In PIERS VITEBSKY’S wonderful book The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia, he speculates that perhaps these nomads did not domesticate reindeer thousands of years ago; rather, reindeer domesticated them. The nomads may herd and milk and eat the reindeer but they also protect them from wolves and tend to them in countless other ways. When you look at a typical autoscape in the United States, a similar thought arises: the people who live in this asphalt and petroleum expanse are not so much masters as servants of the car. After all, most of us inhabit a landscape that has been streamlined and smoothed down and emptied out for a faster but clumsier species that needs parking lots everywhere, a species that claims the lives of fifty thousand or so Americans a year, a species that has enabled our communities to grow beyond the size that human beings, which travel at about three miles an hour, can traverse without assistance. But even cars are not the dominant species here. Corporations are the top predators, and they have domesticated us — or at least many of us — to serve them.
For example, if you view George Bush as the president of a nation made up of some 300 million human beings, his interminable war in Iraq is a disaster, but if you think of him as point man for a handful of large corporations, he is doing an excellent job. The United States may be losing the war, but the corporations are still in many ways winning it — Bechtel has flourished, Lockheed Martin’s stock has nearly tripled in value, and Halliburton’s profits keep ballooning, despite the numerous scandals. And the oil companies! The war has coincided with an era of record profits, even if the fantasy of turning Iraq into a free-market free-for-all didn’t work quite as planned.
If I described to you the rise of a corporation on whose behalf wars were fought on at least three continents, that did everything from stack the audience and city council in the hometown of one of its toxic manufactories to paying soldiers to fire on unarmed Nigerian villagers from helicopters, a corporation that propped up the worst governments in this world and corroded our own, it would sound like dystopian science fiction — a Jurassic Park of the free market — were it not for the fact that I’m describing Chevron, the oil giant based in my own backyard. This seventh-largest corporation in the world was for decades headquartered in downtown San Francisco, but a few years ago, perhaps because of the constant protests, it moved to San Ramon in the East Bay. Demonstrators show up there regularly, though the company’s Richmond oil refinery — where about a quarter million barrels of oil, including Iraqi crude, are refined daily and toxic leaks are common — is the more frequent site for protest now. These protests draw together a remarkable panoply of players.
Part of what made the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle nearly nine years ago such a watershed is that people articulated and acted on the common ground for labor rights, human rights, indigenous rights, small farmers’ rights, health, and environmental issues around the world. Some activists had long perceived that there was a common thread in what all these groups were working for: dispersing power to the many and the small from its consolidation in the hands of nation-states and corporations, a shared stand against the violence that is sometimes as quick as a gun but sometimes as slow as poison and as subtle as impoverishment. As with the WTO, the breadth of Chevron’s malfeasance is oddly conducive to coalition. There’s the local environmental justice community, often headed by the great Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition, fighting on behalf of Chevron’s mostly poor and mostly nonwhite neighbors, who face toxins and respiratory problems as well as political domination. There are the Burmese activists, coordinated by Nyunt Than of the local Burmese American Democratic Alliance, since Chevron is one of the major backers of the vicious dictatorship there. There are allies of the indigenous people of Ecuador, such as Rainforest Action Network, since Chevron has a broad and filthy toxic legacy there. Add in the climate change activists. And of course many people opposed to the war in Iraq show up, since Chevron is one of the major beneficiaries of the access to the world’s second-largest oil reserves opened up by that invasion and ongoing occupation. The company’s record profits might ricochet deep into the red if it had to pick up a fair share of the costs of the war that is instead funded by citizens who’ve by and large turned against it.
This spring, the San Francisco–based Goldman Foundation gave one of its environmental prizes to Ecuadorian community activist Luis Yanza and lawyer Pablo Fajardo for leading a class-action lawsuit against Chevron. While extracting oil, Texaco (which was acquired by Chevron in 2001) had dumped 18.5 billion gallons of toxic waste directly into the rainforest, much of it indigenous homeland. In April of this year, an Ecuadorian court found in the activists’ favor and awarded damages in the billions. Chevron reacted with a PR offensive, attempting to discredit both the Goldman Prize and its Ecuadorian winners. The corporation’s media relations advisor called the lawsuit a “shakedown” and claimed that Chevron was “stiff-armed” by the “misled” Goldman family. Amazon Watch founder and director Atossa Soltani said, “Beyond the numbers, the Ecuadorian lawsuit has already set a major precedent: The extractive industries’ age of operating with impunity away from the public spotlight in the developing world is nearing an end. No longer can transnational corporations simply walk away from the environmental and human tragedies associated with oil operations in remote corners of the globe.”
If the nomads serve the reindeer and not the other way around, that’s a beautiful thing — an alliance that has worked for thousands of the millions of years reindeer have been here on Earth. That corporations have domesticated many of us without any such reciprocity is another story, and the ruckus stirred up by the Goldman Prize is part of the resistance. There are a lot of ways to react to this corporation at the root of so many evils. There are individual lawsuits and actions — moves to cut off one tentacle at a time of the petroleum-eating, toxics-secreting behemoth. Reducing petroleum consumption and choosing which pump you get it from is another. But there are stronger measures. There’s anti-Chevron activist Antonia Juhasz’s proposal to break up the big oil corporations, made in her brand-new book, The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry — and What We Must Do to Stop It. After all, it’s been almost a century since Standard Oil was, during a bolder era, deemed a damaging monopoly and broken up. Or you can go one step beyond that and consider revoking the corporate charters that created the monsters in the first place, abolishing not just a particularly egregious oil company or oil companies, but dismantling corporations altogether.
These may sound like pipe dreams, but when the Seattle WTO demonstrations were organized in 1999, defeating the behemoth designed to railroad corporate rights through every locale on Earth seemed impossible. Then it happened. Unlike reindeer and their herders, corporations are not real entities. They are more like the giant puppets created by activists for the streets of Seattle: we made them, and we can unmake them to make a better world.