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 firstname.lastname@example.org