants has fomented a legal limbo where human rights, including the right to life itself, fall prey to ill-defined national security concerns,” she writes in Lethal Force on the Border. “It has fostered a political climate where security forces and vigilantes argue openly that fatal attacks on citizens from other countries in a non-war context are justified simply because they lack a visa. Such governance without respect for basic human rights is nothing but a dangerous lie.”
The U.S. military continues to kill numerous civilians during operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. This has prompted FPIF senior analyst Adil Shamoo to ask whether the U.S. government simply values U.S. lives over the lives of others. “[The] mechanization of war has also resulted in treating other nations’ citizens as less than equal to citizens of the United States,” he writes in Are Foreign Lives of Equal Worth to Ours? “U.S. military actions kill innocent civilians in a repeated and almost routine manner. However, modern communications are informing people around the world that U.S. policies value other citizens less than” U.S. citizens.
Jeju Island is located just off the coast of South Korea. It’s a semi-tropical location beloved of South Korean honeymooners. And it’s also the location of proposed naval base that will, in part, advance U.S. security interests.
As FPIF contributor Kyouneun Cha explains in Jeju and a Naval Arms Race in Asia, South Korea “has indicated its interest in becoming more integrated into the U.S. missile defense system. In this way, by becoming caught in a conflict between China and the United States, the naval base could endanger Jeju Island and the national security of South Korea. According to Lee Tae-ho, deputy secretary general of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy in South Korea, ‘The Chinese government has a response strategy that first attacks U.S. missile defense in the case of an emergency. That means that the Jeju naval base will be targeted in an armed conflict between the United States and China.’ Even short of war, the base will create tension among China, Japan, and Korea, which could escalate into a naval arms race in the Asia-Pacific region.”
An Intelligence Failure?
James Clapper is Obama’s choice as national intelligence director. He’s come under fire for his ties to the military and the Bush administration. “None of these portrayals, however, gets to the two most important aspects of Clapper’s career,” writes FPIF contributor Tim Shorrock in Clapper: Managing the Intelligence Enterprise, “his ties to the $50 billion intelligence contracting industry, and his role in both developing and deepening the secret intelligence wars initiated by George W. Bush and intensified by the Obama administration.”
Perhaps a greater intelligence failure involves Iran. “Despite a deep-seated lack of understanding between Iran and the United States, they share many common interests around which there is room for constructive bilateral engagement,” writes Richard Javad Heydarian in An Iran-U.S. Grand Bargain. “Like NATO, Iran wants to see stability on its borders and reduce regional tensions, which have also hurt Iran’s economy in terms of investments and trade. Tehran and Washington should move toward active and full engagement, but that will require both sides to shelve a history of conflict and obstinacy for a more cooperative and constructive future.”
Finally, FPIF intern Aurora Ellis reviews a new book by Nora McKeon on the relationship between the United Nations and civil society. “McKeon acknowledges the political and economic limits of the UN in its attempts to curtail the powers of transnational corporations and the few wealthy governments of the world who impose a neoliberal agenda on the world’s poor majority,” Ellis writes. “She also recognizes the lack of political will within the UN and its inability to address structural inequalities or promote accountability. Yet, McKeon still insists that the UN is the only international institution with the potential to move forward.”