By Lierre Keith / Deep Green Resistance
Editor’s note: This first appeared in Mother Earth News on July 28, 2010. We are republishing it on the sixth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Everything that’s wrong with this culture is in the story now pouring out of a broken oil rig 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. I don’t mean story as in fictitious. I mean it as a narrative, the account of successive events that builds into a history. That history is now washing up on the shore as oil-drenched corpses; nothing more than a quick, bracing glance is needed to know how those birds suffered. It’s also a history that’s waiting to turn cells toward the fierce hunger of cancer, settling into the lungs of children, erupting into blisters on the skin “so deep they’re leaving scars.”
We could find our beginning point, our once upon a time, in the first written story of this culture, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which chronicled the deforestation of Mesopotamia. The story hasn’t changed in four thousand years — it’s just quickened with the accelerant of fossil fuel. The pattern is basic to civilization, a feedback loop of overshoot, militarization, slavery, and biotic devastation, a loop that has tightened into a noose. That noose is planet-wide, encircling the earth in a siege beyond the wildest dreams of ambitious Caesars of the past. Nothing is safe, not the South Pole, not the strata 30,000 feet below the earth’s surface, not even the moon, which the power-mad had to “punch” last year. Ownership and entitlement have distilled into a sense of control so pure — and so rancid — that life itself is now being ransomed to the demands of the sociopaths at the top of a very steep, very brutal pyramid.
Where do we stand in that pyramid? Not where we were born — because anyone reading this is one of the globally wealthy — but where do we stand? That’s the question, baring the noblest values of which humans are capable: courage, moral agency, the loyalty that can slow-bloom into solidarity. Are we willing to face how corporations, on the steroids of fossil fuel, have gutted our democracy, our communities, our planet? That insight doesn’t require much intellectually, but it does require courage.
The loyalty will require letting our hearts open to break, as we watch the crabs trying vainly to escape the toxified water of their home and dolphins hemorrhaging. Include them in the clan of you and yours because they are already there; but we will have to fight for them once they become visible, real, a part of the circle called “us” that can’t be broken. Know, too, that two out of three animal breaths are of oxygen made by plankton: if the oceans go down, we go down with them.
Erased into nonexistence by the corporate storytellers are other “resources” as well. These resources dare to insist that they are human, humans with rights against the Kings no less. Most of the clean-up workers of the Exxon Valdez disaster are dead — their average life expectancy was around fifty. This is what it has always meant to be indentured, owned. The powerful get to use you until they discard you as worthless. But each human is priceless: our society is supposed to have learned that somewhere between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Besides the visible signs of trauma from losing their coast, their culture, and their livelihoods, there is an inchoate, bewildered grief in the faces of Gulf residents, a grief over the loss of their basic safety and hence their dignity: we are human, we have a right to our lives, how can it be that anyone is allowed to fill our lungs with poison? And the poison keeps coming, as the dispersant Corexit is dropped from planes “like Agent Orange in Viet Nam.”
Here’s my version of the story. A tiny group of wealthy people, backed by the legal system, the government, and, as always, armed force, is allowed to gut an entire ecosystem. When the people organize a nonviolent resistance movement, the leaders are arrested, put through an absurd trial, and then hanged by the military. The outrage of the international community can’t stop the smug sadism of power.
It’s a true story. The group was called MOSOP (the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People), and the most famous of the murdered leaders was poet Ken Saro-Wiwa. It has a sequel, too: MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. MEND has said to the oil industry, “Leave our land or you will die in it.” Like the Gulf, the Niger Delta is knee-deep in oil sludge, and the once self-sufficient people are now impoverished, sick, and desperate. Think what you will of MEND’s direct tactics: they’ve reduced oil output by 30 percent and some of the oil companies are considering pulling out. That’s what happens when people resist: sometimes it works, happily ever after.
We need to break the spell of the corporate storytellers, the court magicians with their enticing tricks called CNN and MTV, what Chris Hedges — one of our last, true public intellectuals — calls the Empire of Illusion. In his words, they have us “clamoring for our own enslavement.” But all the fantasies and shiny toys in the world won’t help us when the planet is six degrees too hot for all creatures great and small, from brown pelicans to bacteria. This is being done for the benefit of essentially 1,400 people, the wealthy who control the world economy through the legal structure of the limited liability corporation. Yes, they have mostly destroyed our — that’s “our” as in “us, globally” — our ability to provide for ourselves, addicted us to their mass-produced culture of petulant cruelty, and won the rights that are supposed to adhere to human beings, not business entities. As Rikki Ott, Rachel Carson by any other name, makes clear, “Our government is beholden to oil and cannot imagine a future without oil. We the people have got to imagine this. We have to.”
And that’s where you come in, readers. It’s not just imagination for you: you’re already living another story, human-scale and woven into a living community like roots through soil. Your story is about patience and permanence, connection and commitment. It’s about people as participants in the world — in the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the physical, sacred cycle of life and death — not dominators. These are the values of animals who intend to live in their home for a long, long time. They are values that stand in direct opposition to the corporate masters. They are also the values that a real resistance needs.
A conquered people calls for a boycott. A sovereign people would shred BP’s corporate charter, seize their assets, and put the money of the world’s fourth largest corporation toward restoring the Gulf: the land, the people, the community. There are efforts to do exactly that. More, there are efforts to strike to the heart of corporate power: an amendment to the constitution that would strip them of the rights they have claimed: the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, the Sixth, the Fifth… rumor has it they have their sights on the Second. They’ve staged a coup and won, and they’ve done what conquerors do: gutted the colony. And it’s not just the earth they’ve scorched, but the oceans and sky as well as the lungs of children and the livers of dolphins.
Call it what it is: a war. It’s not a mistake. It’s not even a set of loopholes that some naughty boys in a bad corporate culture exploited. Whether the oil gushed or was pumped and then burned, the result would have been the same: a planet destroyed — pelican by penguin by Ogoni child — for the benefit of a wealthy few.
It’s time to remember the animals — brave and hungry and loyal — that we are. So with your front paws, turn off all the corporate media flooding our culture and our children with moral stupidity and go dig in the dirt. It’s your dirt, our dirt, the collective home of a tribe called carbon. It’s our place, our people, an indivisible part of the story of us.
As for your hind feet, stand up on them and fight.