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Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” is best understood as the environmentalist cousin to recent books and articles by Joseph Stiglitz, George Soros and Jeffrey Sachs that warn about the dangers of globalization. For the economists, the present world economic system is a ticking time-bomb that might destroy rich and poor alike. For Diamond the environmentalist, the refusal to husband resources such as forests, fish and clean water will lead to the collapse of modern-day societies just as surely as they led to Mayan or Easter Island collapse. Since Diamond and the economists all believe in the inviolability of the capitalist system, there is a certain cognitive dissonance at work in their writings. They harp on the symptoms, but stop short at identifying the root cause. It is what psychologists call denial.
But hope for the future arrives like a man on horseback in the concluding section of “Collapse.” Our survival depends on corporations like Chevron who have proved that capitalism and sustainable development can co-exist. During an ornithological expedition in Papua New Guinea, Diamond discovered that the corporation had created a “bird-watcher’s dream.” Descending toward the local airport, he saw virginal rain-forest and scant evidence of the devastation typical of oil exploration and drilling.
What is more, Chevron demonstrated that it really cared about *him*. After stepping several feet onto a company road shortly after his arrival to inspect local birds, he was chastised by company officials that this was a hazard not only to himself but to the environment. A truck could smack into him or a pipeline next to the road, causing a spill of blood or oil. So his conversion took place on a road just like Paul’s on the way to Damascus. The chastened ornithologist and prophet of doom promised company officials that henceforth he would wear a hardhat and stay on the side of the road.
Not only was oil company property home to far more birds than found in Papua New Guinea as a whole, it was also a place where indigenous peoples could be “better off with us there than if we were gone,” according to a Chevron executive. For Chevron, having Jared Diamond and the World Wildlife Fund (on whose board he sits) on their side amounts to a public relations coup. In a massive ad campaign throughout the 1990s, they exploited their partnership with the WWF and other mainstream environmentalist groups.
Chevron officials are very clever, certainly much cleverer than Jared Diamond. In 1992, Chevron’s contributions counsel David McMurray admitted, “Because of the type of business we are in we need to prove that we are responsible corporate citizens. Environmental pollutions are at the forefront in our company, so we are following this up with contributions.” That year Chevron dished out $1.6 million to environmentalist causes. This practice is called “greenwashing.” In “Divided Planet,” Tom Athanasiou explained that “the key to greenwashing is manufactured optimism, which comes in many formsas images, articles and books, technologies, and even institutions. Anything will do, as long as it can be made to carry the message that, though the world may be seen to be going to hell, everything is good hands.”
The World Wildlife Fund sees no conflict of interest in accepting money by the bucketful from the Chevrons of the world. In Mark Dowie’s “Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century,” we learn about a WWF brochure geared especially to outfits like Chevron. It makes a pitch: “Your company can use a World Wildlife tie-in to achieve virtually every effort in your market planNew Product Launches; Corporate Awareness; New Business Contacts; Brand Loyalty.” In the same brochure, WWF names Jaguar as one company persuaded by their salesmanship. The car company committed funds to a WWF-sponsored preserve in Belize. Since progressive-minded millionaires would feel short-changed if they didn’t have such places available for an eco-vacation, it is understandable why they would open up their wallet for the WWF.
If Chevron were solely about manipulating imagery, then the job of debunking WWF and Jared Diamond’s claims on their behalf would be a lot easier. As it turns out, Chevron did clean up their act to a significant extent in the 1980s and 90s. This was the product of sustained environmental protests and legal actions by the federal government. In 1994, Chevron spent almost $1.5 billion on environmental programs. We learn about their strategies in a chapter devoted to the oil giant in Joshua Karliner’s indispensable “The Corporate Planet: Ecology and Politics in the Age of Globalization.”
Karliner informs us that this expenditure was nearly equal to corporate profits that same year. This was in line with oil company spending as a whole. He also refers to a study by the American Petroleum Institute revealing that the industry spent nearly $8 billion on the environment in 1990 and estimated that this would rise to over 30 billion per year by 2000. When you spend this kind of money at the same time a Democrat is in the White House, it is understandable how the WWF and Jared Diamond can get swept up in the enthusiasm. When Clinton pushed for NAFTA, the WWF and other mainstream environmentalist groups were all too happy to get on the bandwagon.
Like all clever capitalists, Chevron makes sure to hedge its bets. Just as Goldman-Sachs ladled out money to Bush and Kerry alike, Chevron donated funds to anti-environmentalist groups at the same time it was fattening WWF’s coffers. Karliner documented Chevron contributions to the following organizations:
1. Citizens for the Environment: advocates strict deregulation as a solution to environmental problems.
2. Oregonians for Food and Shelter: a pro-pesticide lobby.
3. Global Climate Coalition: global warming skeptics.
4. Pacific Legal Foundation: files court challenges to clean water, hazardous waste and wetlands protection laws.
5. National Wetlands Coalition: should probably be called National Anti-wetlands Coalition since its main goal is remove obstacles to oil drilling in their midst.
6. Mountain States Legal Foundation: founded by batty former Interior Secretary James Watt.
One wonders how trustworthy a corporation can be in protecting the environment when it is handing out money to this rogue’s gallery. The answer is not very much, except for Jared Diamond. At the start of his encomium to Chevron, Diamond says, “Like much of the public, I loved to hate the oil industry, and I deeply suspected the credibility of anybody who dared to report anything positive about the industry’s performance or its contribution to society.” If a Potemkin Village like the Chevron oil field in Papua New Guinea can assuage him, then perhaps one understands his reluctance to provide a complete accounting of the corporation’s behavior elsewhere.
Whatever improvements Chevron has made in the USA, where vigilance against pollution remains relatively strong, they are offset by its practices in a developing world so highly susceptible to “brownmailing.” For example, while Chevron was responsible for spilling “only” 252,000 gallons of oil in the USA in 1990, Karliner reports that a Caltex spill in the Philippines was twice that amount. (Caltex was a joint operation between Chevron and Texaco; the two companies have since merged.)
In Sumatra, Chevron operates within a 32,000 square kilometer concession that has very little in common with the bucolic picture Diamond paints in Papua New Guinea. The November 1993 Multinational Monitor reported that Chevron has completely ruined the area in pursuit of profit. Trees died and fish disappeared from local rivers. A local resident complained, “I relied on the trees for wood for my roof and for food, but now there are only a few trees left.” Since most of “Collapse” is concerned with deforestation, you’d think that Diamond’s antennae would have detected this fact.
Villagers also reported that the local river often smelled of oil and that the river water was no longer safe to drink. Not surprisingly, Chevron excused itself with the explanation that “heavily organic jungle streams are not a good source of drinking water.” Somehow the fish managed to flourish in such heavily organic jungle streams in the past but went belly up shortly after Caltex began releasing its contaminants. A coincidence, one supposes.
Although Shell has the well-earned reputation of being the dirtiest oil company operating in Nigeria, Chevron is no slouch. Notwithstanding Diamond’s assurances that Chevron CEO Kenneth Derr has “been personally concerned about environmental issues” and that Chevron employees receive monthly emails from him about the state of the planet, some ingrates from the more radical wing of the environmental movement threw cream pies in his face back in 1999. They were angry over Chevron’s involvement with human rights abuses in the Niger Delta, where 90 percent of Nigeria’s crude oil is produced.
According to the June 1999 Earth Times:
“Members of the Ijaw tribe, native to the Delta, say they have lost as much as 70 percent of their ancestral lands to Nigeria’s oil operations. Ijaws who protest the environmental degradation of their lands and ask for greater economic returns for their communities have been killed by government troops, their women and children raped and run off, say human rights groups.”
Chevron, it seems, made its helicopters available to Nigerian troops who were summoned to deal with angry protestors. In 1998, after 200 demonstrators took over a Chevron oil platform for three days, the manager called in Nigerian troops, who, Chevron representatives admit, were transported to the platform in the company’s helicopters by company pilots. Two demonstrators were killed. In the second incident, which occurred two months later, four people were killed and 67 left missing when Nigerian forces attacked two small villages, reportedly once again using Chevron helicopters and boats.
Chevron blandly denied any wrongdoing. It said that any equipment, including helicopters, that is leased to its joint venture company in Nigeria is free to be used by its majority partner. That joint venture company just happens to be the blood-soaked Nigerian government.
Perhaps the Ijaws should have picked up and moved to Papua New Guinea where they would have been looked over properly by the good Chevron twin. As it turns out, things were not all they were cracked up to be over there.
In an article titled “Drilling Papua New Guinea: Chevron Comes to Lake Kutubu” that appeared in the March 1996 Multinational Monitor, Project Underground executive director Danny Kennedy describes a less than beneficent impact of development on the local population.
According to Kennedy, a human blockade on the pipeline construction site was broken up by a riot squad flown into the area on company choppers on May 1992. Apparently Chevron is very resourceful when it comes to shuttling in troops on company assets. The indigenous people felt that they were not being properly compensated for Chevron’s land grab. (Of course, the birds might have been less upset. This is in keeping with WWF’s preference for virgin forest as opposed to pesky human beings.) Sasoro Hewago, a leader of the local Fasu clan, told the Wall Street Journal in June 1992 that “The people say problems have come here because Chevron has come here, and so it is Chevron that must take care of them. … If we’re not satisfied there will be no oil. We have pledged to die. …”
Eighteen months later he seemed worn down by constant confrontations with the oil giant. He confessed, “You must chew before you swallow. My people have been exposed to Western civilization for five years, and are expected to deal with it. We are like we are in a dream and when, one day, we wake up it will be gone. We’re choking.”
The 5,000 supposed local beneficiaries of the project, members of the Fasu, Foe and Kikori clans, became increasingly unhappy after oil began being shipped in late 1992. In December 1993, 60 Foe men were arrested for protesting over inadequate royalty payments and were carried off in Chevron helicopters to a nearby jail. Once again Diamond’s favorite capitalist corporation was relying on helicopters to deal with the restless natives.
In December 1995, confrontations deepened further. Indigenous people threatened to blow up the pipeline, prompting Chevron to remove non-essential staff. Although Chevron eventually placated them with handouts, there is little doubt that a culture of dependency was created. Few of them actually work for Chevron but rely on the dole. When Chevron exhausts the local oil supplies, it is doubtful that native Papuans will be able to fend for themselves.
According to Kennedy, “the mining and petroleum sector is based on the degradation of natural capital and produces few human-made assets for PNG. It employs less than 2 percent of the population and does not add value to the raw materials. And in those boom years, the national government ran up an enormous foreign debt, causing it to bow to the strictures of a major structural adjustment program administered by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, in conjunction with its old colonial master Australia, in order to avert a cash-flow crisis.”
Even Diamond’s beloved birds seem less chipper than portrayed in “Collapse.” Stephen Feld, a University of Texas expert on birds in the local rainforests, states that much of the area game has been scared away by air traffic, especially by Chevron’s omnipresent helicopters.
Even the handouts create problems. With 90 percent of royalties going to the Fasu and only 10 percent to the Foe, rivalries have developed. This pattern can also be seen with the Navaho and Hopi in New Mexico, who have been played off against each other by a coal company.
But here’s the clincher. Kennedy reports that the World Wildlife Fund has a $3 million contract with Chevron to implement an “Integrated Conservation and Development Project” for the oil project area. The oil giant saw its ties with WWF as critical to its long term interests. A virtual conspiracy existed, according to Kennedy:
“A leaked 1993 confidential evaluation of the potential impacts of a Kutubu oil spill and the clean-up capacity of the joint venture, written after a practice exercise conducted by the joint-venture partners, expressed concern ‘as to whether a policy exists to control media and interest groups (Greenpeace) at Kopi area should a spill of this magnitude occur.’ Other documents concluded that the joint venture partners could rest easy, however, because ‘WWF will act as a buffer for the joint venture against environmentally damaging activities in the region, and against international environmental criticism.'”
Finally, despite Diamond’s assurances that Chevron has learned the painful lessons of oil spills, there is evidence that it has minimized the threat of exactly such a threat in its Papua New Guinea showcase. Before Chevron started piping oil, a tanker ran aground on pipe over the Kikori River bed. Environmental management experts Michael Kondolf and Richard Chaney concluded: “We are particularly concerned about potential impacts of catastrophic oil spills from pipeline breakage. Given the proximity to active faulting and subduction, and given the nature of deltaic sediments, pipeline failure at multiple points can be expected due to seismic shaking and liquefaction.”
Kennedy writes: “These dangers were graphically demonstrated in May 1993, when several sections of the riverbed underlying 110 kilometers of pipeline shifted and threatened to rupture. When divers checked the pipeline’s condition, they found more than one kilometer of pipe unsupported. Workers involved said that such a freespan could easily have flexed in the strong tidal currents of this stretch of the Kikori River until the pipe broke. The loss of any crude would likely be an ecological disaster, because Chevron would at best be able to clean up 25 percent of any spill, according to the company’s own oil-spill evaluation.”
If Chevron in Papua New Guinea is supposed to be a model for enlightened corporate management, then perhaps the fate of the earth is that which befell the Mayans and Easter Islanders. Contrary to Jared Diamond, the best hope for humanity is in the youth who threw a cream pie in the face of the Chevron CEO and the indigenous people of Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere who are resisting the incursions of mining and drilling companies. With their efforts and the efforts of working people in the industrialized world, a global struggle against capitalism has the potential to remove the greatest obstacle to environmental sustainability: the private ownership of the means of production.
LOUIS PROYECT writes for SWANS. He can be reached at: email@example.com