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.