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Natural solidarity

The Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was as much a disaster for workers as for the planet, writes David Whyte. Reconnecting life and work to the environment must be part of our response

July 25, 2010
8 min read

A month into BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe, the US press began to say that the crisis might be ‘Obama’s 9/11’. It was a comparison that Obama himself repeated a couple of weeks later. Hyperbole? Perhaps – but the disaster certainly opens up space for thinking about alternatives to the industry that created it.

Contrary to the headlines, this is no standoff between ‘capital’ on the one side and ‘the state’ on the other. And although residual anti-British prejudices that may have surprised some on this side of the Atlantic have certainly been exploited, neither is it a case of US nationalism. Both government and corporate interests are more closely linked than they appear.

Obama faced a public baying for corporate blood in a part of the country where his vote is weak. This explains the rumour, rife in the industry for a short time, that Obama was intending to ‘nationalise’ BP. The incredible $20 billion compensation deal negotiated in the White House was probably necessary for the survival of both the company and the president.

How they did it is significant. The White House deal effectively smashed the $75 million liability limit normally guaranteed to polluting oil firms by the US Oil Pollution Act. Now the act – a key 1990s ‘corporate welfare’ reform – has been torn to shreds as if it never existed. This shows us that the combination of liability protections for companies, what lawyers call the ‘corporate veil’, is not impermeable.

And even in the knowledge that Obama had little option, the macho hype surrounding his promise to ‘kick some butt’ is significant. The challenge to BP has shown us that no corporation is invincible.

On the face of things, this is an historic moment. Indeed, it is a moment that, in shaking the foundations of one of the world’s largest organisations, dwarfs anything that counter-hegemonic anti-capitalist movements have achieved.

The question, then, is: how should we, the multitude who are wholly disconnected from the ‘big politics’ of BP and the White House, respond?

An industrial disaster

The first thing we need to do is to recover the description of the incident as an industrial disaster, with 11 workers dead and 19 injured. If you missed the news coverage on 20 April, the day of the disaster, it is entirely possible that you wouldn’t know that anybody had actually been harmed.

After a week or so it had become an environmental disaster, something different, and, judging by the news coverage, infinitely more serious. In the coverage of the compensation deal, questions about the compensation to the deceased and injured workers were not even on the agenda.

This is reflected closely in the movement of BP’s share price following the explosion. A week into the disaster, with 11 dead, the share price remained higher than it had been the week before. The collapse started on 26 April, as traders feared that BP’s environmental crimes could trigger huge liabilities and expose it to major loss of earnings suits from other businesses. It was commercial life that mattered to Wall Street, not human life.

The left too often upholds Wall Street’s conceptual segregation of workers’ safety and environmental protection. The author and journalist Naomi Klein’s otherwise forensic response was hampered by this artificial segregation.

In presenting the root of the problem as a folly of industrial hubris (arguing that humans will never tame nature), she is ultimately right, but this grand analysis obscures the crucial detail. Maybe Mother Nature is shedding her blood, but why is that a separate issue from the undeniably real human blood already shed?

In the oil industry, the seeds of environmental destruction and of workers’ deaths are both found in an oligarchic structure that controls the industry from drilling to sale on the forecourt. The power of the oligarchy is found not just in the size of those companies, but in their ability to control the supply of oil and its primary products at every stage.

The industry has a virulently anti-trade union culture. The summary dismissal of trade unionists and safety activists is a feature that permeates its activities across the globe.

It was a key causal factor in the Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea in 1988. On BP’s Atlantis platform, whistleblower Kenneth Abbot was sacked in 2009 for raising problems similar to those that have been established as causal in Deepwater Horizon.

In the Niger Delta, as John Vidal has noted, the super-majors combine to produce a Gulf of Mexico every year, destroying livelihoods and water supplies on an incomparable scale. In the Amazon, spills and pollution by companies including ChevronTexaco have removed whole tribes from the forest, resulting in cultural genocide.

In each case precisely the same features are at play: managerial despotism, lax regulation, reckless production and transportation, and a vacuum of accountability and liability for spills and routine pollution. Yet the industrial structure allows responsibility to be passed down the chain, very often to the individual that ’caused’ an explosion.

The quickest way to guard against environmental catastrophe is to ensure that those who work in hazardous conditions have some measure of control over this work. More than ever before, we need to mobilise around the natural solidarity between worker protection and environmental protection.

This is not to deny that big environmental threats such as global warming will require more than workplace organisation. But when we begin to look for the most radical transformative solutions, we find this solidarity irresistible.

Thirty years ago the Lucas Aerospace workers drew up their ‘alternative corporate plan’, to convert military production to clean and socially useful activity. This is a model that is often invoked (see Red Pepper, Oct/Nov 2009).

In the current climate, transformative initiatives that propose ‘green jobs’ are not particularly politically challenging – not least given the overtures to the value of the ‘green economy’ on both sides of the Atlantic. The work of the Blue-Green Alliance, an alliance between US trade unions and environmental NGOs, is gaining some momentum. (It remains baffling why there have been no such major trade union-led initiatives on green industrial transformation in the UK in 30 years.)

Moratorium

Beyond the demand for industrial transformation, Deepwater Horizon will surely give impetus to the politics of moratorium. The Yasuní-ITT initiative proposes to leave oil in the ground under the Amazonian rainforest in an area that

claims the highest biodiversity in the world.

The Ecuadorian government has requested around $3.5 billion over the next 10 or so years from the international community to safeguard the forest. Last September the German government pledged EUR50 million over 13 years, and Spain was considering a similar plan to pledge EUR18 million.

In April, as the Deepwater disaster was unfolding, 30,000 people representing indigenous peoples’ movements from all over the world met in Bolivia, at the invitation of President Evo Morales. The World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth set out a radical vision of environmental justice and issued a ‘Peoples’ Agreement’. Its demands included ‘a review, or if the case warrants, a moratorium, [of] every polluting activity that affects Mother Earth, and the withdrawal of multinational corporations and megaprojects from indigenous territories’.

From the perspective of the peoples of South America, care for the Earth and the dignity of human beings cannot be artificially separated. It is in the necessary reconnection of ‘life’, ‘work’ and ‘environment’ that once again we find a new solidarity.

New ways of collaborating and thinking are always connected to the withering of old ones. It seems undeniable now that the dismantling of the corporation is necessary to allow us to recover our dignity and our humanity. All of the key structural features of corporations ensure that they act destructively, and always against the grain of human values of mutual support and the sustainability of life.

Rather than offering alternatives to a world dominated by the ‘pathological’ killer corporations, it is sometimes suggested that recalcitrant corporations should be dealt with on an individual basis, by revoking their charters. In adopting this approach, corporations are pathologised – treated as deviants in an economic system that is otherwise basically okay.

This has been Obama’s approach to BP.

But the actions of one reckless company, no matter how reckless and destructive, are only part of the issue. We are at a decisive point in the history of the planet, one that is too important to be left to remote and increasingly out-of-control corporate hierarchies.

Dismantling corporate power structures is the most pressing task of our time. The revolutionary significance of working towards this should not be underestimated.

The modern corporation is the principle institutional form of capital. To break this institutional structure is to break the legal and institutional basis of private property ownership.

So we are left in a familiar quandary: in order to move towards a more just society, we need to break that which is held most sacred. But this is not an all-or-nothing quandary.

Working for small changes in the structure of the oil industry can give impetus to a new solidarity between ‘work’ and ‘environment’ and to demand real change.

Obama has shown how limited liability protections for one company can be discarded unilaterally by government intervention.

The quickest way to dismantle corporate power structures would be to abolish the privilege of limited liability – for all companies. This is the possibility that Deepwater Horizon has opened up for us.

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