The Shutdown as Shock Doctrine

As the dust settles from the last long government shutdown, it’s time to reflect on some fundamental truths about our political system.

First, during the last shutdown, the government forced 420,000 of its own employees to work without pay indefinitely, while another 380,000 were furloughed. A government that cares so little about the economic security of its own employees obviously cares even less about people experiencing poverty in the wider public.

Second, all this happened as a result of the president’s demonstrably false claims of a “crisis” of migration — and his demands to further militarize an already militarized border with a neighboring country that, the last time I checked, we aren’t at war with.

But there’s a third set of reasons we should be outraged and worried about the shutdown. The stories that form the nucleus of this narrative have all been in the news, but the common thread that ties these stories together is not widely understood or discussed, and it should be.

Consider this juxtaposition. During the last shutdown, the National Park Service, an agency of the Interior Department, couldn’t do its job looking after our national parks because its employees weren’t considered “essential” and were furloughed. This had some serious consequences, including permanent damage to the namesake trees in Joshua Tree National Park.

But while parks closed, other agencies of the Department of the Interior were busy leasing oil and gas drilling rights on public lands, including in the ecologically sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The department even recalled furloughed employees to process drilling permits, which is potentially illegal.

Meanwhile, at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), work on the US-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which deals with issues, such as toxic algae blooms on Lake Erie that affect water quality for hundreds of thousands of people, was stalled. (These blooms are a direct consequence of fertilizer runoff from our polluting food production system, exacerbated by climate change impacts, such as warmer water and heavier rains that increase runoff.)

And in North Carolina, communities devastated by Hurricane Florence — an event whose damaging impacts were amplified because of climate change — couldn’t access reconstruction funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development because of the shutdown. Remember that the people hurt most by Hurricane Florence were disproportionately Black or Native, and low-income.

The Ideology of “Essential”

What do these governmental functions that were suspended during the shutdown have in common? They all protect the public interest — health, safety and the environment. They particularly benefit vulnerable people. Some of them, if pursued diligently, might negatively impact corporate profits.

Conversely, government functions that assist oil and gas drilling benefit corporations, and are risky — sometimes outright dangerous — for public health and safety and the environment.

Decades of neoliberal ideological dominance have turned the pro-corporate, anti-public interest, anti-regulation agenda on display here into “common sense.” The political decisions about which government agencies and operations are considered essential, and which ones are considered optional, reflect this ideological bias. This isn’t just a Trump administration problem either; neoliberal ideology is bipartisan “commonsense” in much of official Washington.

There’s something else at play here that’s unique to the Trump administration, though. Here are a few clues.

A joint research and data collection project of the EPA and the U.S. Forest Service on the environmental and health effects of wildfires in California was suspended because of the shutdown — a suspension that compromises the integrity of the science, since conditions on the ground change, and the time to collect data is as soon after the fires as possible.

Similarly, scientists at the National Hurricane Center — part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — had to stick to day-to-day weather forecasting and were not allowed to work on refining their forecasting models. Remember, hurricane forecast models are part of the science that informs (and is informed by) scientific assessments of climate change impact on severe storms.

These just happen to be key elements of advancing Trump’s “Energy Dominance” agenda of reckless expansion of fossil fuel extraction and use to benefit U.S. (and sometimes foreign) corporations, come hell or high water (literally). A lot of what we saw in the shutdown fits in with promoting this agenda

Deregulating Destruction

The continuation of oil and gas leasing and permit operations at the Department of the Interior shows the high priority that the Trump administration places on facilitating fossil fuel extraction and use.

One particularly outrageous example of fossil fuel deregulation is the proposed plan to deregulate coal-fired power plant emissions, even though the government’s own analysis (conveniently buried in technical tables on pages 169 through 171 of a 289-page document) shows that the proposal will likely lead to between 250 and 1,600 additional deaths every year from soot and ozone pollution.

Another example is the drive to ease regulations on methane emissions from oil and gas drilling operations to reduce costs for industry at the expense of public health and the climate. Importantly, methane is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas over a 100-year window, and 84 times more potent over a 20-year window.

It’s not just the extraction and use, it’s the waste. Burning coal creates coal ash, a toxic residue laced with arsenic, lead and other carcinogenic pollutants. There are more than 1,100 coal ash disposal sites nationwide, and every year we generate another 140 million tons of this dangerous waste. The toxins from coal ash can gradually leach into water bodies and groundwater, or get released in catastrophic spills, both of which pose threats to water quality. Dry coal ash pits also threaten air quality, because the ash can be spread by winds. Pollution from coal ash leads to higher rates of cancer, heart disease, respiratory illness and other adverse health outcomes.

So what does the Trump EPA propose to do about coal ash? Make it easier and cheaper for coal-burning utilities to dump their ash, of course.

These are just a few examples of a wide range of administration actions to make it cheaper for corporations to extract, transport, and burn fossil fuels and dump the toxic residue.

Hiding the Evidence

The suspensions of wildfire and hurricane modeling research fit into a larger war on science.

To cite just a few lowlights, the president claims he doesn’t “believe” a painstakingly researched report by his own government’s scientists on the domestic impacts of climate change. References to climate change are being censored on government websites across multiple agencies. Lastly, government scientists have been ignored, silenced and retaliated against for blowing the whistle.

This isn’t just because high-level government officials hate science (though some of them might). The assault on science appears calculated to suppress evidence of the harms of fossil fuel extraction and use, and greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s harder to fight back against the government’s deregulatory agenda without enough evidence of its disastrous impact.

Throwing the Vulnerable Under the Bus

A hallmark of the administration’s response to vulnerable communities dealing with the impacts of climate change and fossil fuel pollution has been to ignore them and to deny them federal help for problems they didn’t create — but that the government’s agenda facilitates.

Examples abound. We’ll look at just two — one many readers are aware of but is worth reiterating, and one that most people haven’t heard of but should know about.

Hurricane Maria, the more widely known catastrophe, was not a purely natural disaster. It was made more severe by climate change, and the devastation it brought to Puerto Rico was compounded by a long recession worsened by Washington-imposed austerity measures that prioritize repaying Wall Street over the human needs of Puerto Ricans.

The government response to Hurricane Maria was an international disgrace. Almost 3,000 people died, with many of the fatalities occurring after the hurricane because of loss of electric power and clean water. It took nearly a year to restore electricity to the whole island.

Why was a robust recovery for Puerto Rico not treated as the national emergency that it was? Why wasn’t there a massive mobilization of resources to deal with this crisis? Part of the answer lies in pervasive race and class prejudice: An island with a population that’s 99 percent Latinx and has a poverty rate of more than 44 percent is not a high priority for the powerful.

Uniontown, a lesser known site, is an 88 percent Black rural Alabama town with an annual median household income of only $14,000, less than a quarter of the national median household income. Uniontown residents are burdened with severe health effects from a coal ash landfill, but the EPA has rejected their civil rights complaint. The government helps the utility industry save money on coal ash disposal, while refusing to help people like the residents of Uniontown who have to deal with the adverse consequences.

The criminal neglect of places like Puerto Rico and Uniontown appear to be motivated by sheer contempt for the most vulnerable people, but there could be more here than meets the eye.

Public denialism aside, many in the administration probably realize their policies will worsen climate change impacts, so the numbers of affected people, the scale of the impacts and the size of the funds needed for protecting these affected people and restoring their communities are going to grow exponentially. The administration doesn’t want poor people and people of color to have any claim to federal funds that they would much rather spend on fossil fuel subsidies, or on the military, or give back to billionaires in tax cuts.

What better way to do this than to set the precedent, starting today, that if you’re harmed in any way by the Trump administration’s reckless energy and environmental policies, you’re on your own?

Real Shock Doctrine, Fake Shocks

We have no evidence that right-wing interests consciously engineered the shutdown with the intent of dismantling the regulatory state. But if (as Trump has threatened) frequent shutdowns become the norm, it is quite conceivable that the right wing will use these shutdowns as a pretext (and a cover) to do exactly that.

Twelve years ago, Naomi Klein popularized the concept of the “shock doctrine” — a pattern of pushing through economic deregulation and privatization by taking advantage of a real or perceived crisis, when people are too distracted, confused or preoccupied with their survival to pay too much attention, let alone resist.

Taking advantage of government shutdowns to push through a deregulatory agenda is much like the “shock doctrine,” but with one difference. This isn’t the fall of the Soviet Union or the tsunami in Sri Lanka. It is a “crisis” manufactured out of whole cloth.

If the dismantling of the regulatory state goes into overdrive in an environment of repeated, prolonged government shutdowns, we can expect that “energy dominance” will be a key part of the deregulatory agenda.

A clear political understanding of the stakes and the playbook, accompanied by unwavering vigilance, will be a key first step to resisting and reversing this agenda.