Jared Diamond's "Collapse": conclusion
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Jared Diamond's "Collapse" 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
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
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
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 plan…New 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
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
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
Whatever improvements Chevron has made in the
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
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
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
Perhaps the Ijaws should have
picked up and moved to
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
Even Diamond's beloved birds seem less chipper than
portrayed in "Collapse." Stephen Feld, a
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
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
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
If Chevron in