John Buell

Harvey: None Dare Speak its Real Causes

Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath, portrayed by many as a natural disaster, constitute the latest fusion of corporate capitalism and environmental racism. Each sustains and reinforces the other. Though these petrochemical giants represent themselves as winners on the free market, like many dominant corporations they have benefited from massive government subsidies and relaxed anti- trust rules.

A 2011 study by the consulting firm Management Information Services, Inc. (MISI) “estimated the total historical federal subsidies for various energy sources over the years 1950–2010. The study found that oil, natural gas, and coal received $369 billion, $121 billion, and $104 billion (2010 dollars), respectively, or 70% of total energy subsidies over that period. … [They} also benefited heavily from regulatory subsidies such as exemptions from price controls and higher-than-average rates of return allowed on oil pipelines.”

Add to these figures the way that lax anti-trust enforcement combined with large subsidies increases market power, which in turn creates powerful lobbying leverage further reinforcing these privileges.

Where true free markets have operated, the consequences have been equally deleterious. Unlike any other major US city, Houston has no zoning regulations. The predictable consequence has been the asphalting of large land areas that once acted as natural drainage systems. Middle-class homeowners and real estate developers constitute a powerful lobby on behalf of unrestrained development. Runaway development thus exacerbates flooding even as it fills the pockets of developers.

Worse still, like many US cities that disdain public transit. Houston’s poor transit options make it harder to escape an approaching storm. “One of the things pre-storm that is a benefit is our subway and bus system,” which takes excess car traffic off the roads, says Megan Pribram, New York City’s assistant commissioner for planning and preparedness. Escaping sprawling Houston means traveling further, almost exclusively by car in frightful traffic.

Mass transit provides one means of coping with the inevitable storms even as it reduces pressure on the environment. Unfortunately absence of adequate public transit is further exacerbated by the city’s lack of attention to infrastructure, especially in poorer areas of the city. Robert Bullard, father of the environmental justice movement, points out: “Houston spends more on infrastructure in wealthier neighborhoods. That means bicycle lanes and jogging trails but also embankments that keep floodwaters at bay. Low-income communities tend to lack these features.”

The so-called free market allows concentrated economic power at the top even as unionization and minimum wage standards are resisted. Those at the top have only one goal, to maximize profits. Thus Rex Tillerson, former ExxonMobil CEO, lied for years about climate science, funded pseudo science and when challenged at a stockholder meeting frankly declared, “My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money then that is what I want to do.” Not surprisingly companies that wish to maximize profits in an unregulated economy choose the most vulnerable and least powerful communities for locating their dangerous operations.

In the absence of zoning, poor and minority neighborhoods are targeted for petrochemical expansion. FAIR reports: “neighborhoods near petrochemical facilities, according to environmental justice activist Bryan Parras, were “literally getting gassed” by effluents from shuttered oil refineries. A Houston Chronicle map (8/31/17) shows how petrochemical facilities are clustered on the city’s poorer east side; these largely low-income neighborhoods already suffer from high rates of respiratory disease and cancer (The Nation, 6/3/14), as well as high unemployment as both residents and businesses have pulled up stakes and fled the recurrent toxic fumes, leaving behind those who can’t afford to relocate. Bullard summarizes the case well: “communities of color and poor communities have been unofficially zoned as compatible with pollution. And we say that is — we have a name for it. We call that environmental injustice and environmental racism. “

How have the corporate media covered this evolving catastrophe? Naomi Klein points out that even the mention of climate change is verboten. Media defend themselves with the demand that the tragedy not be politicized. Klein counters that the decision of the media not to mention climate change is itself a political choice. In addition, Goodman and Klein might add how much of a direct economic stake major media have in advertising revenues from petro chemical giants. ExxonMobil and Koch industries are especially heavy advertisers. Nor have the media provided any analysis of the role racism and corporate oriented political economy has played in this tragedy. Instead the chemical industry lobby has succeeded in blocking right to know legislation that would require public disclosure of the location and composition of dangerous materials. The claim is that such disclosure would aid terrorists.

Harvey demonstrates that climate breakdown is both more serious and more imminent. Harvey will probably not cause as many immediate deaths, but its long-term economic and psychological effects are just as dire. In any case the terrorist bogeyman has always been about denying access to information and repressing dissent. Once in a hundred or even thousand year events are becoming almost routine. These should elicit unprecedented discussions of how all of us can limit the continuing climate breakdown, redress poverty and racism, and mitigate the damage.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2017

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