Last week’s fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, CA was a reminder that the negative impacts of oil development are not only a problem for far-away indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest.
They’re a problem here in the modern world, too, thanks to a global system that disregards life in favor of profit.
Environmental Injustice: A Multinational Institution
The day of the fire, I read an infographic titled “30 Dr. Seuss Quotes that Can Change Your Life.”
I was thinking about #5 on the list (“You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut”) as I looked out from the bus taking me home over the Bay Bridge, watching the gigantic plume of smoke rise up from the Chevron refinery across the water.
I was imagining the burning noses and throats of people in the homes, businesses, and schools near the refinery, people who have experienced too many negative impacts of fossil fuels while receiving too little benefit–just like many indigenous communities in the Amazon.
It was so painful to watch, I found myself doubting Dr. Seuss for maybe the first time in my life.
Finding the Opportunity in Challenge
One of our guiding principles here at The Pachamama Alliance is that every challenge is an opportunity.
Yes, it’s a statement just begging to be made into one of those “demotivational” posters. But it’s also an invitation to approach your life as a creative process (Dr. Seuss quote #19: “Only you can control your future.”).
Our indigenous partners in Ecuador have created incredible things with a similar mindset, things many believed impossible, including voluntarily reaching out to the modern world for allies and, more recently, winning some historic legal recognition.
By keeping my eyes open to what’s happening in the Amazon, I’ve seen the irreplaceable cultural and ecological wealth of the rainforest.
I’ve also seen some inspiring examples of community, solidarity, and a fiercely creative process that honors tradition while building a future that can sustain us all.
Systems Can’t Be Fixed by Individuals Alone
Coincidentally (or not, depending on your view of the Universe and/or corporate ethics), the day of the fire at the Richmond refinery was also the deadline for Chevron to pay a $19 billion settlement for devastation caused by oil operations in the Oriente region of Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest.
Not surprisingly, given their claims that the ruling is invalid, Chevron didn’t pay.
Karen Hinton, spokesperson for the Amazon Defense Council, stated in the SF Bay Guardian, “I don’t know if the [fire and failure to pay the settlement] are connected in any way, but certainly the fire is in keeping with what we see in other countries, which is a disregard for the rule of law and an attitude of, if we can skirt safety regulations, we will.”
Chevron’s actions speak volumes about a disregard for life, not just a disregard for the rule of law. How can it be otherwise, when so many of our laws are based on the idea that Nature –life itself– is property?
The refinery fire is just the latest example of systemic challenges in our society that won’t be solved through individual action alone.
Opening Our Eyes to What’s Possible
By all means, we should continue to reduce our personal consumption of fossil fuels: bike or take public transit instead of driving or flying, avoid plastic, insulate our homes, buy local food or grow our own, etc.
But we also need to see that we’ve built a system that is working against life – OUR life. And just as we’ve built that system together, however unwittingly, we’re going to have to take it apart and rebuild it together, too.
I believe we can do it, and not just because of Dr. Seuss quote #26 (“Will you succeed? Yes you will indeed! Ninety-eight and three quarters percent guaranteed.”).
There’s a growing critical mass of people who are opening their eyes to what’s happening in their communities and the wider world, as well as increased opportunities and resources for taking action.
Here are a few I recommend:
- Read Bill McKibben’s recent article in Rolling Stone, which uses three numbers to show why fossil fuels are the moral issue of our time.
- Watch the online Democracy School videos offered by Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and learn how communities across the U.S. are asserting local control to protect the rights of their residents, their communities, and Nature.
- Sign a petition calling on Oakland Pride to drop funding from Chevron and Wells Fargo for their 2012 celebration. Think about what divestment in fossil fuels could look like in your community and start your own petition or other campaign.
Share Your Resources for Systemic Transformation
One last Dr. Seuss quote (#29) and then I promise I’ll stop: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
What resources do you recommend for transforming our economic, legal, and political systems to work for life instead of against it? Please share in the comments below.
Lead image of refinery fire courtesy of Drew Dellinger