13. Sacrifice Zones

Will people eventually wake up to the harm we’re inflicting on our planet?

“The open veins of Latin America are still bleeding.” (Bolivian indigenous leader Nilda Rojas Huanca, 2014)

“The best thing about the Earth is if you poke holes in it oil and gas comes out.” (Republican US Congressman Steve Stockman, 2013)

Naomi Klein, master of juxtaposition, opens her fifth chapter with these two quotes (161). Her tenth, she opens (337) with these ones: 

“I believe that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” (Rachel Carson, 1954) 

“What good is a mountain just to have a mountain?” (Jason Bostic, Vice President of the West Virginia Coal Association, 2011) 

While I’ve made the argument in these pages, as does Klein, that the choice is not between compassion for the earth and total idiocy — that the struggle against catastrophic climate change is stalled mostly by the seemingly prosperous economic system in whom we live and move and have our being — these quotes lay bare an implicit choice beneath our thinking: we can act out of spiritual solidarity with the earth, or we can act out of moral complicity with the profit margin, what the Bible calls “mammon.” If this is not intrinsically so, it is contingently so at this moment in time, which some of capitalism’s defenders like to call “the end of history” — feeling that there’s no room for improvement here, capitalism is the best there is, and lo and behold, we’ve arrived!

Yet the ties that bind us to capitalism are, in many instances, beginning to fray. Klein is at her most poetic when invoking “the psychological distress that sets in when the homelands that we love and from which we take comfort are radically altered by extraction and industrialization, rendering them alienating and unfamiliar.” Philosopher Glenn Albrecht calls this “sostalgia, with its evocations of solace, destruction, and pain…the homesickness you have when you are still at home” (165). 

At first, this experience was unique to those living in sacrifice zones, “places that, to their extractors, somehow don’t count and therefore can be poisoned, drained, or otherwise destroyed, for the supposed greater good of economic progress” (169). Klein goes into great detail in telling the tragic story of the island nation of Nauru, once one of the richest places in the world thanks to its mounds of phosphate extracted from bird guano — until it was over-mined by its rapacious consumers and left stripped, poor, and so thirsty for foreign currency that it became a dismal haven for Russian shell companies and rat-infested Australian concentration camps for migrants it cannot house. It is now one of those places in the world most at risk from rising seas. 

But there are innumerable other sacrifice zones in this world. I quote at length from The Telling Takes Us Home, an impassioned theology of the poor and of the earth written by some Catholic activists with whom I once had the privilege of spending a month:

“The increasing unemployment and hopelessness experienced throughout Appalachia today is often explained by the media and by politicians as the inevitable result of a ‘War on Coal’ initiated by environmentalists and progressive politicians. But the creation of a political scapegoat denies the reality that mechanization, natural gas, and the dynamics of global capitalism are the true reasons for the loss of coal jobs in the region, as coal executives quietly cash out their stocks while the public is largely misdirected.

“In such a situation people feel they should be grateful to have any job at all, no matter how dangerous or how crushing to body and soul it may be. And excuses are made that such industries are ‘all we have’ and that the presence of resources obligates the people here to lead lives of sacrifice for the needs of ‘the common good’ or ‘national energy security.’ The story of Appalachia is the story of what many call a ‘sacrifice zone,’ one of the many places of suffering in our world that are exploited for the sake of a global capitalist economy that seeks the ‘maximization of profit’ at any cost and funnels wealth to those at the top.”

In the heart of this Trump country, where people may turn to fear-based responses to the blind forces of fate that seem to be demolishing their homes (I think of the “Nothing” in that old children’s movie The Never-Ending Story), the loss is economic, natural, and human. As one of the parishioners there lamented to me, using the infamous undefined they, “First they took our mining jobs; then they took our trees. Now they are taking our children.” In fact, it was the coal industry that mechanized its labor, obviating jobs; it is the coal industry that’s pursued the practice of strip-mining, knocking off mountaintops in search of what little ore lies beneath; and it is Walmart that is the region’s largest employer, prompting a whole generation of young people to seek lives outside the Appalachian region.

As many environmentalists are at pains to point out, we don’t need to sacrifice our own interests in order to care for the planet: self-care and care for the planet are one. Some of the great stories of class-action lawsuits — that of Erin Brokovich, for example — demonstrate what people can do when they realize they are implicated in the corporate destruction of the cosmic web of life. But many others succumb to the power of capital: “in many cases, climate change is further increasing the economic pressure on Indigenous communities to make quick-and-dirty deals with extractive industries. That’s because disruptive weather changes, particularly in northern regions, are making it much harder to hunt and fish.” Klein gives the example of Greenland, whose thawing glaciers “are revealing a vast potential for new mines and offshore oil expansion… ‘We’re very aware that we’ll cause more climate change by drilling for oil,’ a top Greenlandic official…said in 2008. ‘But should we not? Should we not when it can buy us our independence?’” (385) 

In fact, the “jobs vs. environment” is vacuous: “if $5 billion is spent on a pipeline, it produces mostly short-term construction jobs, big private sector profits, and heavy public costs for future environmental damage. But if $5 billion is spent on public transit, building retrofits, and renewable energy, economies can gain, at the very least, three times as many jobs in the short term, while simultaneously helping to reduce the chances of catastrophic warming in the long term…The problem, of course, is that while [fossil fuel companies] are putting dollars on the table to build pipelines, governments are unwilling to make comparable sums available for alternatives” (400).

Yet federal oversight is profoundly necessary to regulate a system “laden with corporate handouts and loopholes.” After carbon trading became a reality in the mid 2000s, generating over $100 billion in annual trades, its effectiveness declined precipitously as corporations figured out how to generate lucrative credits through “dodgy industrial projects…For instance, oil companies operating in the Niger Delta that practice ‘flaring’ — setting fire to the natural gas released in the oil drilling process because capturing and using the potent greenhouse gas is more expensive than burning it — have argued [successfully] that they should be paid if they stop engaging in this enormously destructive practice…. despite the fact that gas flaring has been illegal in Nigeria since 1984” (219). Klein lists other examples of instances in which companies produce toxic greenhouse gases “just so that they can get paid to destroy them.” She speaks of “carbon cowboys,” corporate mercenaries who wave “aggressive contracts (often written in English, with no translation)” in front of isolated indigenous peoples and convince them to sign away their land rights to their forests, which can be classified as carbon offsets.

Klein finds chilling words for this kind of manipulation: “the offset market has created a new class of ‘green’ human rights abuses, wherein peasants and Indigenous people who venture into their traditional territories (reclassified as carbon sinks) in order to harvest plants, wood, or fish are harassed or worse”; one such skirmish left hundreds of local farmers and climate activists dead in 2013 in Honduras (222). 

Let this be constantly on our mind if we are ever tempted to praise the “sustainable” initiatives of mainstream conservation groups or if we think that simple mechanisms like cap-and-trade will solve the planet’s woes: “When the Big Green groups refer to offsets as the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of climate action, they are in fact making a crude cost-benefit analysis that concludes that it’s easier to cordon off a forest inhabited by politically weak people in a poor country than to stop politically powerful corporate emitters in rich countries… The added irony is that many of the people being sacrificed for the carbon market are living some of the most sustainable, low-carbon lifestyles on the planet” (222-3). 

Sostalgia indeed. It begins with populations most vulnerable to historic racism and colonization. But it is coming around to affect us all. If we are to believe in unlimited deregulated growth under capitalism, the delicate balance of life will require unlimited deregulated pain and suffering elsewhere. “As one Appalachian author and minister once put it, ‘Capitalism needs its Appalachias. Capitalism needs poor and oppressed people because it is in its very nature to create them’ (The Telling Takes Us Home).”

Read on for more.