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The Slow Disasters

by H. DRAKE

By now the story is familiar: we have drilling by a powerful transnational corporation, a man-made disaster, a deadly explosion, the massive and uncontrollable flows of pollution, the devastation of animal life on a scale we can barely measure (much less comprehend), the destruction of local industries, a PR battle, the government looking on anxiously, all while the disaster spreads, moving slowly – even somewhat predictably – creeping over bodies of water and land towards communities where people live and work.

Surely this describes the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but the above paragraph also provides a portrait of the Lapindo mudflow in Sidoarjo, a mid-sized town on the island of Java, in Indonesia. In an ongoing disaster nearing its fourth year of duration – with no signs of slowing or stopping – the mudflow helps contextualize current man-made ecological crises, like the BP disaster, to help us understand, manage, and prepare for what disasters we may face in the future.

The Lapindo mudflow began in May of 2006 at an exploratory drilling site, starting with an early morning explosion, which was followed burst of hot mud that proceeded to engulf entire communities in the following days. By the time it was finally walled in and redirected into a nearby river that runs to the sea, the mudflow had displaced close to 50,000 people, causing the deaths of dozens, and leaving behind an astonishing landscape: a muddy ruin where the only traces of the villages that once stood there are the rooftops of a mosque and several homes jutting out from beneath pools of mud.

As of today, counts of the amount of people displaced number up to 100,000, including many thousands still living in a former market that was converted into a makeshift camp. The mudflow has been quite the spectacle in the Indonesian media, which we see in the sensational imagery of the destruction, a failed attempt at clogging the flow by dropping one-ton concrete balls, the feuding, accusations of corruption, and the political posturing that culminated in presidential candidates each holding rallies at the site last summer.

The controversies surrounding the Lapindo disaster stem from disputes over what triggered the mudflow. Representatives from Lapindo Brantas, the company drilling at the site, claim an earthquake occurring two days earlier about a hundred miles away in central Java disturbed underground forces, while victims and a majority of geologists blame the mudflow on the drilling. At stake is not only the financial responsibility for managing the disaster and compensating the displaced victims, but also public perceptions of many prominent political and economic personalities, including the former head of the parent company of Lapindo Brantas, who is now the leader of a powerful political party and likely will be a candidate in the next presidential election.

Sadly, global coverage of the mudflow – which includes articles from the BBC, National Geographic, Time magazine, and geological journals – has tended to emphasize the scientific and political details of the disaster, which admittedly are fascinating, at the expense of acknowledging the trials of displaced victims. It should go without saying that matters of poverty and social justice be included within the category of ecological crisis. Since most of the mudflow victims who were living beside the drilling site were already economically vulnerable, and since many of these victims are still without homes and still have yet to receive the promised compensation, it is easy to see the ways ecological and social concerns become interwoven. It is also worth noting that many victims have reported health problems related to the mud and the gasses also emitting from the disaster site. And people are not the only casualties of the mudflow; little work has been done to measure the impact of the mud on local biodiversity, as it enters the river, sea, and nearby mangrove ponds.

I mention all these details not only to raise awareness about the Lapindo mudflow, but also to illustrate the risks of overlooking the casualties of ecological disasters. The Lapindo incident provides an example of the dramatic political, economic, and social effects of ecological crisis, and the ways that the media’s pursuit of spectacle can shape public discourse.

One positive effect of globalization is the slow conceptual dissolution of both geographical and cultural distance. Whether speaking of oil spills, tsunamis, or global warming, we are increasingly understanding ecological disasters within broader geographical and cultural contexts. Thus, a mudflow in Indonesia, just like an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, must be understood not merely as an isolated, distant and localized incident, but as a problem that affects the very quality our inter-connected world. The devastation of the Lapindo and BP disasters may seem distant, but – in affecting inter-connected ecological, political, economic, and cultural systems around the world – these effects participate in shaping the quality of our bodies, minds, and relationships in the world.

If we are to intelligently, ethically, and healthily live in an increasingly globalized and inter-connected world, it is crucial that everyone – from politicians and experts to ordinary citizens – becomes engaged with our ecological communities, and think critically about the relationship between our everyday lives and ecological responsibility. By focusing on the casualties of ecological disasters we may learn to more fairly distribute ecological risk, which should lead to the development of policies and cultural practices that better equip us to prevent, or at least more effectively manage ecological crises, like those we face today.

Now as both mud and oil each continues in its slow path of destruction, it is only natural to feel a sense of helplessness: more devastation will accrue, and there seems to be little we can do but watch. Without suggesting there are easy and immediate ways of both reversing the damage of these disasters and countering the conditions that make ecological disaster possible, I hope people redirect this sense of helplessness into engagement. We must become engaged ecological actors who are committed to the improvement of the quality of our lives in this world – to the best of our means – to help counter and prevent disasters like these. Now is the time to foster communities of ecological commitment, communities without distance that are capable of building the conditions of power that would force the world to give priority to ecological quality over economic quantity.

H. DRAKE is a Ph. D. student and graduate assistant at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Email: freedrake@hotmail.com

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