FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

British Petroleum and the New Greenmail

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January 15, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
Refugees Are in the English Channel Because of Western Interventions in the Middle East
Howard Lisnoff
The Faux Political System by the Numbers
Lawrence Davidson
Amos Oz and the Real Israel
John W. Whitehead
Beware the Emergency State
John Laforge
Loudmouths against Nuclear Lawlessness
Myles Hoenig
Labor in the Age of Trump
Jeff Cohen
Mainstream Media Bias on 2020 Democratic Race Already in High Gear
Dean Baker
Will Paying for Kidneys Reduce the Transplant Wait List?
George Ochenski
Trump’s Wall and the Montana Senate’s Theater of the Absurd
Binoy Kampmark
Dances of Disinformation: the Partisan Politics of the Integrity Initiative
Glenn Sacks
On the Picket Lines: Los Angeles Teachers Go On Strike for First Time in 30 Years
Jonah Raskin
Love in a Cold War Climate
Andrew Stewart
The Green New Deal Must be Centered on African American and Indigenous Workers to Differentiate Itself From the Democratic Party
January 14, 2019
Kenn Orphan
The Tears of Justin Trudeau
Julia Stein
California Needs a 10-Year Green New Deal
Dean Baker
Declining Birth Rates: Is the US in Danger of Running Out of People?
Robert Fisk
The US Media has Lost One of Its Sanest Voices on Military Matters
Vijay Prashad
5.5 Million Women Build Their Wall
Nicky Reid
Lessons From Rojava
Ted Rall
Here is the Progressive Agenda
Robert Koehler
A Green Future is One Without War
Gary Leupp
The Chickens Come Home to Roost….in Northern Syria
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: “The Country Is Watching”
Sam Gordon
Who Are Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists?
Weekend Edition
January 11, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Richard Moser
Neoliberalism: Free Market Fundamentalism or Corporate Power?
Paul Street
Bordering on Fascism: Scholars Reflect on Dangerous Times
Joseph Majerle III – Matthew Stevenson
Who or What Brought Down Dag Hammarskjöld?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Joshua Frank
How Tre Arrow Became America’s Most Wanted Environmental “Terrorist”
Andrew Levine
Dealbreakers: The Democrats, Trump and His Wall
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Que Syria, Syria
Dave Lindorff
A Potentially Tectonic Event Shakes up the Mumia Abu-Jamal Case
Nick Pemberton
There Are More Important Things Than The Truth
Brian Cloughley
How Trump’s Insults and Lies are Harming America
David Rosen
Sexual Predators in the Era of Trump
Tamara Pearson
Everything the Western Mainstream Media Outlets Get Wrong When Covering Poor Countries
Richard E. Rubenstein
Trump vs. the Anti-Trumps: It’s the System That Needs Changing Not Just the Personnel
Christopher Ketcham
A Walk in the Woods, Away from the Screens
Basav Sen
Democrats Failed Their First Big Test on Climate
Lauren Smith
Nicaragua – The Irony of the NICA Act Being Signed into Law by Trump
Joseph Natoli
Will Trumpism Outlive Trump?
Olivia Alperstein
The EPA Rule Change That Could Kill Thousands
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
The New Congress Needs to Create a Green Planet at Peace
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
Cuba: Trump Turns the Vise
Ramzy Baroud
When Bolsonaro and Netanyahu Are ‘Brothers’: Why Brazil Should Shun the Israeli Model
Mitchell Zimmerman
Government by Extortion
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail