A Lot Like War: Petrocapitalism, 'Slow Violence,' and the Struggle for Environmental Justice.

AuthorJohnson, Rebecca O.

How can we imaginatively and strategically render visible vast forces of interconnectedness against the attenuating effects of temporal and geographical distance? This is a crucial challenge if we are to generate any sustained understanding of the transnational, intergenerational fallout from slow violence. --Rob Nixon (2011, 38)

IT IS 1848 AND ON MAPS OF LOUISIANA THE CALCASIEU PRAIRIE APPEARS almost uninhabited, (1) a perfect place for 18 Black families, the fugitive and the nominally free, to establish themselves in relative safety. Although the actual date of the settlement of this unincorporated town is not known, it is clear from oral tradition that Mossville was established before the Civil War (Murphy 2014). James Webster Moss, a free Black man, is recorded as being established enough in 1845 to sell barrels of sugar and molasses to other residents of Calcasieu Parish (Rigmaiden 1850). You may still find Moss's eponymous town in a Google Maps search, but the community has suffered the fate of many African American communities in Louisiana and poor communities around the world. It has been sold as a concession to transnational "petro-capitalism" (Nixon 2011, 81; Valdivia 2011). (2)

The concession--and its effects on whole communities, tribes, and peoples--is generally considered (if actually entering into Western consciousness at all) as an activity centered in the Global South. Although the United States is considered an innovator in extractive energy technologies, in this country we do not think of ourselves as selling out whole communities to the likes of the apartheid-era South African Synthetic Oil Limited (SASOL). However, in 2012, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal did just that (American Press 2014, 11-13).

In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon (2011, 61-102) makes a compelling case for writer-activists to center our energies in support of the environmental justice movements of the Global South. Here I apply Nixon's focus on petrocapitalism, transnational corporations, and corrupt governments to the small town of Mossville, Louisiana, in the hopes that the attention of those of us in the United States who organize for peace built upon environmental, economic, gender, and racial justice--rather than merely the cessation of war--might be galvanized by the threat to world peace posed by these transnational corporations and their well-organized superstate (ExxonMobil 2018). (3) This essay explores how petrocapitalism, its transnational operations, and the legal agreement, called a concession, that such corporations make with countries and governing entities within countries (including state and local governments in the United States) have wreaked one form of the "slow violence" that is the subject of Nixon's (2011) book. I examine how resistance to these forces has been left to marginalized and invisibilized communities around the world, what Nixon calls "the environmentalism of the poor" (ibid., 2-5), including in the United States.

Nixon (ibid., 6) situates the workings of slow violence in

our inattention to calamities that are slow and long lasting, calamities that patiently dispense their devastation while remaining outside our flickering attention spans--and outside the purview of a spectacle-driven corporate media.... In an age that venerates instant spectacle, slow violence is deficient in the recognizable special effects that fill movie theaters and boost ratings on TV. Chemical and radiological violence, for example, is driven inward, somatized into cellular dramas of mutation that--particularly in the bodies of the poor--remain largely unobserved, undiagnosed and untreated. Among those marked by slow violence are generations of families who have lived in Mossville, Louisiana. I have organized with and on behalf of Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN) since late 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Mossville residents and MEAN have organized for almost 30 years in their struggle against Georgia Gulf (now Axiall), Westlake Chemical, W.R. Grace and Co., Conoco, PPG, and, most recently and devastatingly, SASOL (MEAN et al. 2007). (4) Mossville is, in the evolving parlance of the environmental justice movement, a fenceline community (Bullard 2011) suffering from the toxic emissions of as many as 14 oil, gas, and chemical processing plants, as well as Louisiana's lax enforcement of air, water, and soil pollution regulations (MEAN et al. 2007, ii). MEAN has been struggling for accountability; redress for the loss of and damage to people's land; sustenance and health; and, as a last resort, for an economically, culturally, and socially just relocation. A more accurate description of Mossville's plight, rather than that of a fenceline community, is as one of countless "sacrificial zones" (Lerner 2010). Similar to those in Ecuador, the Ogoni region of Nigeria, the Middle East, and Kenya, as listed by Nixon (2011, 23), Mossville and its people have been sacrificed to the economic interests of petrocapitalists.

Jim Moss and the other 17 founding families established a community based on a subsistence culture. (5) After the end of the Civil War, Mossville grew. By the early 1900s, it was a self-sustaining town in which residents farmed, fished, and had their own general stores and post office (Ancestry, com 2010). However, Mossville's stability and sustainability would change with the discovery of oil in Lafayette in 1908.

The Petrocapitalist Superstate

The transnational corporation has been the focus of social justice activism since the early 1970s. (6) For example, the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), founded in 1971, has partnered with the people of Mossville to address violations of US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clean air, water, and soil regulations and SASOL's predation (Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility 2013).

Before February 2017, when then CEO of ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson became US Secretary of State, the idea that there was a petrocapitalist superstate--one that dominated global economies; caused environmental devastation, civil unrest, and human population displacement; and triggered wars on its behalf--may have been opaque to many of us. That is intentional. Recent reporting reveals how oil companies, like the tobacco industry, used research methods and reports to sow disinformation and doubt (Hulac 2016).

In the late nineteenth century, John D. Rockefeller created Standard Oil, the largest oil refining facility in the world at the time, following the oil rush in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The subsequent influence of Standard Oil in Saudi Arabia, the precursor to Tillerson's transnational monolith, reveals the geographical and temporal challenges of understanding slow violence in the activities of transnational petrocapitalists as they commit "attritional ecological genocide" (Nixon 2011,124). In 1933, Standard Oil of California (SOCAL), one of Standard Oil's many subsidiaries, acquired the rights to explore for oil in the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Kelly 1992). King Aziz granted Standard Oil rights to explore half the country under the name California Arabian Standard Oil Company (CASOC) (ibid.). By the end of World War II, this SOCAL subsidiary became...

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