Jurassic Park of the Free Market

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.

Rebecca Solnit is a writer, historian, and activist. She is the author of seventeen books including Men Explain Things To Me (2014), Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas (2013), and River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Midwest (2004) . She is a columnist for Orion, and a regular contributor to the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch daily newsgram.

 

Comments

  1. In reading this article, I was fascinated by the author’s very apt and superb analogy of corporations, as controllers of providers of life essentials to modern humankind with reindeer which are in reality the controllers of Siberian nomads. The author’s conclusion that corporations, unlike reindeer, are man made creations subject to change by their creators is refreshing.
    Such a position carried to the ultimate would seem to be the solution to the imperialism practiced by nation states throughout history, inclusive at present of the United States.
    Alas, unfortunately complex problems are often not susceptible to such simplistic solutions. Putting the tooth paste back in the tube has its own set of problems, exemplified by the various powerful members of the wealthy ruling class (for lack of better terminology) committed to the proposition that never shall the masses be permitted to even up the playing field. And so the battle between status quo defenders and populists wages on and on.
    One fact, and one fact only, looms as the sure and unconquered enemy of corporate wealth and their creators. That fact is the one that will permit the continuation of an organized community in the world of real people and the dissipation of our artificial masters. That fact is that we live in a world of finite resources. Change will come, but it will be from an external source, the end of the energy faucet of oil. For more on this matter, go to http://nodsavid.blogspot.com/2008/05/is-it-over.html or http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/ for further review.

  2. Beautiful Rebecca. But, these corp’s have more helicopters and guns and will be more free to use them on others in the “1st world,” esp if Palin should become president (a too distinct possibility) Unmaking these corp’s is not going to happen unless some judges with integrity break down the 19century law that turned them into “persons.”
    Nature designed us to live like those reindeer people, like the lovely 90 yr. old man talking with me about growing up in the Colorado mountains in the 1920’s.
    Totally self sustaining and responsive to the needs of the sacred earth which sustained them. Lawyers and other filthy rich own the land now and have changed all the names of creeks and mountains as oil pumps appear one by one in all the shallow valleys once sacred Earth.

  3. It is appropriate tonight to also remember the other 9/11 – Chile 1973. The military, supported by the US, bombed the presidential palace, installed Pinoche, and unleashed a horror of crimes against his countrymen and human rights to protect access to mineral rights extraction at favorable rates.

  4. Yes, but there is a difference. The market controls corporate existence, and the market is the consumer.

    If you don’t want to consume oil, quit driving. But you better find housing where you can walk to work.

    And don’t eat the fruits and vegitables shipped into your cold northern climates during winter, because that is a benefit of the transportation industry. Canning your own wouldn’t be an improvement, because each of us doing this individually instead of depending on the more energy efficient mass production would increase rather than decrease our dependance on fossil fuels, converted to electricity and transmitted over the power grid or pumped through natural gas lines into our homes.

    It is convenient to blame corporations, but it is a lazy approach to the problem.

  5. “the market is the consumer” alleges Claudia. In a fair, transparent and frictionless world, there is a bright shining market on the hill. This is not that world. Here’s why: If gas was, say $10. a gallon, there would be a tremendous impetus for economy, efficiency and alternatives. Calculate the ‘true’ fully burdened costs, not the social shifted don’t pay to play costs, and you would see that. I hear that specious argument when employers justify illegals as cheaper and therefore more ‘worthy’ than their fellow citizens. The concept that rapaciousness and indifference to those less able to leverage the common infrastructures to personal gain has been the history of wealth creation in many industries in the US. If I couldn’t move my company without paying back the interest free loans, the land grants, the railroad tracks, the telephone system (all built with public funds, trust or land) The 30 years of funding of corporate think tanks results in the clouding of minds about the shared commons we all inhabit. It is not a zero-sum game, despite the drawbridges and gated communities. There is something fundamentally unbalanced in a society where 1 in 10 jobs are security, and there are more than 2 million imprisoned.

  6. “Market is the consumer?” LOL.
    So, consumer choice occurs in a vacuum, huh? Must be nice to live in a “lucky country”….

  7. Every time a discussion winds up seeming to pit two opposites—eg consummer laziness vs corporate abuse—we can be sure the wisest and most effective response lies in the approximate and ever-shifting middle-ground, where BOTH poles—consummer responsibility and corporate responsibility— are taken seriously and as far as we can imagine.

    We need corporate reform AND we need consummer activism!! Let’s not fight each other, let’s get going!

  8. Maia makes a good point. Once there is equity in the commons then we can work together. Clean air, clean water, healthy oceans are good goals. Who could possibly find fault with those basic, life affirming, earth stewardship efforts, right?
    It’s basically the tobacco industry approach from the profit centered participants in the discussion. The attempts at dialog are difficult to continue as one watches the “wrecking crew” on double time, burning, drilling and clearcutting like there’s no tomorrow. This approach seems to be self fulfilling to some observers.

  9. Corporations are made of people. Their responsibility is to the employee and shareholder, and they are motivated by the so-called American dream of…(ZOMG) being allowed to make a profit!

    Americans are always going to want to buy oil, as long as it’s necessary for their mode of transportation. We are not slaves to our cars, we are slaves to convenience and comfort. Yes, you’re right, I’m a slave to getting somewhere fast and not having to hunt for my food. I carry this burden knowing that some day we can all return to spending our days fishing with a stick and our nights bored or scared.

    It’s an interesting take on things, but take a hop off the ivory tower. The comfort we enjoy has always come at the expense of others, this is nothing new. See Hawaii, Cuba, Costa Rica, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Honduras, Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, Chile, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq. If not us…Russia, China, EU? Can you remember a time in history when everyone was equal, no one was exploited? These countries are on the rise, and living conditions around the world are better than they have ever been.

    Please respond I may be completely wrong, but that’s my view.

  10. The almost 100 years of toxic sludge washing out into S.F. Bay, on a daily basis, from mud-only lined pits between Chevron’s chemical and oil refineries in Richmond, have gone a long way towards killing the Bay. And little kids continue to fish there, next to the third treatment pond, where the tidal weir opens up and lets nature suck out all the poisons into our food supply. Go figure? Corporate personhood? Corporate responsibility? That’s a sick joke. And it’s happening all over the planet. Good luck and godspeed to everyone if you don’t know for certain where your food comes from. Even that’s a crap shoot, however. Clean drinking water, breathable air, non-toxic food? Those aren’t even basic human rights any more. Maybe in a hundred years, if this century finally becomes one of restoration to undo the previous century of corporate destruction. Maybe. Has anyone checked out Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” lately to see how far off course we have steered?

  11. Benton (#9) says “return to spending our days fishing with a stick and our nights bored or scared.” A common sort of response to those calling for changing the corporate capitalist economy based on the religion of consumption and greed, in my opinion. However, those relying on that sort of response seem to think that participating in community-based, frugal and efficient and nature-cognizant lifestyles automatically requires that we become stupid or voluntarily forget everything that we have learned in the past two millenia. Comfort doesn’t HAVE to come at the expense of others, and doesn’t have to include inappropriate luxury or wasteful and selfish use of resources. Of course, that’s the rub: we’d have to act like responsible people who actually CARE about others! And just because that situation has never existed before does not mean that it never can. That’s where evolution comes into consideration, and we are supposed to be becoming MORE civilized and MORE just and possibly even more enlightened! Elsewise, what is the point? We might as well still be crouching in a cave somewhere, ready to club our dinner or another cavedweller who might club our dinner before we can. “Living conditions around the world are better than they have ever been.” Well, in some ways, but not so much, if you take into account that we’ve accomplished this by destroying the natural systems that created conditions in which we could live and find everything that we need to support our lives, as well as by destroying the chance for many people to even get by with a subsistence lifestyle. The current high standard of living is all based on credit. It hasn’t been paid for yet, and the bill is coming due. So far, the people of the lesser developed nations have been paying the interest and the minimal payment due amounts, but with such a large global population, that will be undergoing a drastic change, actually underway now. We’re supposed to LEARN from history, not repeat it. If we don’t, that stick-fishing thing might start to sound pretty good.

  12. Hi Nori,
    To me it seems unrealistic to expect such a moral evolution, through which everyone is suddenly motivated completely by the common good instead of self interest…at least in the next few centuries. It sounds like Che Geuvera’s “Nuevo Hombre”…an evolved being who is re-programmed to (for example) voluntarily spend a few extra hours at work at the end of the day for the good of the state. It just doesn’t happen, people are too motivated by self interest, and that’s not a bad thing if we combine it with a reasonable interest in the less fortunate.

    I don’t know enough about environmental science to comment on your second point, but you may be interested in this lecture and I’d like to hear your comments:

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen.html

  13. This is not Rebecca’s finest writing. It’s more of a rant than a report, and a little too hysterical for me. It’s also polarizing. It may rile up the already convinced, but it will not win any converts. Shouldn’t that be what good expository writing is all about?

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