Sketches From a Small World – BP and Environmental Justice

By Eurig Scandrett

By the time you read this, the oil giant BP may not exist, having collapsed in the wake of the Gulf coast oil spill, the disastrous attempts to stem the flow of oil from the deep sea bed and the incompetent measures to contain the oil slick and protect the southern shores of the USA. We can be sure that the local fishing industry has been pretty well destroyed and most likely the tourist and many other industries in Louisiana and its neighbouring states.

The complex human ecology supported in the wetlands along the Louisiana coast had already begun to degrade as a result of the oil industry in the Gulf and the rising sea levels from climate change. It now looks as though the destruction will be complete. BP’s safety and environmental record is appalling. Whether the company survives or goes will be a decision largely dictated by the market. In other words, the company is primarily accountable to the interests of capital, not to any government. This is something we know. The lesson is that ecological destruction and the loss of lives and livelihoods is the outcome of this lack of public accountability.

On a recent trip to Shetland I saw the result of what is acclaimed as the success story in making the oil industry accountable. The oil terminal at Sullom Voe was built in the mid 1970s, in the middle of pressure on the global supply and price of oil from the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in response to the west’s support for Israel when Egypt and Syria attempted to reclaim the land occupied in 1967.

The oil crisis allowed Shetland, represented by Liberal leader Jo Grimond, to demand concessions. Sullom Voe oil facility is reasonably well hidden and there appear to have been few polluting incidents. Moreover, a local tax per barrel of oil processed has enabled large public sector employment and provided communal facilities throughout the islands in the form of village halls, arts activities, leisure centres and community trust enterprises, none of which bears a logo from an oil company. A success in compromising with the capitalist oil industry in the interests of the population? I’m not in a position to judge James O’Connor’s 1979 prediction (1) that the benefits of the industry would be to the petty bourgeoisie and their allies in the political class, rather than to workers.

Having recently participated in the wonderful opera Carbon Chronicles by Camilla Cancantata I’m reminded of the geological scale of these things. I have written before about the imminent end to the 250 year oil era in which capitalism burns up the oil which took 50 million years to form. As I write, the annual targets for carbon dioxide reductions are being negotiated in the Scottish Parliament, after the SNP’s first derisory attempts were thrown out. We have 40 years to cut 80% to meet the targets in the Climate Change Act. Simple arithmetic tells you that anything less than 2% per year now, delays the big cuts to later and leads to a greater total level of climate change. We need at least 3% annual reduction, implemented with social justice.

This means hitting the most privileged emitters hardest – the oil industry, the fossil power stations, the businesses most dependent on aviation – and implementing just transition programmes for the workers who have been made dependent on these. This cannot be done by classifying polluters as “National Developments”, putting them outwith the control of local accountability. Already two National Developments, the proposed coal-fired power station at Hunterston and the gas power station at Cockenzie, have run into trouble with conflict between national expediency and local and global interests.

Thousands of us marched through Edinburgh and many thousands more in other cities throughout the world, demonstrating against the latest aggression of the Israeli military and government in killing nine activists carrying humanitarian aid towards Gaza. At this time it seems unlikely that we will ever get a full picture of what happened since Israel is blocking calls from the UN and world governments, including those friendly to it, for an independent inquiry. As I write it seems unclear whether the level of violence was premeditated and planned by Israel or whether it erupted spontaneously amongst the commandos and subsequently praised by the Israelis. We do know however that the Israeli military’s violent occupation of the Mavi Marmara in international waters included deliberate shooting to kill and summary executions. We know that they met with some resistance by unarmed activists using sticks and kitchen knives. We know that the attack was justified by Israel in order to search for weapons amongst the cargo which had already been checked by officials in Turkey, its erstwhile ally. It is clear that Israel’s fanatical fundamentalism, its belief in its God-given right to flout international law in pursuit of its 60+ year violent repression of the Palestinians is tolerated by the world community and especially the USA which bankrolls it.

If, as the Israelis claim, their commandos were attacked by activists as they attempted to board the aid flotilla, then arguably the actions of those activists are close to the principles of non-violence developed by M.K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Although these leaders encouraged their supporters not to use violence, the main purpose of non-violence is to expose the violence in the oppressor rather than simply avoiding violence in the victim. By offering resistance with sticks and knives to one of the most lethally equipped militaries in the world – and paying with their lives – the activists exposed to the world the violence inherent in the blockade of Gaza and the whole Zionist occupation of Palestine.

Israel’s actions will, by contrast, lead to more violence. Like most people, I am furious about the murders and the ongoing oppression of Palestine, and feel helpless in the face of the world’s toleration of Israel’s behaviour. I am a 48 year old Christian. If I were a 24 year old Muslim I am sure that I would be raging and I might look for other means to challenge Israel and its appeasers. Israel’s state terrorism will fuel more terrorism.

In India we are also seeing violence escalating from an attack on the poor dressed up as a war on terrorism. India’s Operation Green Hunt is a concerted attempt to destroy “Naxalites” (Maoist insurgents), especially in the central-eastern forests of Chhattisgarrh, Jarkhand, Orissa and West Bengal. Little reported in the UK media, the death toll of state military and paramilitary, guerrillas, tribal people and other civilians is growing rapidly, especially since an Indian military detachment of 76 soldiers, deep inside tribal forest lands, were killed in a Maoist ambush on April 6th. The recent derailing of a passenger train in May seems to have been the work of tribal militias allied with the Maoists. Communist Party of India (Maoist) is strongest in areas where tribal people are being evicted in order to allow access for mineral extraction companies. The writer and activist Arundhati Roy spent weeks with CPI(M) guerrillas in the Dandakaranya forest and published a revealing account on www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?264738.

One cheer from Bhopal as eight executives and managers of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) are found guilty of causing deaths through negligence. This should not be confused with justice. UCIL was the Indian majority-owned subsidiary of Union Carbide Limited (UCL), the US multinational parent, which oversaw the corner cutting which led to the Bhopal disaster and is now owned by Dow Chemical. UCL has always tried to avoid accountability, initially by blaming Indian workers, then by negotiating a cut price “settlement” with the Indian government, and finally by absorbing the company into Dow Chemicals which is attempting to distance itself from any liability.

NOTE 1 Published in his Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism, 1998.

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