Monday, May 31, 2010

The World Is Leaking

It flows out of a gash, a wound in the earth’s crust, at the rate of ten million litres per day. But it’s not the planet’s blood - it is ours. There goes our cheap energy; there goes the fuel of industry and Western affluence. When we can put it in barrels or push it through a pipeline, it give us life but when it spills out, it becomes a poison capable of destroying all life. The world is leaking.

There is a camera mounted on a remote deep sea vessel operated by the MSV Skandi Neptune, and the feed is on the Web so you can sit at your computer and watch the oil flow out. If you do it on this page, rather than the one provided by BP, you’ll also see the estimate of the gallons leaked thus far tick over on a nifty counter. It is all incredibly sophisticated and smart. Except of course they cheat, as I did just now: I wrote ten million litres but it's not as if there’s a gauge down there, I’m just rounding the average of the conflicting estimates to the nearest million. However that clock is a powerful image: it counts forward to measure the damage, and it reminds us at the same time of the millennial clocks counting down to a symbolically charged moment in time: perhaps to the end of the world.

So it’s only natural that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill should have generated its own apocalyptic fantasy.

Toxic Oil Spill Rains Warned Could Destroy North America

A dire report prepared for President Medvedev by Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources is warning today that the British Petroleum (BP) oil and gas leak in the Gulf of Mexico is about to become the worst environmental catastrophe in all of human history threatening the entire eastern half of the North American continent with “total destruction”.


The dispersal agent Corexit 9500 is a solvent originally developed by Exxon and now manufactured by the Nalco Holding Company of Naperville, Illinois that is four times more toxic than oil (oil is toxic at 11 ppm (parts per million), Corexit 9500 at only 2.61ppm). In a report written by Anita George-Ares and James R. Clark for Exxon Biomedical Sciences, Inc. titled “Acute Aquatic Toxicity of Three Corexit Products: An Overview” Corexit 9500 was found to be one of the most toxic dispersal agents ever developed. Even worse, according to this report, with higher water temperatures, like those now occurring in the Gulf of Mexico, its toxicity grows.


[S]hould a Katrina like tropical hurricane form in the Gulf of Mexico while tens of millions of gallons of Corexit 9500 are sitting on, or near, its surface the resulting “toxic rain” falling upon the North American continent could “theoretically” destroy all microbial life to any depth it reaches resulting in an “unimaginable environmental catastrophe” destroying all life forms from the “bottom of the evolutionary chart to the top”.

If you enter excerpts of this article into Google, you’ll find it reproduced verbatim on several sites, including a blog entitled News and Prophecy that also happens to include a countdown clock - to the next trillion of the United States debt. (We are at thirteen, by the way.) Most of these sites will point you to the same source for the piece, The European Union Times. And when you open that page, which replicates the design of more distinguished publications, it might briefly seem legit, but then as soon as you investigate its most unusual sections - say, Survival, right next to Entertainment - you’ll discover it’s actually a white supremacist site (hence the absence of links to it in this post). However that’s still not the actual source of the piece, which comes rather from,

a more overtly millenarist site - as the banner illustrates - where it is preceded by items such as ‘Battle Begins For Throne of This World: The Return of the Einherjar Warriors’. As far as I can tell, the article is simply made up, citing as its sole source a report by Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources, but without an actual link to anything other than the ministry’s homepage, and giving Corexit 9500 the same awesome powers of nanothermite. This however doesn’t make it less interesting, both for the manner in which it has been circulated - with successive cross-posters replacing the original source with a less immediately suspect site - and for its language and content. Think about it: attempts to resolve a catastrophic oil spill trigger the risk of a far greater catastrophe. Does it sound like the remedies to the financial crisis? And that last piece of the quotation, destroying all life forms from the “bottom of the evolutionary chart to the top” is straight out of Cormac McCarthy. Why should humans die last, if not in order to have to suffer and reflect until the bitterest of ends on the product of their folly?

Toxic rains, an ashen world: it really could be the unspecified catastrophic event that prefaces McCarthy’s The Road. Post-apocalyptic fiction is traditionally about imagining new and occasionally utopian societies as much as anything else, but it’s also something of an irritating misnomer, inasmuch as there can't be anything 'after' the apocalypse. Truer to the label on the package, neither the novel nor John Hillcoat's film adaptation of The Road offer the prospect of a future, however uncertain or remote. Although a measure of temporary comfort is afforded to the younger protagonist at the end of the narrative, humanity is conclusively doomed. Yet somehow the story is still told by means of a film and a novel that exist in a world of logic and sense, and that in our pre-apocalyptic world can be even bought and sold. Like in the paradox of those stories told in the first-person by a character who dies at the end, it’s as if it was assumed by tacit convention that the last thing that will abandon us is the capacity - which is also a need - to tell, show, describe, and then to dutifully consume such accounts. Even if by then it will be utterly incongruous to do so.

And so we sit and we look at the oil spill feed, mesmerized, and watch the number of gallons climb nonsensically (for what does it mean?); we learn about procedures such as top-kill, we hear of the appearance of another plume - perhaps even bigger than the first - due to a chemical used in the failed attempts to contain the spill; and we churn out fictions about toxic rains and nuclear solutions. Like in The Road, like in Armageddon. In the meantime the planet continues to bleed, leaking BP's share price and reputation, leaking the global GDP, accelerating our descent into the age of scarcity at the rate of ten million litres of crude per day.

That it’s all so neatly packaged and mediated is also utterly incongruous. And not just because there are no web cams to document the decades-long devastation in the Niger delta, no real-time meters accounting for its human and environmental cost, which is several orders of magnitude greater than the one occurring in the Gulf of Mexico; but also and principally because the deployment of all these sophisticated instruments of description presupposes and in fact constitutes a citizenry on this side of the screen which is already resigned to the coming apocalypse, and is prepared to follow it as one would a sporting event: with a live feed and real-time statistics, but above all the feeling of being intimately invested in the outcome and yet totally powerless to influence it.

This resigned passivity of course has no basis in anything resembling an objective reality. There is nothing natural, outside of history or the social contract, about the dominion of transnational corporations over the policy-making of elected officials, just as there is nothing natural about capitalism and its workings, or the state itself. It’s that we have given up thinking of political alternatives to the point that even our post-apocalyptic imagination has become atrophied, as if all that was left to do really was to tell the end of the story.

On the subject of peak oil and peak capitalism, this essay by Richard Wolff for The Oil Drum has a certain succinct clarity of purpose.

I didn't quite manage to mention Peter Ward's highly relevant The Medea Hypothesis, usefully reviewed here by Steven Shaviro.

Mark Fisher’s review of The Road for Film Quarterly makes some of the points I made here except, you know, better.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber wrote this: "This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with the economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt."