On the Horizon: Quiescence and the Production of Uncertainty

New research, published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that a large fallout plume of oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is deposited on the seafloor. This is a significant finding because this 2-million barrels worth of oil was originally thought to be trapped in the deep-sea. We now know that the crude settled across a 1,250 square mile patch of rare habitat around the spot of the blow-out. Furthermore, the study notes the oil is concentrated in the top half-inch of the seafloor and is incredibly patchy. Research suggest this discovery marks anywhere between 4 to 31 percent of the oil lost from the Macondo well. The rest of the oil is likely deposited elsewhere, avoiding detection because of its patchy nature.

There is much discussion over the environmental implications of the BP disaster. Rightly so, the blowout holds rank among the worst industrial disasters in environmental history. However, there is little discussion on how such disasters, all across the globe, continue to occur. In the wake of such disasters, there appears to be a rift between the state and big capital. The public often looks to regulators for habitat protection, biodiversity conservation and to levy punishment on the corporate sector. Industrial disasters do create conflict between these institutions, but it is latent. The state-corporate apparatus has ensured big industry will maintain a lock on the energy market. Because of this, the national economy is dependent on large corporate institutions and the conflict is short-lived. The real story is how big capital and state power produce quiescence and uncertainty within the public arena during and after disasters.

What happened in the Gulf is another unfortunate portrayal of glaring inequality. Most coastal communities in the deep south, especially in Louisiana, exhibit a domination of an elite over the non-elite. Local markets are dependent on healthy coastal ecosystems for resource (fisheries) harvesting and beneficial ecosystem services such as flood mitigation, water purification, storm buffering and more. Big oil maintains a strong presence in coastal communities as well, however, creating numerous problems for locals. From “Cancer Alley” to coastal erosion via dredging, big oil wrecks local economies.

So where’s the rebellion? Why is it that such social deprivation and threats to public/environmental health have failed to yield democratic participation? Perhaps it is the existence of a positive feedback loop between power, capital and quiescence.

Quiescence is often used to portray the legitimacy of systems of power and domination. The state seeks social and economic stability and utilizes power to ensure such stability. Because of this, systems of power and domination are maintained not because of their legitimacy, but because of quiescence itself. This is the very nature of power: Maintain the existing order by further centralization. Sociologist John Gaventa, in his book Power and Powerlessness, discusses this phenomenon:

Power is exercised not just upon participants within the decision-making process but also towards the exclusion of certain participants and issues altogether… The most effective and insidious use of power is to prevent such conflict from arising in the first place.

In regards to natural disasters, the prevention of conflict is achieved by the production of uncertainty. This is important, because it is in discourse over ones own socio-economic environment that the true character of a power system is revealed. Anthropologist and disaster expert Gregory Button, in his book Disaster Culture, notes we live in a highly professionalized culture where public debate is pushed aside by privileged arguments. Button writes:

Lay questions, objections and attempts to resolve uncertainty are often dismissed as uninformed, lacking in scientific vigor, irrational, and at times, almost hysteric. One woman whose life had been changed by the TVA ash spill recalled an exchange with a TVA official who avoided answering her questions and dismissed her reasoning. In response, she said, “Why do you treat us as stupid, why do you reject our arguments while upholding yours as the only reasonable ones?” This frustration typifies the kind of rejection and frustration many disaster victims suffer in contesting official versions of reality.

The tools of uncertainty manufacture consent. From disasters such as the TVA ash spill, the BP Horizon incident, or any industrial disaster, the public arena is dismissed while government/industry scientists, state agencies and the corporate sector dominate the discussion. This allows systems of power and domination, as explained by Button, to both define and control the distribution and interpretation of knowledge, while community members are made to feel as if they are arbitrators of uncertainty. Furthermore, Sociologist Max Weber notes that power systems wish to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping knowledge and intention a secret. This allows the elite to hide knowledge and keep their actions protected from criticism. The control of the discussion governs what is understood about disasters — manufactured uncertainty produces quiescence.

As for the BP Horizon blowout, the facts and uncertainties surrounding the disaster reflect these methods. The actual size of the spill is still unknown and until the PNAS publication we did not know the fate of the sequestered crude. The ecological impact of the spill, especially on rare species, such as migratory sea turtles, is now extended to the ocean dwelling habitat. If public discourse of the study ensues, however, some BP spokesperson will talk about how large spills like this are uncommon or pull out the big guns and call the spill “unprecedented.” There will be an ad campaign managed by BP that will discuss all the money and all the good they have done in the wake of the spill. The Environmental Protection Agency will boast a record of strict oversight. Even though the oil was thought to be in the deep ocean, the public will be ensured, by both state and corporate bureaucrats, that environmental contamination will be mitigated and public health will be protected. The same old song and dance that has occurred for the last four years, even though locals have continuously raised concerns over the official narrative. Of course, all of this ignores that oil spills are a very common occurrence and each raise public and environmental health concerns in their own right. Nevertheless, quiescence will remain because of the production of uncertainty.

There is much discussion in political circles, libertarian and otherwise, over the rise of freed markets and alternatives to fossil fuels. These are good discussions to have, and they are important to thrust into the public arena. It is important to keep the market as liberated as possible — this allows new technology and alternative institutions to develop. It is important to remember that recent shifts to adaptive governance and collaborative models for resource use/extraction are an option for local communities. There is much to be said about decentralization these days, and this is a good thing. It reminds us that social power is still in the fight, chipping away at systems of power and domination. It is equally important to know how entrenched authority manufactures consent and works to suppress social progress. On the road to the decentralized society we must understand power and its hurdles to transition.

Social power is the rebellion: it will lead to the end of uncertainty and thus the end of quiescence.

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Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory