Dispersed Destinies. Bio-politics after Deepwater Horizon

Swiss Diploma Thesis 2012 93 Pages

Ethnology / Cultural Anthropology



1. Introduction

2. Petro-state politics
2.1 Shrimp and petroleum: An ambiguous relationship
2.2 Petro-state citizens
2.3 The deregulation of industry practices

3. Creating dispersed destinies
3.1 An illegitimate illness
3.2 Bio-politics between pastoral power and neoliberal governmentality
3.3 Public portrayal and personal impacts
3.4 Biological citizenship and the human right to health

4. Conclusions


1. Introduction

As it turns out corporations are always obliged to themselves to get large and profitable. In doing, it tends to be more profitable to the extent it can make the other people pay the bills for its impacts on society. There's a terrible word economists use for this called “externalities”.

Robert Monks, Corporate governance advisor (Achbar/Abbott 2003)

Until environmental conditions become commodities themselves which are being traded, we are not having anything to do with that. Carton Brown, Investment banker (Achbar/Abbott 2003)

When the burning oil platform, ‘Deep Water Horizon’, sunk into the Gulf of Mexico on April 21st, 2010, and the pouring of massive amounts of oil were announced, media coverage was immense. Media coverage continued during the efforts to plug the well, and throughout the clean up efforts, which were mainly run and supervised by the perpetrator of the spill, British Petroleum (BP). Around 4.9 million barrels of crude oil (774 million litres) spilt into the Gulf until its was successfully plugged (Bourne 2010). However, the flow rate itself has become contested among scientists. Some argue that a multiple of the official number flowed into the Gulf, and BP purposely manipulated video footage, which was required to assess the outpour, because the company would be fined on the amount collected (Kluger 2010, Project Gulf Impact 2011).

Similar to previous oil catastrophes, the emphasis of the media was on polluted beaches and the large scale suffering of sea creatures such as turtles, dolphins and seabirds. What was forgotten were the hidden impacts; the massive amounts of oil that never reached the shorelines, which was dispersed offshore and subsurface at the site of the leak. As a result of the use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil and the burning of surfaced oil, people started to get sick. Activist Cherri Foytlin - who handed out health surveys for LEAN (Louisiana Environmental Action Network) - speaks of 2,400 confirmed cases of chemical poisoning (Foytlin 2012).

The different sized circles display oil rigs with varying ages and depths of operation. There are around four thousand active oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, excluding numerous abandoned ones. - Source: http://thes.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/gulfmap1.jpg [17.4.2012]

Dr. Mike Robichaux estimates tens of thousands, including the thousands of people who worked in the clean up, and the thousands of coastal residents who were potentially exposed. For every 93 gallons of oil that was spilled, about one gallon of dispersant was applied (Subra 2011). On August 4th, 2010, only two weeks after the plugging of the leak, the white house declared that 75% of the oil had been cleaned up. For many Gulf coast residents, on the contrary, the impacts were just about to begin. The aftermath of the spill is - amongst other hardships - one of the denial of chemical exposure, and an ongoing health crisis.

Catastrophes like the one in the Gulf of Mexico - despite all their negative consequences - have the side effect of opening to us the view onto structures of power, interconnections and work processes, which normally are black boxed to the public. The radiographic image of structures of responsibility and power enable us to critically asses what is usually perceived as normal and functioning, and therefore not to be questioned. Crises therefore offer the opportunity to view the normal from a new perspective, to de-familiarize the common and acquire a new viewpoint onto it. This insight comes from the fact that ‘crisis’ in Greek not only means a turning point in a difficult situation, but also opportunity. Crisis also denotes a situation of change, a point where time is short and action has to be taken immediately. This fracture point between past and present, as well as present and future implies a highly reflexive situation. Information about crises get channelled and rearranged by public and independent media, affecting the way we perceive it and producing a public response. There’s a dialectic relationship between crises and the experts who represent them. They claim to speak truth about facts, which are assessed and reinterpreted by them. Truth becomes a matter of a dialectics of discourses, which work upon each other, producing different versions of the impacts of a crisis. Which of these versions becomes the public one, strongly corresponds with the efficiency of a discourse. How do experts representing crises formulate the problems related to them? What terminology do they use? How do crises become standardized and normalized by the reports representing them? Knowledge and theories structure phenomena according to certain logics inherent to them. What are the norms, the standards, of speaking about a certain topic?

My approach was to use the case of the health crisis in the aftermath of the incident as a lens through which to investigate the economic-political and biomedical context of the issue. I was influenced by Adrian Petryna’s investigation of the impacts of the Chernobyl incident, which showed the intertwining of post-soviet politics and medical practices in the Ukraine (Petryna 2002). I tried to get an idea of what the lack of attention paid to the residents’ chemical exposure had to do with Louisiana’s political economy. Many of the interviewees mentioned economic-political factors as strongly contributing to lack of attention paid to the crisis.

Initially, I had planned to spend my three-month stay in Louisiana as close as possible to the incident site. I wanted to stay in lower Plaquemine Parish, which was closest to the sunken platform, and get to know local fishermen in order to get an idea of how their lives had been affected by the spill. How did people react to the uncertainties produced by the spill? How did they cope with health issues as a result of the millions of gallons of dispersants sprayed to break up the oil? How did different actors produce medical expertise about the consequences? Already at home, I started doubting this approach, since lower Plaquemine is only accessible by car and offers very little affordable accommodation. I concluded that it would be best to have an open approach at the beginning, travel to the site and see with whom I might make acquaintance. As the semester holidays began, I booked a flight and arrived in New Orleans mid-June, 2011, fourteen months after the spill had started. In the first phase, I worked with the contacts that Al-Jazeera journalist Dahr Jamail had given me, after sending him the papers I had written in preparation for the research. In that way, I got to know some of the key players in the ongoing health crisis along the Gulf. They included Dr. Mike Robichaux, which is one of the few doctors who is treating people for chemical exposure; Cherri Foytlin, who had walked to Washington with a documentary crew in order to raise awareness of the crisis; and Marlee Orr from the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, who from an early start had fought for the health of clean up workers and residents.

After this first phase of focusing on interviews with affected and involved residents, I succeeded in making contact with a group of concerned New Orleans citizens, who had founded the group ‘Emergency Committee to Stop the Gulf Oil Disaster’. The members of the group organized various forums and actions in order to inform affected people and give them an opportunity to speak. It was at one of their activities, at which they tried to confronted a local politician for his vote against the prohibition of oil dispersants, where I got to know civil lawyer Christine Breault, a middle-aged New Orleans resident. After an interview with her, she showed interest in joining me in my efforts to understand the processes and contradictions behind the health crisis. Through the collaborative work with Christine, I came to share her bias in the search for scientific and legal expertise about the incident. We enacted a fictive pre-court legal investigation, with Christine covering the lawyer, and I, the socio- cultural perspective. She collected evidence with her video camera, which she thought to use for a documentary and possible legal purposes. Through her influence, I realized the value of scientific expertise, which could be juxtaposed with the subjective experiences of fishermen and Gulf coast locals. Aside from conducting interviews, I attended various meetings related to the topic, joined rallies and received invitations by interviewees to get an idea of their everyday lives.

My work with Christine offered me the possibility to get valuable local insights into cultural and historical processes, which I might otherwise not have noticed. Through her work as a civil lawyer, which had included litigation for a Native American tribe’s land claim, she had built up various contacts in the multi-ethnic Louisiana area. Her interest in collecting legal evidence about the case provided a fruitful contrast to my anthropological approach. Together we re-enacted a kind of Hegelian dialectic between my outsider, socio-cultural viewpoints, and her local, activist-legal perspectives, with occasional new synthetic insights. She emphasized the credibility of certain interviewees due to their certified expertise and tried to deconstruct how they argued. I tried to show the value of local, subjective knowledge against objectified, outside expertise.

After having spoken to, and accompanied, several people for a while, it became evident that there was a certain level of mistrust between some of them. Questions over who was supposed to receive money from the claims fund, who was a native local, or a ‘opportunistic’ outsider, a democrat, communist or republican supporter, exacerbated an already tense atmosphere, and prohibited people from joining forces. Sociology professor Steve Picou, who I had lunch with at Gulf Shores Alabama, had experienced similar effects in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez catastrophe. He termed it a ‘corrosive community’, in that it wasn’t able to overcome an outside threat because it had affected and altered the inner structure of the community itself (Picou 2009). Several interviewees termed other people - who I had mentioned I had spoken with, or was intending to - as profiteering or untrustworthy.

Nonetheless there were joint efforts on the part of activist groups and concerned citizens (many didn’t like to call themselves activists) to raise awareness about the ongoing health and socio-economic crisis in the Gulf. That’s how I got to know the work of the Gulf Coast Fund, who joined forces with community people in order to raise public consciousness and induce change. Thanks to their daily newsletter about activities related to Gulf restoration along the coast, they succeeded in bringing individual people together. I joined several of their co-organized activities, among them a rally against the one-year announcement of the federal government that 75% of the oil had gone. That’s how I got to know more people taking action.

The longer I stayed in Louisiana, the more I became aware of the impact of Hurricane Katrina that was still affecting local people. Several people had explained to me that Katrina had been used as an opportunity to get rid of the low-income residents of mostly African American people. Since New Orleans had to be evacuated, the eviction was used to close public housing that was pulling down real estate values. Through unexpected insights like this, I started to understand that the value and strength of ethnographic research lies in being open to discovering those things one didn’t originally intent to find. The unexpected enriches and challenges one’s research in a creative way.

While helping Christine sort out the photos of a recently deceased friend, a social figure in the local African American community, I experienced the strange feeling of getting to know somebody unreachable. I got an idea of who he was, through the stories that Christine and her friends told me about him. It was an approach to somebody beyond reach. Nonetheless, his actions could still be felt. I also experienced this feeling with my research. The story of the oil spill and its aftermath was strongly characterized by invisible, or difficult to trace, impacts. People had been exposed while working in the clean up, while swimming in the Gulf, or by just being in the area, where contaminated air, water or seafood harmed them. Just because it wasn’t visible anymore as a massive contamination with beaches covered in oil, striking one’s eyes or nose, didn’t mean there was no ongoing exposure, as chemist Wilma Subra explained to me. Residual oil in the water, and on the beaches in the sand and vegetation, continued to expose people. Not unlike radioactive radiation, the dispersed oil had become a hidden but ongoing threat to human health. This ambiguity was a challenge for ethnographic research. It meant considering how the ambiguous could be interpreted and approached by different people, according to the interests, emotions and methods used to assess them.

Another approach I initially tried was to build up relationships with local social anthropologists. Surely, I thought, some of them must have had the same, or a similar, idea as I did. However, besides sociologist Steve Picou, and folklorist Carolyn Ware, establishing local contacts proved to be rather difficult. Scientists were either bound to research contracts that didn’t allow them to participate with outside scholars, or they just simply didn’t reply to my request. Persistence turned out to be an important method to building up contacts with local people, regardless if they were scientists, fishermen or activists. Besides asking my initial contacts for further people I could talk to, I also used Facebook, newsletters, emails, forums and telephone calls as a contact method. The diversity of this approach proved valuable in getting to know people with differing viewpoints and backgrounds.

To summarize the focus of this paper: I would like to understand/show how people handle the suffering and uncertainty of chemical exposure in the aftermath of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. How do they perceive state and corporate power? Why is their suffering not treated properly? How do they themselves use their resources to contest power structures and gain recognition and help for their suffering? Why is the human right to health not complied with?

In the first chapter Shrimp and petroleum: An ambiguous relationship, I want to show how Louisiana has a unique relationship between two seemingly contradictory industries. Even though the oil industry pollutes the land and contributes to the erosion of the wetland and its culture, it is an integral part of the local social make up and is defended by local people, even fishermen. How can this relationship be understood? What kind of subtleties characterizes the relationship? How do subjects constitute themselves in this apparent disparity?

In the next section - Petro-state citizens - I want to understand the features of what Terry L. Karl terms a ‘petro-state’. High economic values of natural resources are juxtaposed with low levels of education, infrastructure and health services. This ‘resource curse’ gives an introductory explanation for the vulnerability of the population and the lack of opposition to the oil industry. I want to comprehend how subjects are constituted (and constitute themselves) in this socio-economic structure. Why does the government of petro-states not recognize that its actual value lies in the people and not the resources?

In the chapter, The deregulation of industry practices, I investigate the inappropriate measurement methods and laws in favour of the oil industry. Oil waste, which gets declared as non-hazardous, and beaches, which only close down when they’re contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria, but not oil or dispersants, show the strong pervasion of the local politics and jurisdiction with petroleum economics. Already existing health problems related to the oil industry before the spill extend and complicate the issue. They show that ailments related to the petrochemical industry are not a new phenomenon. How can these lax environmental regulations be understood? What role do the grey areas of knowledge play, which get black boxed to the public?

In the section, An illegtimate illness, I want to show how illnesses related to the spill are characterized by ambiguous symptoms (flu-like symptoms, subjectively reported aches as headaches, abdominal pains, memory loss), which lack objectified, medical categories, and are subject to differing diagnoses by different physicians. Missing treatment protocols, and grey areas of knowledge, allow for the ignorance of chemical exposure as a diagnosis. What makes matters more complicated are chronic (long-term) and acute (instant) health impacts, which are difficult to link to the spill. The gathered information raises the question of how non-knowledge and ambiguous phenomena get interpreted and handled by different actors. There is political and scientific knowledge, which is intertwined (hybrid) and gets treated as either one of those.

The chapter, Bio-politics between pastoral power and neoliberal governmentality, offers information about notions of governmentality and responsibility in situations of crisis. The lack of response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the oil spill, shook many Gulf coast residents confidence in the federal government. The notion of the government as a ‘shepherd’ taking care of its people was strongly contested. The oil spill and its response confirmed for many people, that disaster response was biased and people had to rely on themselves. Whereas some people in the wetlands were used to helping themselves - even favouring non-involvement - others relied on and demanded a strong state response. Questions raised parallel debates of state involvement or non-involvement and a ‘new pastoral mode’. I want to understand what role the perception of the state, and the state’s ruling, played in the aftermath of the spill. Several people stated that they went swimming in the Gulf, and ate seafood because the government said it was safe to do so, and even encouraged them. The ten- year study to monitor the health of clean up workers (without any treatment being implemented) reflects a bio-political attitude of the government to first statistically assess a phenomenon, before action is taken. What insights can be gained by critically juxtaposing the concepts of ‘bio-politics’ and ‘neoliberal governmentality’? The section entitled, Public portrayal and personal impacts: creating alienated people shows how the public perception of the situation influences the reality of the people affected. The story goes that everything is back to normal. British Petroleum quite successfully ran a big media campaign assuring the recovery of the situation and its impacts. This leads to great despair among the affected. Some start to feel that they’re crazy. How do subjects constitute themselves in this disparity between public account and personal experience? How does the discourse of recovery manifest and influence the reality it describes?

The last chapter, Biological citizenship and the human right to health, discusses the ongoing fight for environmental and health-justice along the Gulf coast. After going to doctors and being treated with rounds of antibiotics (and being dismissed when mentioning oil or dispersants), people started having themselves independently tested for chemicals in their blood. The ‘Metametrix’ test, which many interview partners mentioned to me, or showed me, is not taken seriously by most physicians, because it’s not established in the medical community. Some physicians argue that the VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) found by these tests are not related to the spill, since they degrade in the body very quickly. The affected people were contesting medical expertise, which made no connection to the incident, by forming partnerships with the few experts who took them seriously. American ethics of self-responsibility were being juxtaposed with the human right to health, based on the own status of a biological damaged integrity.

2. Petro-state politics

2.1 Shrimp and petroleum: An ambiguous relationship

We ’ re a very mixed, intertwined community between the fishing and the oil field industry here in Plaquemine ’ s. Not a lot of other places, but in Louisiana it is. Half of our friends and family is in the oil industry and half of our friends and family is in the commercial or recreational charter fishing industry. [ … ] Most of our guys work seven and seven [days]. If say their dad is in his sixties, seventies, eighties, working on a boat and his son works seven, seven, then maybe he will work the seven offshore and then when he comes in he gets his dad and they go on the boat and work seven on the water. - Kindra Arnesen

Marlyee Orr, founder of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), invited me for an interview at her office in Baton Rouge. I had seen her on videos displayed on their website, advocating for the rights of exposed clean up workers and residents. People affected through the spill contacted her, and eventually she started to get specialists, like chemist Wilma Subra and Dr. Mike Robichaux, involved. When I arrived at her office, she also brought her two sons Paul and Michel Orr as additional experts. They also worked for LEAN. One of the topics discussed extensively was Louisiana’s unique relationship between the fishing and the oil and gas industry. Michael Orr found a very compelling explanation for the relationship between these seemingly incompatible industries. He explained:

If you don’t grow up here, you don’t like to see the way everything is so intertwined. It’s almost impossible. If you were to explain to somebody on paper in words, it does sound crazy. I went to high school where the most popular kids are family of somebody who runs an industry or make a bunch of money out of industry. I go to a college that is mostly funded by state and industry. People don’t realize that it’s everywhere. It’s kind of like if you had a dad, who did something you didn’t agree with, but they were still providing for you. Maybe he’s going to beat you, maybe he’s going to do whatever, maybe you will hate him, but you will never cut ties and say… You’ll always have to rely on them.

When talking with the French-German teacher Robert Sullivan, who has lived in Louisiana all of his life, and who had taught many Cajun people1, he told me of the romantic depiction Acadians as he had of early life in the Bayou (the lower Mississippi-River wetland). The life ‘down the Bayou’, as locals liked to say, was as unique as its setting. In early times, it was characterized as a state of nature. Hard subsistence work of fishing, shrimping, crabbing and farming characterized their way of life, which was repaid by an unusually fertile land. The nutrients of the Mississippi river - which had been washed down hundreds of miles - had created riches and a diversity of flora and fauna that were unprecedented. (Until the spill, Louisiana produced half of the shrimp consumed in the US.) In this idyllic environment, some Acadians had settled in the mid 17th century, after being exiled from Canada during the French-British war. During that time, Louisiana was ruled by the Spanish, who had purchased Louisiana from France in 1763. Prior to the French and Spanish colonizers, the coastal areas of Louisiana had been inhabited by Native Americans, who were pushed to the edges of the marsh as settlers arrived. After the civil war, freed African Americans also settled in various locations along the coast. As the turmoil of ethnic conflict was diminishing, a new kind of colonizer started to began to take interest in coastal Louisiana: the oil industry.

Mr. Sullivan told me of the black and white movie, ‘Louisiana story’ (US 1948, R: Robert Flaherty), which I had watched prior to my departure to Louisiana. It depicts life in the Bayou before and during the arrival of the oil industry. He thought that the film was uncritical of the oil industry, and was a form of early propaganda. The film portrays life in the Bayou from the viewpoint of a young boy, who is shown having fun with fishing, teasing alligators and playing with his frog. When the first drillers arrive, he and his family approach them with curiosity and friendliness. They show them an alligator skin while driving past the rig one day, as proof of their allegiance with the environment. The relationship is depicted as respectful and harmonious. However, the dispossession and displacement of subsistence groups due to the encroachment of the oil companies isn’t addressed at all.

Toady’s relationship between fishing and oil is characterized by an intertwining of the two industries. Every year, the weekend before Labour Day, Morgan City celebrates the ‘Shrimp and Petroleum festival’. It’s a celebration of their two major employers. Both operations are characterized by the ‘extraction of natural resources’. The two industries are not perceived as opposing each other, but as complementing lifestyles, that both are dependent upon a natural functioning environment. People working in the oil and gas industry, along with fishers and shrimpers, work alongside each other as friends in southern Louisiana: it’s not uncommon for some people of one family, or even individuals, to work in both industries. However, among many who grew up in the Bayou, there seems to be a preference for the fishing industry over oil work. Several people told me of oil workers abandoning the rigs during shrimping season.

What did the introduction of the oil industry mean for the work ethic of people living in the Bayou? It not only meant a new relationship with an industry, but also a challenge to a life ethic. Before the arrival of the oil industry, most Cajuns led a subsistence life. With the industrial oil economy, issues like wage work, efficiency and notions of property were challenging an un-commercialized work ethic of subsistence living. How did this change take place? One of the explanations lies in the need of oil companies to own the land on which they are drilling (or have the approval to do so). Native American, Clarice Friloux, told me how her ancestors had been deprived of their land in the 1930s, because of its oil wealth, and were pushed to the peaks of the bird foot delta. Civil and environmental lawyer, Joel Waltzer, explained to me how notions of possession had been a very grey area for the Native Americans living in the marsh from the very start. Only when the first oil companies arrived was their right to the land questioned on the basis of lacking written documentation that would prove their ownership going back to 1805. The practice of private investors to file land claim lawsuits in downtown New Orleans against the Native Americans - who often didn’t have any knowledge of these claims - depicts the absurdity of different notions of rights and ethics opposing each other.

Subsequently, the groups of subsistence living fishermen were forced to adapt to the logic of political economy. Fish and shrimp are still caught for personal consumption, however; the need to pay for school fees, medical bills and other services and comforts of an industrialized society, make the trade for money a necessity. Christina Peterson, researcher at the Centre for Hazard Assessment at the University of New Orleans, invited me to a presentation on the impacts of Hurricane Katrina for geography undergraduate students. The first lecture was held by geographer Richard Campanella on the causes and effects of the flooding of New Orleans. He explained how the building of levees after the great flood of 1927 caused the settling of sediment of the Mississippi river to stop. The sediment played an elementary role in the functioning of the marshland, which delivered the necessary foundation for the creation of the Bayou’s fauna. By stopping the Mississippi from flooding the marsh, the vegetation was made vulnerable for the intrusion of salt-water. Another important role was played by the oil and gas industry: Campanella showed a map with all the service-canals that were built for the oil and gas industry, permeating the marshland like a tight metro system. These canals allowed salt water - which enters the Bayou via the coastal line - to intrude much more quickly and effectively than an intact marsh had allowed. The salt water destroys the reed’s flora and fauna and leads to an erosion of the soil, which gets stabilized through the reed plants. As a result of this, wetland the size of a football field would vanish into the sea every half an hour. With the erosion, not only do the marshes’ fauna and flora face extinction, but also the culture and people living off the land. AC Cooper, vice president of the Louisiana Shrimping Association, explained to me on his shrimp boat:

The worst part is: we’re fixing to lose our heritage, we’re fixing to lose our culture, we’re fixing to lose something I can’t teach my kids to do or they can teach their kids to. We’re going to lose something in that country that you can’t just bring back over night. This is hundreds of years it took to get to this point. Everything works and revolves around what your ancestors knew and brought down the chain. Now the turn is on us, and it’s on us in order to do what’s right. I feel this is the breaking point. Right now, we’re at a breaking point. Either we’re going to survive or we’re going to go under.

Tidwell (2003/2010) describes the erosion as something of an oversized scope, in that the people living off land were actually grasping its dimension. Even though they were witnessing how cemeteries, telephone posts, and parcels of land were vanishing into the water before their eyes, many couldn’t attribute it to a massive change in the wetland’s ecosystem. How could nature’s system, which had provided for them for centuries, turn against them?

The oil catastrophe was another knife in the back of an already crippled ecosystem. Biologist Linda Hooper-Bui showed me oiled spots of marsh, when taking me out on excursion into the wetland. The oil was depriving the plants of their capacity to perform osmosis and photosynthesis. She took a section of the oily marsh and showed me how unstable the soil had become, decaying in her hands. The next time she would come here, she pointed out, the front part of the marsh will have vanished into the sea.

What was needed was to allow the Mississippi and its sediments to re-flood the marsh and enable the fauna to build up again. However, the diversion projects presented at the ‘Getting the water and the jobs right’ forum, where not falling on sympathetic ears for many locals. In particular, oystermen were opposing the projects, since the water diversion threatened the functioning of their oyster farms. The oysters required brackish water - a specific mixture of salt- und fresh water. The water diversion would shift that balance to unfavourable conditions. They argued against the project, stating that they felt their opinion and local knowledge was not included by the outside engineers: “What if I went to your backyard?” was a phrase heard numerous times, expressing the despair and anger against outside expertise and projects being imposed on local communities without including them.

People were reporting an increase in domestic violence since the spill. The disruption of the subsistence lifestyle in the marsh because of the moratorium, which had destroyed the 2010 fishing season, had led to an increase in drug abuse and domestic violence. Unjust payments of the claims fund were dividing communities and producing new hardships for the already challenged fishing communities, which were suffering from cheaply imported seafood, which was pushing prices and incomes down. The symbiotic relationship, between the fishing and oil and gas industry, began to reveal a power imbalance between them. One woman explained how one of her best friends, who she had known since childhood, had stopped talking to her since she had begun to speak up against the oil industry. Another talked about her feeling of divisiveness she felt since the spill. Living off seafood bargaining, she no longer felt comfortable with her job, since she felt that the food she was selling was contaminated. Never before in her career, she said, fishermen had to sign a disclaimer proving the cleanness of their seafood, without the possibility of testing it. Different from Sawyer’s (2004) study about the impacts of a transnational oil company on indigenous culture in Ecuador, in Louisiana, the oil industry didn’t take the role of an outside perpetrator, intruding into the politics and culture of the people. It had already been in the communities for approximately ninety years, making up an integral part of the social environment. Sawyer describes the oil company, Texaco, as deliberately fostering division among indigenous communities in order to weaken opposition against their drilling projects in native territory. The oil company ARCO (Atlantic Richfield Company) is described as being able to define land grants for itself together with state authorities. In Louisiana, most people - even if negatively impacted by the industry - defended the oil operations as one of the major employees of the state. The six-month moratorium for deep water drilling, which president Obama implemented after the accident, evoked great resistance among Louisiana oil workers and their families. One compelling short film by the Offshore Marine Services Association (OMSA 2011), which operates transportation, services and maintenance for oil companies, portrays the Gulf drilling moratorium as the second man made disaster in addition to the spill. Since new deep water drilling permits are very hard to get and application periods were extended, OSMA sees the moratorium - which was issued for six months - as de facto continuing. According to its depiction, oil companies specialized in deep water drilling changed location to places like Brazil, and with it the jobs created by the industry. Around 13 percent of Louisiana residents are employed by the oil industry. That is around 330’000 people (Buchanan/Gordon/Singerman 2011: 13). Thousands of them gathered in the Cajundome of Lafayette on June 21st 2010, at the ‘Rally for Economic Survival’. At the gathering, oil representatives and politicians spoke up against the moratorium, condemning the unemployment caused by it. They argued in line with judge Martin L. C. Feldman, who had invalidated the moratorium with a controversial decision at the Louisiana United States District Court on June 22. Feldman had stated that the blanket moratorium applied a biased expertise in declaring all rigs drilling at a depth of more than 500 feet an immanent danger, acting disproportionate in relation to the nearly 4,000 active oil rigs in the Gulf. The White House immediately appealed the court decision. It reissued the suspension on July 12th (Savage 2010). For the people attending the gathering, an attitude of pro-oil and pro-environment didn’t seem to exclude each other. Cherri Foytlin - who I will tell more about in chapter 3.4 - gave an arousing speech about her family’s hardships since her husband had stopped working on the oil rigs because of the moratorium. She also spoke up for the hardships of a subsistence lifestyle at danger and an ecosystem crippled by the spill. For her and many others, the fishing and oil industries seemed to be siblings rather than rivals (Credeur 2012). However, not everybody was sharing the opinion that oil and water do mix in Louisiana. Kindra Arnesen had been living in Plaquemine’s Parish all of her life. She was in her mid-thirties, was married to a commercial fisherman and had two children. Even though she agreed that people working in both industries were an intertwined community, especially in Plaquemine’s Parish, she disagreed what job opportunities concerned. She explained:

It’s really hard to get on with the oil industry if you’re actually living here at the age of thirty. Very, very, very difficult. There’s such a thing called hot sheet. They would rather bring someone in from Alabama and Tennessee and Missouri and Michigan and people from all over the country come here and work in the oil industry. Our own young men that are here in our parish cannot get a job in the oil industry. Most of our people here that do work in the oil industry, have been working since [being] seventeen years old with a work release. Most of the people that are working out here in the Gulf are not from here. […]

Some of it I can understand from the perspective of a business owner. Say you hire ten people from here. Say two of them want to really work in the oil industry. You’ve got those two but you spent the money to train the ten. When shrimp season rolls around, eight of them leaves and go shrimping. That’s the main reason why they don’t hire young men from here. […] You have to think about it from their perspective too. Still in all, we do have young men here, that want to pursue a career in the oil industry and they can’t get a job.

2.2 Petro-state citizens

The pump does not know when midnight comes. Days are the same to it. Each day, every day, it brings us another 24 hours of progress. Building our nation. Guarding its security. Assuring the future of America.

Oil commercial (Gelpke, McCormack 2006)

Karl (1999) describes the political economy of countries strongly dependent on oil production and exploration as a modern version of the Midas myth. The story depicts the fate of a King who wishes that everything he touches turned into gold. Subsequently, he is no longer able to survive, because he can’t even drink and eat. One of the major characteristics of a petro-state is “the over-reliance on oil revenues as a mainstay of virtually all economic activity, which tends to put the needs of the oil industry above everything else” (Karl 1999: 34). The access to easy revenue lowers traditional work ethics and diminishes incentives for a sound entrepreneurship. Importantly, the focus on immediate resource extraction subverts the incentives for taxation. Strong reliance on resource extraction coincides in some states with modern state building. This often leads to strong mutual dependence of private and public actors. The dependence on the revenues of the oil industry for all economic activity tends to puts their needs above everything else. Karl (1999: 37) characterizes economic power and political authority as strongly dependent on extraction rents and the distribution of these rents internally. This leads to a strong linkage of economic and political power. She states: “revenues pouring into a highly-concentrated structure of power leads to further concentration and they encourage rentier networks between politicians and capitalists” (Karl 1999: 37).

Even though Louisiana only gains 0.00002 percent of its gross state product from oil revenues, and there officially doesn’t qualify as a petro-state, I argue that it non-the less displays some of the characteristics described as the ‘resource curse’. I base this statement on the fact that Louisiana employs 13.4 percent of its citizenry in the oil and gas industry (Buchanan/Gordon/Singerman 2011: 13).

Oil refinery along the Mississippi river between the Port of New Orleans and the river mouth. Source: http://james- brandon.com/tag/oil-refinery/ [17.4.2012]

What kind of citizens/subjects do such state structures help to shape? How do people constitute themselves? How is the relationship between what I will call ‘petro-state citizens’ and the state characterized? What attributes are in play with each other in this relationship?

When attending the ‘Rising Tide VI’ forum in New Orleans, I witnessed a panel on the present and future impacts of the oil spill on Louisiana and its people. Journalist Bob Marshall - seated behind a long table with four other experts on the spill - expressed his cynical feelings towards the role the oil industry played in Louisiana, and how it was connected with local people and their attitudes. From his viewpoint, the accident and its impacts were not only the result of lax regulations, and an oil- industry, which ruled great parts of local politics. More importantly, the people of Louisiana elected the representatives who worked in favour of the oil industry. He called it “a dysfunction of this society, of people who live in this state” that for some reason, people seemed to work against their own best interest: “a key question whether the coast gets fixed, whether the oil industry is ever made responsible, is if there is a conservative who can say ‘I can be pro gun, pro life, pro bible, and pro environment’” (Berry 2011).

This practice of disconnecting politics from citizen’s election habits is characteristic of what Callon/Latour (1981) call “macro structuring of reality”. According to their model, macro actors like governments and multinational corporations are not really more sophisticated than micro actors. They merely succeed in conveying that depiction. Callon/Latour (1981) argue that governments and multinationals build part of people themselves, from which a majority agrees upon the acting of the macro actor. Through social contracts and the use of notions produced by macro actors, which are not questioned, a macro actor is created. These pre-givens, like “conservation is bad for the economy and jobs” or “free markets make it better for everybody” allow macro actors to convey information as sound truth, even though they construct and black box it themselves. This practice allows macro actors to become leviathans, which do indeed acquire and posses more power than micro actors. Environmental scientist, Paul Templet, explained the ability of macro actors to gather and direct opinions and behaviours of micro-actors with the analogy of ‘they drink each others bath water’, or as ‘Drinking the Kool-Aid’. According to this notion a corporate mindset influences the micro actors behaviour. Templet explained:

They develop a mindset and that mind set characterizes ‘They’re drinking each others bath water‘ [Drinking the Kool-Aid]. They’re telling each other things all the time, that reinforce the idea ‘you’ve got to be loyal to the corporation’. That’s the way corporations turn out. Somebody once said: It’s very hard to get a man except something that will threaten his job. To accept information that might threaten his job. They’re not going to believe me if I say there’s chemicals in the water that people are affected by. Oh, he’s just one of these environmentalists. They build these barriers around their heads and it’s hard for anything to get in. That’s why people in the US don’t believe in climate change.

Louisiana has all the characteristics that are typical of a state suffering of the so- called ‘resource curse’. Despite high economic values in resources like oil and gas, Louisiana is one of the poorest states in the country. Public infrastructures and services are rated at the bottom. Public schooling is of low quality, as I personally witnessed on a press conference in downtown New Orleans, where Vietnamese and African American high-school students expressed their despair about low teaching quality, missing infrastructure and high crime rates (VAYLA-NO 2011). Louisiana also had a “historical burden of health disparities”, as Dr. Maureen Lichtveld of Tulane University’s Environmental Health Sciences Institute explained to me. “We - whether it is Mississippi or Louisiana - we rank last on most of the health indicators. You can look at infant mortality, you can look at diabetes, or hypertension, we rank last or next to last. That’s a health status burden that you have.” This burden was not simply linked to the shortcomings of a petro-state, which doesn’t recognize its people as the wealth it should invest in. Louisiana and the other states of the Gulf’s south had a long history of inequality and economic abuse. Leland (2009) describes the relationship between the northern- and southern United States as one of core and periphery, according to Wallersteins ‘word system theory’. The periphery is caught in a dependence network with the centre, delivering it raw materials (like oil and seafood in case of Louisiana). The dependence network keeps the periphery purposively ‘under-developed’, assuring through it subjugation the supply of cheap resources.

The correlation between economic incentives made for corporations in petro-states, and the increase in poverty, has been shown by numerous studies. Paul Templet - head of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) of Louisiana from 1988 until 1992, investigated the correlation between the externalization of production costs - in the form of environmental pollution - and the effects this externalization practice produced on public welfare. Contradicting the expertise of politicians and industry, which argue that pollution control will lead to a decrease in available jobs, he shows that industry practices that respect environmental needs actually produce new job opportunities. Subsidies paid to industries in order to give them local incentives enable them to “appropriate de facto property rights to natural capital” (Templet 2001: 16). He continues to explain the negative impacts industry subsidies and the possibility to externalize pollution have on local populations:


1 Cajuns are an ethnic group mainly living in the U.S. state of Louisiana, consisting of the descendants of Acadian exiles.


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University of Zurich – Ethnologisches Seminar der Universität Zürich
dispersed destinies bio-politics deepwater horizon



Title: Dispersed Destinies. Bio-politics after Deepwater Horizon