The Gusher in the Gulf & The Great Fraud

2010 July 6
by Ando Arike

When I recently returned to Brooklyn after a media-free month on Long Island’s southern shore, my first reaction was an overwhelming, existential nausea. “Snivelization,” as Melville called it, had gotten its hooks into me once again. My last four weeks had been spent living in a simple cottage on a sparkling blue bay by the sea, trying to cleanse myself of the filth spewed by the Corporate Hive-Mind. Instead of parsing bad prose and worse ideas, I studied the fishing tactics of great white egrets and black-headed gulls; rather than watch the moronic street-melee of oil-powered steel boxes, the fascinating footwork of sandpipers flitting through the surf; rather than be awakened by the wailing abomination of car alarms, the cooing of mourning doves at dawn…

In the back of my mind, however, was the video-image of BP’s blown-out well gushing its millions of barrels of crude into the Gulf, and behind this the corollary images of blackened seabirds and beaches, and the fear that BP’s sludge might soon reach the eastern seaboard. Bicycling into town one day for bread, I was stopped in my tracks by a New York Times headline and compelled to buy a copy—and in fact, the prognosis for shutting off the flow had taken a turn for the worse. More worrying was that, from what I gathered, not only BP but the Obama administration had been lying to the public all along, trying to minimize what may very well grow into the most destructive environmental disaster in human history. But who can be surprised by official lies anymore? Fraud has become standard operating procedure for both corporations and governments in the late capitalist era, as inevitable as death and taxes. In what follows, I attempt to outline a key moment in the history of The Great Fraud:

Thirty-one years ago in July 1979, President Jimmy Carter took to the airwaves to discuss the nation’s energy problems, then glaringly apparent in the long lines and spiking prices at fuel pumps and the “out of gas” signs at many filling stations. It may have been the last time a president spoke honestly to the American people about oil. Ridiculed by Republicans as the “malaise speech,” Carter’s frank assessment soon came to symbolize all that was wrong with the “doom and gloom” Democrats. The following year, when Ronald Reagan won the presidency on the fantasy theme of “Morning in America,” Democrats took the lesson to heart: ever since, an unspoken rule prohibits either party from speaking to the electorate about anything resembling reality.

What had Carter said? First, he naively hinted that the moral foundations of the nation’s economic and political system might be problematic, telling Americans that “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” In a litany of evils verging on blasphemy against the gods of capitalism, he suggested that our values might be misplaced:

“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose…The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us.”

Worse yet, Carter identified one of the roots of this “crisis” as the nation’s addiction to living beyond its means—in particular, our dependence on imported oil, which grew rapidly after 1970, when U.S. production peaked and began to decline. Increasingly, the need to look abroad for our oil was drawing the U.S. into foreign military adventures and making the economy vulnerable to the “oil shocks” inflicted by the OPEC nations earlier in the decade. Three months after his 1977 inauguration, Carter had called on Americans to confront their profligate energy use with the “moral equivalent of war,” saying, “We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources.” Then, in his 1979 “malaise” speech, Carter followed through with proposals for massive, government-supported programs of conservation and alternative energy development, promising to cut “our dependence on foreign oil by one-half by the end of the next decade”—that is, by the end of the 1980s. Lowering consumption, he said, was a matter of patriotism:

“And I’m asking you for your good and your Nation’s security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit [then 55 mph nationally], and to set your thermostats to save fuel. Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense—I tell you it is an act of patriotism.”

The hyena-howls of derision were immediate. Why, just imagine linking morality and patriotism to conserving energy! How dare he preach thrift and responsibility to Americans!!! What if people stopped shopping? In brief, Carter’s proposals posed too much of a threat to corporate profits. When Ronald Reagan took office, he quickly abandoned all such “gloom and doom” notions for a program of massively increasing oil consumption: phasing out conservation programs, alternative energy development,  public transportation subsidies, etc. It was Reagan’s role, in short, to rehabilitate gluttony and self-indulgence, justifying the pursuit of naked self-interest with his own brand of New Age “human potential” rhetoric. (See Adam Curtis’ doc, “The Century of the Self: Part 3”). In the short run, this expansive conception of the Self—exemplified by the yuppies and the rise of the SUV—was made possible by the large, new discoveries in the North Sea, Alaska, and Gulf of Mexico that pushed the price of crude down below $10 per barrel in the late 1980s. In the longer run, however, it would require the efforts of a globe-straddling imperial military.

By 1991, with the Soviet Union collapsing, the time was ripe for the U.S. to consolidate its claim to the Persian Gulf’s oil; the Bush Sr. administration dispatched a half-million troops to crush Saddam Hussein’s ragtag army, recently decimated in the Iran-Iraq War. Ten years later, the 9/11 attacks provided Bush Jr. with the rationale to push further, occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, and launching a covert war against Iran. And today, of course, Barack Obama says he is “finishing the job” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, both destined to be way-stations for oil and natural gas from Central Asia. It is these arrangements that allow Americans—less than 5% of the earth’s population—to consume 25% of its production of oil, burning three-quarters of this in motor vehicles, including the largest and most inefficient fleet of personal autos on earth (see “Moral Life of the Auto”).

The Great Fraud—launched by Reagan and shored up by every administration since—is that not only can this imperial gluttony continue indefinitely, expanding every year, but that there will be no price to pay, no awkward consequences or painful blowback. The U.S. and its industrial allies, we’ve been told, can increasingly monopolize the world’s petroleum, while a rising tide of global economic growth “lift sall boats” of the so-called “developing” nations. But Washington policymakers have known since the Carter years that the planet’s legacy of petroleum is running down, and that beyond a certain point—passed, perhaps, in the last ten years—whatever oil remains will be increasingly costly and difficult to produce. “All the low hanging fruit has been plucked,” as energy analysts often put it—why else drill a well one mile below the surface of the sea and two miles below its floor? Why else take a chance on the disaster that is now destroying the Gulf?

What is so criminal—so genocidal—about The Great Fraud is that its final Ponzi-like collapse will come with a social breakdown like nothing humanity has ever seen. Perhaps most frightening is how the global food supply is now totally dependent on petroleum inputs. It is as if our nation’s leaders and policymakers had been informed by scientists that a huge asteroid were on collision course with Earth— and instead of warning the public and taking precautions, they did everything in their power to keep this knowledge from the people. Why? They might stop shopping…

To all who are now militating for a boycott of BP and criminal prosecution of its executives I say, “You are missing the point.” For all his many faults, Jimmy Carter told us what we needed to do some thirty years ago.

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