FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

British Petroleum and the New Greenmail

by IAIN BOAL And STANDARD SCHAEFER

British Petroleum’s proposed biofuel research deal with the University of California has sparked a growing resistance from a coalition based in UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, claiming the deal is essentially a continuation of BP’s current greenwash campaign. After much unfavorable publicity surrounding the mismanagement of oil tankers, pipelines, and refineries, BP began airing commercials on business friendly television channels hyping their renewable energy projects with the slogan, “It’s a start.” It’s a start all right, but a rather paltry one if you consider this: BP’s net profit last year, in 2006, was $22 billion – roughly $600 per second. So the annual commitment to the UC Berkeley program represents 0.0005% of annual profits–just a few hours of the yearly take.

Still, the half-billion dollar windfall buys a lot of clout in a public university. Those who insist that BP’s gift will not change the climate of research at UC Berkeley might consider BP’s track record. It does not bode well for this partnership or for free and open inquiry. Here are the words of Greg Palast of BBC Newsnight:

“BP, which owns 46% of the Alaska pipline and is supposed to manage the system, had a habit of hunting down and destroying the careers of those who warn of pipeline problems. In one case, BP’s CEO of Alaskan operations hired a former CIA expert to break into the home of a whistleblower, Chuck Hamel, who had complained of conditions at the pipe’s tanker facility. BP tapped his phone calls with a US congressman and ran a surveillance and smear campaign against him. When caught, a US federal judge said BP’s acts were ‘reminiscent of Nazi Germany’. This was not an isolated case.”

Given this history, the BP deal-whose specifics remain largely unknown-is bound to produce an atmosphere of secrecy in the research laboratories of a public institution which under the agreement will be staffed by scientist-entrepreneurs enriching themselves by way of private patents and stock options, in a direct conflict of interest.

One of the first casualties of the deal is already clear–the English language. The authors of this proposal have already begun a laundering operation, even before the deal is signed. Genetically modified organisms and biotechnology are nowhere to be seen. The brief era of “biotech” is over, it seems; a new age of “synthetic biology” is dawning. Oddly, we find ourselves back in a world of electricians, chemists and masons. Instead of living GMOs we are dealing with “DNA circuits”; instead of genes we find “biobricks”. Plants no longer decompose; in this brave new science they undergo “depolymerization”. These linguistic constructs are presumably an attempt to obscure the fact that the core of the BP project for growing fuel instead of food remains the global proliferation of new, reproducing, lifeforms that contain genes transfected from distant species, with very poorly understood results.

It is not by accident that the parties to the BP-Berkeley deal borrow their rhetorical strategies from their counterparts in the military and nuclear fields. The UC scientists and administrators begin the proposal by invoking, in the most effusive terms, the Manhattan Project. In fact, the whole initiative is to be modeled on the Manhattan Project’s “team science” model. But that project is properly remembered for its secret, reckless decision-making. With its very first experiment, Arthur Compton, the head of the Chicago scientists involved, risked building a secret reactor in the middle of the city. Compton explained: “We did not see how a true nuclear explosion, such as that of an atomic bomb, could possibly occur”; still, as Richard Rhodes the historian of the Manhattan Project put it, he was risking “a small Chernobyl in the midst of a crowded city.”

Here, then, are some questions: What is modern science that its shining hour was the Manhattan Project, a secret project to build a weapon of mass murder? What is modern science that it flourishes in secrecy? What is it that the biofuel boosters here at UC Berkeley like so much about Lawrence and the atomic bomb project?

Well, here’s one possible explanation: science–and by this we mean ‘actually existing’ science–is capital’s way of knowing the world, and furthermore, science is the handmaiden of empire. It’s no accident that ballistics and the development of weapons of mass murder are at the heart of modern physics. Now the cult of the atom is mirrored and even matched by the cult of the gene. The stakes are high, they tell us, global warming and oil depletion loom. It is all rather plausible, even if promoted by known market manipulators such as BP-its history of machinations we shall address later-but for now it is worth asking: what does it mean, when the language of crisis is on so many lips? Suddenly, everyone is on board with biofuels as the answer to global warming–scientists, environmentalists, pundits, celebrities, politicians of all stripes-the Gores and Bransons and Blairs, and now the Bushes, with their ethanol deal with Brazil.

Global emergency, like communism and terrorism, is a very useful bogey man that brooks no dissent. It facilitates backroom deals, and in the BP case (an agreement put together, in the revealing phrase of the UC vice chancellor for research, “at warp speed”), it obscures the risks that university administrators and scientists are prepared to take not only with the local environment of Strawberry Canyon, but with the ecosystems of the planet and the lives of small farmers everywhere who face further dispossession for the purpose of biofuel monoculture. But risk, of course, is something our neoliberal masters are adept at “externalizing”; after all, its other face is profit. Formerly natural disasters were the work of the Fates and the Furies. Now, chance and contingency and cataclysm are the spectacular image both the nominal left and real right promote so that we will not look at their long history of harm and devastation, so that we will forgo all talk of prevention. But that seems to leave the Fates and the Furies unemployed. Are they then available to protect us from the fallout, no longer just nuclear but vegetable as well?

Iain Boal is a historian of technics and the commons, a member of the Retort collective, and a co-author of Afflicted Powers. He can be reached at: iboal@socrates.Berkeley.EDU

Standard Schaefer is a writer, teacher, and student in San Francisco. He can be reached standardschaefer@sbcglobal.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
March 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Trump is Obama’s Legacy: Will this Break up the Democratic Party?
Eric Draitser
Donald Trump and the Triumph of White Identity Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Nothing Was Delivered
Andrew Levine
Ryan’s Choice
Joshua Frank
Global Coal in Freefall, Tar Sands Development Drying Up (Bad News for Keystone XL)
Anthony DiMaggio
Ditching the “Deep State”: The Rise of a New Conspiracy Theory in American Politics
Rob Urie
Boris and Natasha Visit Fantasy Island
John Wight
London and the Dreary Ritual of Terrorist Attacks
Paul Buhle
The CIA and the Intellectuals…Again
David Rosen
Why Did Trump Target Transgender Youth?
Vijay Prashad
Inventing Enemies
Ben Debney
Outrage From the Imperial Playbook
M. Shadee Malaklou
An Open Letter to Duke University’s Class of 2007, About Your Open Letter to Stephen Miller
Michael J. Sainato
Bernie Sanders’ Economic Advisor Shreds Trumponomics
Lawrence Davidson
Moral Failure at the UN
Pete Dolack
World Bank Declares Itself Above the Law
Nicola Perugini - Neve Gordon
Israel’s Human Rights Spies
Patrick Cockburn
From Paris to London: Another City, Another Attack
Ralph Nader
Reason and Justice Address Realities
Ramzy Baroud
‘Decolonizing the Mind’: Using Hollywood Celebrities to Validate Islam
Colin Todhunter
Monsanto in India: The Sacred and the Profane
Louisa Willcox
Grizzlies Under the Endangered Species Act: How Have They Fared?
Norman Pollack
Militarization of American Fascism: Trump the Usurper
Pepe Escobar
North Korea: The Real Serious Options on the Table
Brian Cloughley
“These Things Are Done”: Eavesdropping on Trump
Sheldon Richman
You Can’t Blame Trump’s Military Budget on NATO
Carol Wolman
Trump vs the People: a Psychiatrist’s Analysis
Stanley L. Cohen
The White House . . . Denial and Cover-ups
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Marines to Kill Desert Tortoises
Farhang Jahanpour
America’s Woes, Europe’s Responsibilities
Joseph Natoli
March Madness Outside the Basketball Court
Bill Willers
Volunteerism; Charisma; the Ivy League Stranglehold: a Very Brief Trilogy
Bruce Mastron
Slaughtered Arabs Don’t Count
Pauline Murphy
Unburied Truth: Exposing the Church’s Iron Chains on Ireland
Ayesha Khan
The Headscarf is Not an Islamic Compulsion
Ron Jacobs
Music is Love, Music is Politics
Christopher Brauchli
Prisoners as Captive Customers
Robert Koehler
The Mosque That Disappeared
Franklin Lamb
Update from Madaya
Dan Bacher
Federal Scientists Find Delta Tunnels Plan Will Devastate Salmon
Barbara Nimri Aziz
The Gig Economy: Which Side Are You On?
Louis Proyect
What Caused the Holodomor?
Max Mastellone
Seeking Left Unity Through a Definition of Progressivism
Charles R. Larson
Review: David Bellos’s “Novel of the Century: the Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables”
David Yearsley
Ear of Darkness: the Soundtracks of Steve Bannon’s Films
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail