Let’s file this under great moments in corporate apologies. Faced with a deeply embarrassing explosion of their fracking well near Bobtown, Pennsylvania that couldn’t be explained away as their usual operational flatulence, and that accidentally incinerated a worker, Chevron opted to go all out. Of course, living near a fracking rig in Pennsylvania — the state that Governor Corbett has promised will become “the Texas of natural gas” — isn’t a picnic under the best of circumstances; scores of neighbors have complained about polluted drinking water or foul odors or ailing pets and livestock, of headaches and nausea and skin rashes. But Chevron figured the perfect solution for all those maladies in addition to the deeply embarrassing explosion would be to deliver to every Bobtown household a coupon for one large pizza and one 2-liter drink! … Along with an apology letter, of sorts:
“Dear Neighbor, We are sorry to have missed you. We wanted to provide you with a status update on the February 11 incident that occurred on Chevron Appalachia’s Lancoe 7 H well pads in Dunkard Township and see if you had any questions or concerns that we could address.
Chevron recognizes the effect this has had on the community. We value being a responsible member of the community and will continue to strive to achieve incident-free operations. We are committed to taking action to safeguard our neighbors, our employees, our contractors and the environment.”
No mention of the worker who was killed in the explosion, nor of another worker who still remains missing, nor the effects on the environment that blowing up a natural gas well in a spectacular fireball might have on nearby residents. That would be a downer and not nearly as cheerful as the pizza and 2 liter Coke Bobtown residents received merely for breathing near Chevron’s natural gas BOOM.
But at least Chevron did better on the PR front than the satirically named Freedom Industries. After poisoning the water supply of nearly half a million people, those wild and crazy folks over at Freedom Industries delivered onto the unsuspecting public one cranky CEO named Gary Southern. Rather than displaying sympathy for the blight of some 300,000 residents in West Virginia who could no longer use their water supply for anything except possibly flame retardant (and given what we’ve seen of fracking, maybe not even that) , our intrepid CEO decided to whine vociferously about his own exhaustion after un-explaining for the 10,000th time that day why his company poisoned the water supply for nearly half a million people. All the while, he drank water from a bottle purchased from an area safely removed from Charleston, West Virginia where said poisoning took place. (Epic Fail! As the cool kids like to say.)
Perhaps there’s a silver lining in all this. Such incidents can become a training ground for Public Relation wanna-bes, or as I like to refer to them, corporate flacks. With a little imagination we could cook up one of those grand lists that news sites like to churn out in place of real news … top ten things not to say when you’ve poisoned water for nearly half a million people. Five best gifts to placate the families of dead workers you’ve incinerated in your natural gas fireball! And so on. After all, if this type of thing continues, and I see no reason why it wouldn’t, we just might have an industry devoted almost entirely to softening the blow of our mortal stupidity. Right now, it goes by the unassuming acronym, ‘PR.’
Jared Diamond, author of Collapse, has a phrase for when things continue to go wrong: “creeping normalcy,” giving a nice academic patina to Al Gore’s example of a boiling frog. What Diamond is getting at, of course, is an acceptance of things “getting just a little bit worse each year than the year before but not bad enough for anyone to notice…” Like a frog set in water brought to a slow boil.
In his book, Collapse, Diamond does us the service of enumerating the various ways civilizations can destroy themselves. Kind of like the seven deadly sins. He narrows it to a neat list of five things not to do if you want to survive on planet earth:
Ignore climate change, maintain hostile neighbors, keep bad trading partners, have environmental problems, and, finally, don’t react responsibly to environmental problems when you’re made aware of them. Notice three out of these five deal with the environment. The first four may or may not prove significant in each society’s demise, Diamond claims, but the fifth always does. The salient point, of course, is that a society’s response to environmental problems is completely within its control, which is not always true of the other factors. In other words, as his subtitle puts it, a society can “choose to fail.”
For decades now, chemicals and waste from the coal industry have tainted hundreds of waterways and groundwater supplies all across our country. But because these contaminants are released gradually and in some cases not tracked or regulated, they attract much less attention than a massive spill like the recent one in West Virginia where Gary Southern quenched his thirst and whined about his work day. The Keystone pipeline is heralded as a ‘jobs program’ even as environmentalists like Professor James Hansen argue that if it’s pushed through it will be “game over for the environment.” Finally, quietly in the works is the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a trade agreement that will involve the Pacific rim countries and strip most nations of their ability to effectively regulate the environment and protect their worker’s rights. TPP would be the largest U.S. free-trade agreement to date, surpassing the 20-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement. All this is being done in the name of ever-expanding trade.
Documents published by Wikileaks regarding the secretive negotiations around the TPP reveal that provisions of the TPP grant multinational corporations vast new powers and that, among these, are virtual veto-powers over local environmental and labor laws.
Diamond’s Collapse was written partly as a response to the dominant environmental discourse in the United States today, which holds that environmental concerns are secondary to economic and security concerns or at least in opposition to them.
As Diamond notes, “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.”
With the Easter Island Rapa Nui, it was an obsession with building moai, those famous Easter Island sculptures. With Westerners of course, it’s the dream of never-ending economic expansion.
Not to put too fine a point on it, our so-called ‘work’ values, our insistence on an ever-expanding economy and perpetual growth is leading us to a dark place. The Rapa Nui cut down the last of their palm trees and turned their island into a wasteland because they really dug building the moai heads on Easter Island. They were as addicted to their cultural artistry as we are to our endless pursuit of money. Or ‘trade’ or ‘jobs’ as we like to call it. By the end of the 17th century, the Rapa Nui had deforested the island, triggering war, famine and cultural collapse.
Bringing this concept to our contemporary politics, Diamond wonders rhetorically, “Did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree, shout ‘Jobs, not trees!’”
Maybe someone should ask Paul Ryan.
H.L. Mencken, who always had an eye for the weak and dumb in American life, paid an inordinate amount of time considering the case of the American South. One of Mencken’s tongue in cheek laws was that “Nature abhors a moron,” and one of his favorite pastimes was to attack the South for being ruled by what he termed the “booboisie.” …an interesting mash-up of boob and bourgeoisie. When Mencken called out Arkansas for especially sharp ridicule by elevating the state to “the apex of moronia,” the Arkansas legislative body complained and Mencken was, predictably, unmoved. Trying a different tactic, the Arkansas House of Representatives decided to hold a group prayer, to pray for Mencken’s soul. His response? “I felt a great uplift, shooting sensations in my nerves and the sound of many things in my ears,” Mencken told the press, “and I knew the House of Representatives of Arkansas was praying for me again.”
This obviously didn’t convert the Arkansas House of Representatives to his view, nor, by the way, did it affect Mencken. If anything, his readership probably went up. In a famous essay on the South entitled the The Sahara of the Bozart, Mencken suggested that the South was now “almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.”
Harsh words. And it is true the South has changed extensively since Mencken’s time. In fact, as if in retaliation, a Southern literary boom followed shortly on his venomous pronouncement. But many of the Southern state’s governments are as backwards and as moronic as anything Mencken might have inveighed against today. Take the current refusal to support minimum wage laws, the rabid union busting, the disregard for environmental regulations, the South’s addiction to gun culture, and their denial of Federal funds for Medicaid expansion even when the Federal funds are being handed out freely. Really, all these are indicative of less than stellar intellectual activity. But perhaps the most significant parallel lies with those who still tow the biblical story line on creation, like Virginia House Delegate Richard Bell’s recent attempt to legislate the teaching of creationism and climate change denial. Mencken, I suspect, would take special delight in Delegate Bell, just as he took special delight in the infamous Scopes ‘evolution’ trial. He even convinced Clarence Darrow to defend John Scopes in what he famously duped, “the Monkey Trial.”
Maybe Delegate Bell would like a brief primer on that historical event. Throughout most of the eight-day trial in Dayton, Tennessee, Mencken’s reports were syndicated nationally with equally stinging political cartoons seen by millions of Americans. In a not so funny twist, a mob almost lynched him after he called the people of Dayton “yokels,” “primates,” morons,” and “hillbillies.”
But Mencken saved his most potent venom for William Jennings Bryan, the populist defender of the biblical view. “It is a tragedy, indeed,” Mencken wrote of Bryan, “to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge.”
Williams Jennings Bryan was a great orator, a great populist and religious man, true, but his view of evolution was more nuanced than today’s current crop of fundamentalists. In fact, he seems a far more sophisticated man than Delegate Bell, or Ken Ham, the current defender of the creationist creed at Kentucky’s local yokel creationist museum shop. According to historian Ronald L. Numbers Bryan, “not only read the Mosaic ‘days’ as geological ‘ages’ but allowed for the possibility of organic evolution. Bryan’s main argument with the Darwinian view was its application to human societies. Bryan believed that Social Darwinism served not so much as an explanation for injustice but more as an excuse for injustice, particularly in the areas of harming the weak and waging war.
Byran was actually victorious in the Scopes trial, at least from the perspective of the jury and citizens of Dayton, but it was a pyrrhic victory at best. Just five days after the Scopes trial ended, Bryan died. Not one to soften his rhetoric, Mencken declared privately, “We killed the son of a bitch.” Publicly he quipped that God had taken a thunderbolt and threw it down to kill Clarence Darrow but missed and hit Bryan instead.
God knows what Mencken would have to say about our current day creationists, Delegate Bell or Ken Ham, neither of whom have the rhetorical chops of Bryan, nor his intellectual acumen. In fact, if Ken Ham and his creationist project is any indication, the South has actually gotten worse since Mencken’s time. To be fair, it’s really not just the South—though it’s heavily represented. Roughly, half our population believes in some kind of creationist myth. That’s like saying half our population doesn’t believe in gravity. The fact that a debate took place at all, much less took place at a Creation Museum which purports that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs and man co-existed; and that geologic features such as the Grand Canyon and fossils were created in a global flood provoked by Adam and Eve’s original sin—make the debate even more strikingly weird than the one Mencken wrote about 83 years ago. By all accounts, Bill Nye, The Science Guy, won, but the fact that the debate was even held tells us more about the rabid anti-intellectualism of the new South than Phil Robertson waxing dumb in interviews after Duck Dynasty.
Unfortunately, Delegate Bell’s bill, HB 207, is a kind of a doubling down on dumb, not only supporting a ridiculously anti-scientific view of evolution and climate change, but demanding that public schools teach fiction beside non-fiction with equal weight. HB 207 would direct the Virginia State Board of Education and local school boards to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present scientific controversies in science class.” Sounds innocuous on its surface, but once you read the bill, you begin to understand that it essentially creates a “right” for teachers to teach kids to be skeptical of “scientific theories” — even when overwhelming scientific consensus exists. Fox News comes to the school yard.
According to a report by the National Center for Science Education, the bill forbids “any public elementary or secondary school teacher from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in science class.”
The language of HB 207 is so broad that just about any controversial topic involving science would fall under its restrictions.
Dickie is not acting alone, unfortunately. The bill is part of a national trend of legislative proposals, led by creationist organizations like the Discovery Institute and climate-change deniers such as the Heartland Institute. Together these organizations have pushed schools nationally to adopt curricula that has encouraged educators to include in their lectures the “non-scientific problems” creationists and intelligent-design proponents claim to have identified in the theory of evolution. A federal court held in 2005 that teaching intelligent-design in public schools is unconstitutional.
Mencken of course would love this turn of events — in a deeply cynical fashion, of course. Besides arguing about the relative merits of evolution, Bell’s House bill would also demand equal time for climate change deniers. There’s rich irony in this — for whether Bell and educators acknowledge it or not, scientists have identified climate change as a major threat to the Hampton Roads area in southeast Virginia. The National Journal reported last February that, “the economic impact of these [climate change] forces will be profound; some estimates run as high as $25 billion.”
In 2012, Bell’s colleague, Del. Chris Stolle (R) called “sea level rise” a “left-wing term” and excised any mention of it from a state report on coastal flooding…Yes, please. Kill the messenger. That’s always an effective solution. Not only shall we deny science, we shall deny the reporting of science, the teaching of science. We shall mandate ignorance for our region and our time.
H.L. Mencken would feel right at home.
Note: HB 207 was effectively killed in the Courts of Justice Committee on February 12, 2014