You’re probably aware that Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson — just as you’d expect from a former ExxonMobil CEO — is a big fan of fracking and pipelines. He’s a big fan of them with one exception. He’s joining a lawsuit to prevent a fracking operation next to his wife’s $5 million Texas mansion.
The people of Bismarck, ND are likewise big fans of the Dakota Access Pipeline — so much so that it’s dangerous for folks from the Sioux Nation to go into some bars there because of the anti-water protector sentiment. The good, mostly white, people of Bismarck love DAPL — they just don’t love it running through their town, and potentially spilling oil there. That’s why they got it rerouted so it can leak where other people — namely, that same Sioux nation — live instead.
The opposition, whether by Tillerson or by the largely white population of Bismarck, is entirely sensible. After all, there are typically massive increases in earthquakes — often where there were none at all previously — in areas that host fracking operations. Living in Northwest Arkansas, I was on the outer edge of a quake whose epicenter was in Oklahoma fracking country, and it gave my trailer a good shaking. In fact I suspect it might have been the cause of a serious leak in my water main that I’m having to deal with now. And as the EPA buried deeply in a report, behind a falsely reassuring Executive Summary, fracking poses significant risk of groundwater contamination. So it’s only common sense that Tillerson wouldn’t want that kind of thing lowering the property values of his mansion or rattling great-great-grandma’s teacups in the family heirloom china cabinet, or maybe contaminating the water where he lives.
And it’s a near certainty — in actuarial terms, almost as much so as death and taxes — that any pipeline will have recurring spills. For example, in North Dakota a pipeline spilled 176,000 gallons of crude oil just 150 miles from Standing Rock, where Sioux protestors and their allies are fighting to protect their drinking water from the risk (certainty, really) of the same thing. So it’s no wonder folks in Bismarck didn’t want that kind of hazard running through their town.
The problem is that they don’t object in principle to people having those kinds of risks imposed on them against their will. They just don’t want it done to themselves. As long as they can shift the risk to other people and receive the economic benefits for themselves, they’re quite happy.
Capitalism is about using the state to shift costs and risks onto other people, while enforcing all the artificial scarcities and artificial property rights that enable the rents you live off of. Or as Noam Chomsky put it, socializing costs and privatizing profit. Scum like Tillerson are totally fine with making untold billions off forcibly exposing other people to contaminated water and the trauma of desecrating their graves — all on stolen land. But don’t you dare do it where it might lower their own property values!
And there’s also the issue of environmental racism — the health risks from pollution associated with the fossil fuel and chemical industries, or any other potentially hazardous activity, are overwhelmingly imposed on the powerless. Native American land, non-white urban neighborhoods, you get the picture. Same reason it’s never the Rotary Club yahoos in white upper-middle-class neighborhoods who get their homes demolished for a freeway bypass.
To people like that, deaths from poisoning, cancer and lung disease are nothing but statistics — so long as it doesn’t touch them where they live. That’s the function of the state under capitalism — to shift costs, to impose them on others. To make sure that the human cost of your comfortable lifestyle falls on others less powerful than you.
It’s time to bring these costs home to the people who profit off them without experiencing the consequences. In one of Ernest Callenbach’s “Ecotopia” novels, a commando unit of environmental activists with terminal cancer targeted chemical industry executives. In one scene, they commandeered a helicopter and soaked everyone at a CEO’s pool party with toxic herbicide.
I don’t advocate lethal assault on anyone. But as Utah Phillips said, the earth is being killed by people who have names and addresses. It’s time to surprise industry CEOs, vice presidents and directors, and the police forces that shut down demonstrations, by protesting at their homes, country clubs, and places of worship. It’s time for them to hide indoors with the curtains drawn, and having their groceries delivered, knowing every time they go outside they’ll face a world of people who consider them monsters. It’s time to challenge every single pipeline with lawsuits, boycotts, bureaucratic challenges, and bodies blocking construction, until the increased cost and delay become a standard industry calculation.
It’s time to shift the costs back where they belong.