Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 15, 2009

Jared Diamond and Chevron

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 3:54 pm

Chevron refuses to pay for damages like this in Ecuador

NY Times, May 15, 2009
In Ecuador, Resentment of an Oil Company Oozes
By SIMON ROMERO and CLIFFORD KRAUSS

SHUSHUFINDI, Ecuador — Mention to Anita Ruíz the name of the giant oil company Chevron, and she trembles with rage. At her wooden hut here in the Amazon forest, where oil-project flares illuminate the night sky, she points to a portrait of her youngest son, who died seven years ago of leukemia at age 16.

“We believe the American oilmen created the pollution that killed my son,” said Ms. Ruíz, 58, who lives in a clearing where Texaco, the American oil company that Chevron acquired in 2001, once poured oil waste into pits used decades ago for drilling wells.

Texaco’s roughnecks are long gone, but black gunk from the pits seeps to the topsoil here and in dozens of other spots in Ecuador’s northeastern jungle. These days the only Chevron employees who visit the former oil fields, in a region where resentment against the company runs high, do so escorted by bodyguards toting guns.

They represent one side in a bitter fight that is developing into the world’s largest environmental lawsuit, with $27 billion in potential damages.

Chevron is preparing for a ruling by a lone judge in a tiny courtroom on the top floor of a shopping center in Lago Agrio, a town rife with slums that Texaco founded in the 1960s as its base camp in the Amazon.

Chevron faces claims for an era when oil companies were less purposeful about protecting the environment than they are today. It also faces potentially huge damages in a country where American corporations once wielded strong influence but are now treated with discourtesy, if not contempt.

The sympathies of the judge, a former military officer named Juan Nuñez, are not hard to discern, and he appears likely to rule against Chevron this year. “This is a fight between a Goliath and people who cannot even pay their bills,” Mr. Nuñez, 57, said in an interview in his office, where more than 100,000 pages of evidence were stacked to the ceiling.

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From an interview with Jared Diamond in Strategy and Business, a publication of Booz & Company, a consulting company:

S+B: The hottest hot button right now in political economics is globalization. If you were called in to a company that was in the throes of concentrating globally, making acquisitions, trying to find ways to be more effective in global organization and global management, what would you tell it to watch out for?

DIAMOND: The potential advantages of globalization include the greatly increased flow of ideas between parts of the world. That’s a great potential advantage for the parts of the world receiving ideas. It can be an advantage for the global company — if the company is capable of learning from the parts of the world to which it expands. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

S+B: Have you seen examples of beneficial impact?

DIAMOND: I have seen it at Chevron, which I have had the chance to observe for the last several years. Because I am concerned with environmental problems, I’ve been on the board of directors of the U.S. affiliate of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which is the largest international environmental organization. About 10 years ago, oil and natural gas were found in the eastern half of the island of New Guinea. That discovery posed acute environmental problems, because the oil fields also are the wettest place in the world, with rain up to 800 inches per year. It’s also in an area with unique biology. The CEO of Chevron happened to be someone who realized that it was in Chevron’s interest to solve the environmental issues and not try to sweep them under the rug. So Chevron entered into a partnership with World Wildlife Fund to deal with those issues. The WWF has offices at two of the Chevron camps and monitors the environment and provides input. I’ve gone out there now three times, most recently last January and February, sponsored by WWF but working out of the Chevron camps.

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From an article I wrote in 2005:

Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” is best understood as the environmentalist cousin to recent books and articles by Joseph Stiglitz, George Soros and Jeffrey Sachs that warn about the dangers of globalization. For the economists, the present world economic system is a ticking time-bomb that might destroy 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 they 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. It is what psychologists call denial.

But hope for the future 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 onto a company road shortly after his arrival to inspect local 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 of blood or oil. So his conversion took place on a road just like Paul’s on the way to Damascus. The chastened ornithologist and prophet of doom promised company officials that henceforth he would wear a hardhat and 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 exploited their partnership with the WWF and other mainstream environmentalist groups.

Chevron officials are very clever, certainly 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 dished out $1.6 million to environmentalist causes. This practice is called “greenwashing.” In “Divided Planet,” Tom Athanasiou explained that “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.”

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5 Comments »

  1. Ah yes, Diamond and the WWF…

    People ought to read Michael Barker’s January 26, 2009, long and fully documented analysis: “When Environmentalists Legitimize Plunder.”

    http://www.swans.com/library/art15/barker12.html

    That’s the kind of company save-the-planet Diamond keeps, all the way back to eugenics…

    Cordially,
    Gilles

    Comment by Gilles d'Aymery — May 15, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

  2. It’s a shame Michael doesn’t give people any alternative organizations to support.

    Comment by Jenny — May 16, 2009 @ 3:35 am

  3. I thought PNG was a place rife with danger and tribal peoples in perpetual warfare. What a brave man Diamond is to venture into such an area to gather knowledge for his next lecture at TED.

    Comment by purple — May 17, 2009 @ 8:41 am

  4. I would invite Mr. Diamond to take a look at the way Chevron has handled the contamination problem in Ecuador before he endorses Chevron’s good works elsewhere. Chevron bought the problem from Texaco, but it is theirs, and Chevron should own it, if it truly wants to become a socially responsible company.

    Comment by Karen Hinton — May 17, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  5. […] While both books have much to offer [indeed, esnl has given copies to his children], critics have charged that his texts reflect a corporatized agenda. Sharon Astyk has an incisive post on the subject and Louis Proyect takes him to task for his relationship with Chevron. […]

    Pingback by Nature, nurture, money, and scientific behavior | eats shoots 'n leaves — September 12, 2010 @ 6:13 pm


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