|Jared Diamond's "Collapse" is best understood as the environmentalist
cousin to recent books and articles by Joseph Stiglitz, George Soros and
Jeffrey Sachs warning about the dangers of globalization. For the
economists, the present world economic system is a ticking time-bomb that
might drag down 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 wasteful
practices led to Mayan or Easter Island collapse. Since Diamond and the
economists all believe in the inviolability of the capitalist system, there
is a certain cognitive dissonance at work in their writings. They harp on
the symptoms, but stop short at identifying the root cause.
Hope 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 Papua New Guinea, Diamond discovered that the
corporation had created a "bird-watcher's dream." Descending toward the
local airport, he saw virginal rain-forest and scant evidence of the
devastation typical of oil exploration and drilling.
What is more, Chevron demonstrated that it really cared about *him*. After
stepping several feet into their roadway shortly after his arrival to check
out some 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. So his conversion took
place on a road just like Paul's on the way to Damascus. The chastened
ornithologist and prophet of doom would henceforth wear a hardhat and
promised his benefactors that he would stay on the side of the road.
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 made a big deal
out of their partnership with the WWF and other mainstream environmentalist
Chevron officials are very clever, probably 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 doled out $1.6 million to environmentalist causes. This
practice is called "greenwashing." According to Tom Athanasiou in "Divided
Planet," "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 interests in accepting money by
the bucket 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 Belize. Since
progressive-minded millionaires would feel short-changed if they didn't
have such places available for an eco-vacation, it is understandable why
they would open up their wallet for the WWF.
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 a chapter devoted to the oil giant in Joshua
Karliner's indispensable "The Corporate Planet: Ecology and Politics in the
Age of Globalization.") That's nearly equal to corporate profits that same
year. This was in line with oil company spending as a whole. Karliner
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 Clinton pushed for NAFTA, the WWF and other mainstream
environmentalist groups were all too happy to get on the bandwagon.
Like all clever capitalists, Chevron makes sure to hedge its bets. Just as
Goldman-Sachs doled out money to Bush and Kerry alike, Chevron donated
funds to anti-environmentalist ideologues at the same time it was fattening
WWF's coffers. Karliner documented Chevron contributions to the following
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 reliable a corporation can be in protecting the environment
when it is handing out money to this rogue's gallery. 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 Papua New Guinea can assuage him, then perhaps one understands his
reluctance to provide a complete accounting of the corporation's behavior
Whatever improvements Chevron has made in the USA, where vigilance against
pollution remains relatively strong, they are offset by its practices in
the developing world so highly susceptible to "brownmailing." For example,
while Chevron was responsible for spilling "only" 252,000 gallons of oil in
the USA in 1990, Karliner reports that a Caltex spill in the Philippines
was twice that amount. (Caltex was a joint operation between Chevron and
Texaco; the two companies have since merged.)
In Sumatra, Chevron operates within a 32,000 square kilometer concession
that has very little in common with the bucolic picture Diamond paints in
Papua New Guinea. The November, 1993 Multinational Monitor reported that
Chevron has completely ruined the area in pursuit of profit. Trees died and
fish disappeared from local rivers. A local resident complained, "I relied
on the trees for wood for my roof and for food, but now there are only a
few trees left." Since most of "Collapse" is concerned with deforestation,
you'd think that Diamond's antennae would have picked up on this
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 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 Nigeria, Chevron is no slouch. Notwithstanding
Diamond's assurances that Chevron CEO Kenneth Derr has "been personally
concerned about environmental issues" and that Chevron employees receive
monthly emails from him about the state of the company, some ingrates from
the more radical wing of the environmental movement threw cream pies in his
face back in 1999. They were angry over Chevron's involvement with human
rights abuses in the Niger Delta, where 90 percent of Nigeria's crude oil
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 Nigeria's oil operations. Ijaws
who protest the environmental degradation of their lands and ask for
greater economic returns for their communities have been killed by
government troops, their women and children raped and run off, say human
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 in
Nigeria is free to be used by its majority partner. That joint venture
company is the blood-soaked Nigerian government.
Perhaps the Ijaws should have picked up and moved to Papua New Guinea where
they would have been looked over properly by the good Chevron twin. As it
turns out, things were not all they were cracked up to be over there.
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, have become increasingly unhappy since oil began
being shipped in late 1992. In December 1993, 60 Foe men were arrested for
protesting over royalty payments and carried off in Chevron helicopters to
a nearby jail. Once again Diamond's favorite capitalist corporation was
relying on choppers 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
Australia, in order to avert a cash-flow crisis."
Even Diamond's beloved birds seem less chipper than portrayed in
"Collapse." Stephen Feld, a University of Texas expert on birds in the
local rainforests, states that much of the area game has been scared away
by air traffic, especially by Chevron's omnipresent helicopters.
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 New Mexico, who have
been played off against each other by a coal company.
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 showcase in Papua New Guinea. Before
Chevron started piping oil, a tanker ran aground on pipe over the Kikori
River bed. Environmental management experts Michael Kondolf and Richard
Chaney concluded: "We are particularly concerned about potential impacts of
catastrophic oil spills from pipeline breakage. Given the proximity to
active faulting and subduction, and given the nature of deltaic sediments,
pipeline failure at multiple points can be expected due to seismic shaking
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 Kikori River until the pipe broke.
The loss of any crude would likely be an ecological disaster, because
Chevron would at best be able to clean up 25 percent of any spill,
according to the company's own oil-spill evaluation."
If Chevron in Papua New Guinea is supposed to be a model for enlightened
corporate management, then perhaps the fate of the earth is that which
befell the Mayans and Easter Islanders. Contrary to Jared Diamond, the best
hope for humanity is in the youth who threw a cream pie in the face of the
Chevron CEO and the indigenous people of Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and
elsewhere who are resisting the incursions of mining and drilling
companies. With their efforts and the efforts of working people in the
industrialized world, a global struggle against capitalism has the
potential to remove the greatest factor threatening environmental collapse:
the private ownership of the means of production.