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From Marx & Philosophy - by Seferin James
The Anarchist Turn collects fourteen papers from the conference of the same name organised by Jacob Blumenfeld, Chiara Bottici and Simon Critchley at the New School for Social Research in 2011. The title speaks of the perceived shift towards anarchism as the backdrop of radical politics in recent years. As Andrej Grubačić puts it:
[A]narchism, at least in Europe and the Americas, has by now taken the place Marxism once occupied in the social movements of the 1960s. As a core revolutionary ideology, it is the source of ideas and inspiration, and even those who do not consider themselves anarchists feel they have to define themselves in relation to it. (198)
Grubačić writes of the 1870-1917 period in the Balkans as a neglected anarchist moment in the official Yugoslavian history of the left and questions whether the ‘new anarchists’ might make the contemporary period ‘the second anarchist moment?’(195-8) Blumenfeld writes somewhat similarly with a more narrowly contemporary emphasis that ‘[i]n May 2011, arguing for an “anarchist turn” in the United States was something of a scandal. A year later it is already banal. This radical shift can be explained with reference to one verb: Occupy.’(238) So with a whiff of anarchism in the air it might be a good time to turn to a philosophical, feminist, geographical and political consideration of anarchism or at least to continue mulling things over from these perspectives.
The collection is published amidst some controversy. Duane Rousselle, an editor of Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies, asserts that he was frozen out of the project after devoting months of work to editing the materials and securing the original contract for publication from Pluto Press (Rousselle 2013). This failure to acknowledge contributed labour is at odds with Critchley's assertion in his brief Introduction that ‘[c]ollaboration, or working together, is the key here. It is the very ethos of the anarchism that we intend to both discuss and try to enact with this conference.’(1) The scandal seems to suggest that anarchism will remain easier to discuss than it is to enact in a university system riddled with hierarchy where exploitation has been widely normalised at a number of levels.
A major philosophical concern of the book as a whole is to subvert the boundaries between individuals and to rethink the possibilities for egalitarian political community. Bottici approaches this problem by accepting the Marxian critique of Stirner's egoism and putting forward the interesting thesis that Bakunin's concept of freedom is better thought of not as an attribute of individuals but as a relation formed within a discursive community (13-4). Banu Bargu draws on Hannah Arendt to argue that ‘[c]ommensality [the practice of eating together] builds amicable relations across gender, sexual, ethnic, religious and racial lines’(52). It would have been interesting to see Bargu put this unambiguously upbeat assessment of commensality to the test. One might argue that the amicability fostered by the commensality of a patriarchal family meal would not necessarily challenge unequal social relations but can take place in a manner wholly patterned by them and might even be said to serve a role in normalising and reproducing them.
Commensality is something Mitchell Cowen Verter also touches on in his consideration of anarchism as a practice of care (108), which he is keen to distance from the identification of hostility as the primordial political relation that he sees in Tiqqun (102). The prioritisation of hostility connotes Carl Schmitt's politics of enmity with which Derrida is concerned in The Politics of Friendship (Derrida 1997). Derrida's book is a touchstone for Todd May who argues that friendship is the already lived reality of egalitarian relations and the possible prefiguration of meaningful political solidarity. If one is concerned too unproblematically with the possibility of egalitarian political community – especially when this is grounded in such everyday habitualities as eating together or friendship – it makes something of a mystery out of how something as inegalitarian as the capitalist state ever came into being and what, if anything, might be done about it.
Anarchism is often complemented and sometimes juxtaposed with Marxism throughout the collection and while these intersections are often interesting, they are nowhere developed with any great systematicity or particularly strong argument. Bottici emphasises the common ground between anarchism and Marxism, noting that ‘freedom is also the crucial concern for Marx, who from his very early writings is concerned with the conditions for human emancipation’(12) and treats anarchism and Marxism as a mutual ‘antidote to their possible degenerations.’(20) Alberto Toscano initially seems more wary than Bottici of bringing anarchism and Marxism together, writing that:
The effort to draw intellectual and strategic resources for present anti-capitalist praxis from anarchism and Marxism seems jeopardized from the start by the dispiriting alternative between the production of sterile doctrinal hybrids, on the one hand, and the neurotic revisiting of the primal scene of separation on the other. (158)
However, Toscano manages to overcome his own reluctant scepticism to affirm a geographically inflected development of these traditions through Peter Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus and David Harvey. Similar to Bottici, Grubačić sees anarchism as key to responding to deficiencies in Marxism and hence making it possible to respond to his grandmother's charge when she states, ‘I will be a communist for the rest of my life. But my generation found a wrong path to communism. The responsibility for your generation is to find a different path.’(187)
The accused of Tarnac, alleged authors of The Coming Insurrection (Invisible Committee 2009), contribute a manifesto of sorts titled ‘Spread Anarchy, Live Communism’ and in a move away from classical Marxism the paper advocates ‘blocking the circulation of commodities rather than occupying the factories’(232). This sounds less sustainable than the more conventional strategy it rejects and the pseudonymous collective is criticised by other contributors in the book on a number of points. Toscano condemns the ‘catastrophic optimism’ of the Invisible Committee's The Coming Insurrection (ibid.) and asserts that their ‘opposition between the commune and the metropolis is a false one’(165). This tendency to extoll the rural commune over the metropole can be seen when they write that ‘For those who are nowhere, cybernetic philosophers or metropolitan hipsters, the political question never makes sense.’(228) In this one can detect a dubious hint of Heideggerian pastoralism read through Reiner Schürmann. Richard Cowen Verter offers further criticism, accusing them of reproducing ‘the same military logic promoted by the patriarchal state’ with a ‘sectarian rhetoric’ that is ‘idiotic and reprehensible.’(109) In short, no one takes the accused of Tarnac as seriously as they take themselves; except perhaps the police.
At the ambiguous centre of the collection is the aporia posed by Judith Butler's article ‘Palestine, State Politics and the Anarchist Impasse.’ This chapter can be considered a companion piece to the book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (Butler 2012) and here she is concerned with ‘two non-state centred forms of activism, Israeli anarchism and Palestinian modes of struggle that hold open the distinction between self-determination and statehood’(206). Butler is wary of how unequal access to citizenship can act as a structural restraint on the possibility for a sustainable political community at the intersection of these two activisms, writing that:
[N]o matter how moving and important some of these coexistence projects may be, they remain sporadic and isolated as long as their work fails to address the concrete legal, military and economic means by which the state maintains discrimination [...] If the structure of occupation remains the same [...] then such carefully structured instances of cohabitation become transient moments, eclipsed time and again by these overwhelming structural realities. (213)
The emphasis on these structural realities could make this a strong criticism of much anarchist activism as essentially transient, a criticism with potentially broad application beyond the immediate context here. However, Butler goes on to characterise anarchist activism against the wall that builds ‘new modes of sociability between Israelis and Palestinians’ as ‘crucial activity, critical, radical, and exemplary’(215), though this high praise struggles against the negative force of the preceding critique: What are new modes of sociality and cohabitation against the concrete legal, military and economic situation? It is a question that re-interrogates much of what we have already considered.
The anarchist impasse of Butler's title refers to Uri Gordon's Anarchy Alive (Gordon 2007). Butler criticises what she sees as Gordon's assumption that the ‘paradox of Israeli anarchism and Palestinian political aspirations is that the former are against the state and the latter are for the state’ (216). Butler criticises Gordon's neglect of ‘complex Palestinian debates on statehood’ (217) and advocates a bi-nationalism based on a nationalism said to be different from ‘the nationalism that supports the nation state’ (219) to conclude that ‘The rights of Palestinians to determine the course of their mobilization is the very instance of the principle of self-determination which all allies have to affirm.’(222) Butler seems to be on the edge of concluding that the conventional theoretical commitments of anarchism might be brought into question by the demands of the concrete political situation; that there is an ethical obligation for anarchism to listen to the other even at the expense of itself, in the name of itself or at least in the name of the self determination of the other that it obliges itself to hold dear. However, the question of whether Butler maintains that Jewish Israeli anarchists must respect the Palestinian demand for self-determination even if this takes the form of a call for a state and has citizenship as one of its goals is never decisively answered. It therefore remains unclear whether the most prominent theorist in the collection really commits to the anarchist turn as such.
21 March 2014References
- Butler, Judith 2012. Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (New York: Columbia University Press).
- Derrida, Jacques 1997. The Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (London & New York: Verso).
- Gordon, Uri 2007. Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory (London & Ann Arbor: Pluto Press)
- Invisible Committee 2009, The Coming Insurection (New York: Semiotext)
- Rousselle, Duane 2013. ‘Why I'm Returning my Copy of The Anarchist Turn’, http://dingpolitik.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/why-im-returning-my-copy-of-the-anarchist-turn/ Accessed 12/03/2014.
Serious information about the economy is usually presented in ways that just aren’t ... delicious enough. This is a welcome departure from that.
Sometimes things are deemed "urgent," and then you find out more about them, and it’s like, no, actually that’s not urgent in the grand scheme of things. This is not one of those times.
This video comes from the World Food Programme, the world's largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger, and it’s funded entirely by voluntary donations. What are you waiting for? Please donate if you're able! Thumbnail image by UNICEF/Pierre Holtz/Humanitarian and Development Partnership Team in the Central African Republic, used under a Creative Commons license.
There's something wrong with this picture. Well, actually a lot of somethings...
Fact Check Time!
1. America's taxpayers subsidize Walmart to the tune of $900,000 per year per store: umm, yes.
The subtitle of the newly released documentary film Big Men is “everyone wants to be big” and to say the film covers a “big” topic is to put it mildly.
Executive produced by Brad Pitt and directed by Rachel Boynton, the film cuts to the heart of how the oil and gas industry works and pushes film-watchers to think about why that's the case. Ghana's burgeoning offshore fields — in particular, the Jubilee Field discovered in 2007 by Kosmos Energy — serve as the film's case study.
Image Credit: Ghana Oil Watch
Boynton worked on the film for more than half a decade, beginning the project in 2006 and completing it in 2013. During that time, the Canadian tar sands exploded, as did the U.S. hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) boom — meanwhile, halfway around the world, Ghana was having an offshore oil boom of its own.
Kosmos Energy (KOS), previously a privately held company, led the way. Adding intrigue to the film, Kosmos went public while Boynton was shooting. Kosmos didn't do it alone, though: the start-up capital to develop the Jubilee Field came from private equity firm goliaths Blackstone Group and Warburg Pincus, a major part of the documentary.
What makes Big Men stand above the rest is the access Boynton got to tell the story. Allowed into Kosmos' board room, the office of Blackstone Group, encampments of Nigerian militants and the office of the President of Ghana, the film has a surreal quality to it.
Now screening in Dallas, New York City and Portland, the film will soon open in theaters in Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles.
After seeing the film at Madison's Wisconsin Film Festival, I reached out to Boynton to talk to her about Big Men, what it had in common with her previous film (one of my favorites) Our Brand is Crisis and what other documentary projects she has on the go.
Steve Horn: I've seen your first film, Our Brand is Crisis, and there seems to be a continuity in a way between Our Brand and Big Men because Bolivian ex-president “Goni” (Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada) was chased out of Bolivia eventually because he attempted to privatize Bolivia's gas and was basically in office to begin with because people from the outside came in and helped place him there (U.S. Democratic Party political consultants and electioneers) to begin with.
Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada; Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
One could see a similarity between the PR efforts led by those electioneers, which serves as the premise of Our Brand, and a western oil company like Kosmos coming into Ghana to bring offshore oil and gas drilling to the country.
Did what eventually happened in Bolivia with their gas market — because these U.S. consultants came in and helped get “Goni” elected —move you to start thinking about energy (oil, gas, etc.) as a documentary film topic?
Rachel Boynton: No, not at all. In that sense they're totally unrelated. The origin of both projects is completely unrelated.
I finished Our Brand is Crisis in 2005 and it had its theatrical run in 2006 and so back in 2005 I started thinking about what I wanted to do next and at the time, oil prices were going through the roof and everyone was freaking out about peak oil.
I was seeing it on the news constantly and I felt like I wasn't seeing inside of it. Here's the most important resource on the planet and everyone's talking about it, everyone seems scared and yet I'm not seeing anything from inside the industry.
I'm pretty good at getting access to things and so the original thought was that “You know, I want to do a story from inside the oil business, I want to get access to the inside of it.” And then as I started looking at it — you know, the Gulf of Guinea is sort of this new frontier for oil exploration and it's considered under-explored territory — I thought, “Well that could be a good story.”
Gulf of Guinea; Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
And then in late 2005 and early 2006, this militancy started in Nigeria started popping up in the news, with the militants attacking pipelines, kidnapping oil workers and causing worldwide oil prices to soar.
When I read about that I thought, “Well there has to be a movie there, right?” I mean, open conflict makes for good film. So, the original idea was to go to Nigeria and do the entire film there and that's how I began.
When I started, I didn't know anyone in the oil business and I didn't know anyone in Africa. I started by buying a plane ticket to Nigeria and that's how it began.
Horn: So, there's this kind of thread that runs through Big Men — it's not exactly the most prominent thing, but it's there the whole time — which is the capital investment behind Kosmos Energy and the firms Warburg Pincus and Blackstone. How did you come to make the decision and why did you decide to feature the private equity firms in your film?
Boynton: Well, it's a very important part of the story.
Horn: Right. Well, I guess what I'm getting at is often when oil and gas is talked about, the capital investment and private equity world/Wall Street world is not talked about. What was the reason why you chose to do so?
Boynton: Well, this is a different story than most. The work of a documentary filmmaker is difficult because you're doing a lot of competing things at once simultaneously.
First you pick your story. When you're following something over time, you ideally pick a situation in which you think there's going to be a story to tell, when you think something is going to happen.
You see it in a lot of films that are about let's say contests of one kind or another. “Our Brand is Crisis” is a kind of contest film. It's about a competition: who's going to be president. Inherent in that story is a sense of drama. You will have a winner and a loser.
“Our Brand is Crisis” Poster; Photo Credit: International Movie Database
The story of Kosmos Energy and Ghana was far more complicated than that because it was not a story about an open conflict or an open contest. It was a story about a discovery. And there was every possibility that things could've gone smoothly and there would've been no drama. And if that had been the case, then I would've made a very different film.
But that's not what happened. What happened was this enormous catfight, basically, over the money. Which some people might look at it and think that's predictable. I would certainly bet that when you're dealing with a massive resource worth millions and millions of dollars that conflict is sort of inevitable.
The choice of who's in the film and what the story is and how I portrayed the story, what facts to include or not to include, that has to do with me trying to distill what I want to emphasize in terms of the truth.
So to me this was really a story about capitalism and it's a story about self-interest and human nature. That's why it's called Big Men. For the purpose of the film, the equity guys are the biggest of the big men, so to not include them just wouldn't make sense.
Horn: Related to that, one of the questions I had was it seems like in the film the private equity firms are huge in — I wouldn't say pressuring — but at least raising the level of urgency on Kosmos to get deals cut with the Ghanaian government.
Would you say that was something you felt when interviewing the executives at Kosmos, that this was a real sense of urgency they felt because of pressure from the top of these two private equity firms?
Boynton: Yes. But I mean the pressure was multi-faceted. I mean there's pressure because they have to get the job done: they're trying to develop an oil field. And from their business perspective, their plan was to get the first oil as quickly as possible.
Kosmos had been conceived as a company that was going to sell its assets. Kosmos originally — it's a very different company today than it was when I began the film. When I began the film, they had no intention of becoming a publicly held company. They thought they were going to sell and that was sort of the business model: to discover the oil, to develop it, as they would say “to create value” and then to sell it; that was the plan.
So in order for that plan to work, they had to develop the field and ideally do it as quickly as possible because it's an enormously expensive endeavor to maintain an oil field. And once you get into start maintaining an oil field: you know Kosmos wasn't ExxonMobil. ExxonMobil has income from all over the world, so once ExxonMobil starts to decide to develop an oil field, they have plenty of other oil fields to pay for it with and Kosmos didn't have that.
ExxonMobil Headquarters; Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
One of the big pressures weighing on Kosmos' heads was they didn't have any source of income and then the financial crisis hit them.
So from the investor's perspective, they wanted to make their money back and they started to get really scared because here was the financial crisis, oil prices tanked and they knew they had up ahead of them these enormous expenditures. And so they knew financially — if you just looked at the numbers — it was a very scary situation for them.
Horn: Let's go back to what you talked about, you know, that at-large this is a film about capitalism. When you say that, what do you mean by that?
Boynton: Well, what did you think? You saw the movie, right? Do you see what I'm talking about?
Horn: (Laughs) Of course, yeah. That's why I asked the question about the private equity firms. I think it shows exactly how the global oil and gas industry works.
Boynton: I think this movie wasn't really about oil. The trick of this movie, the reason I think this movie is extraordinary, is that it works on many, many levels.
Unlike Our Brand is Crisis, which is a pretty simple film and a straight-forward story, it's one that's much, much easier to tell than Big Men and a lot less intricate with less moving parts. The two films do have a lot in common, just not what you were pointing to in your first question.
Big Men works as a story about Ghana and the story of oil there and the question of what's going to happen with Ghana. And that's sort of the most obvious, first level in which to look at the movie, a story of these places: Ghana and here's what went wrong in Nigeria and is it going to happen in Ghana? That's level number one.
Level number two, it's a story about people and the motivations that are driving them: a question about Ghana and self-interest is the same thing that's driving the human story, the individual story in the movie. The individuals are motivated and torn apart by self-interest in the same way that these countries are. So it works on this large level and also on a smaller level.
And it works as a story about — journalistically — telling the truth about something that happened. But I think it also works metaphorically: there are larger philosophical questions about human nature and how we want to live. To me, that's what makes the film interesting, these larger philosophical questions.
Horn: Would you say then in a sense that the stories of Ghana and Nigeria are just case studies of a much bigger question?
Boynton: I would never call them just case studies. I would say it's looking for a greater truth in a smaller story.
As I got into it and delved into it, I was very interested in the idea of wanting to be big. That's why the film's called Big Men. In the film, wanting to be big is about two things: it's about wanting to make a lot of money and it's about wanting to have a big reputation.
Those two things combined give you power and influence and freedom. And everybody in the film is going after those things and the film opens with a quote from Milton Friedman. Our entire worldview is organized right now around the pursuit of maximum individual profit, that's how the world's structured, that's the engine as Milton Friedman would say.
Milton Friedman; Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
But it's also the divider, but as one key character in the film says, “What unites us needs to be greater than what divides us.” And that's much easier to say than it is to do, but it's the question and it's sort of one of the big questions the film is posing. How do you go about doing that and is it possible?
And certainly, it becomes more possible when you look at smaller concentric circles. Talking about a unified world might be impossible, but talking about a unified community or a unified nation might not be.
Horn: This question has come up before in other interviews you've done, but Brad Pitt was involved as executive producer for the film and my question is not so much about him but about how he also executive produced the film 12 Years a Slave recently and that was about Africa and what happened to the people of Africa because of slavery.
Did Pitt, in your talking to him, see any similarities or common themes between the two films?
Boynton: I can quote what he said, which is he's really interested in this theme of this notion of “what unites us needs to be greater than what divides us.”
I mean, that is sort of a theme in “12 Years a Slave” and the idea of thinking about the reality of history and how people get treated and then moving beyond that into a new way of approaching things by confronting the reality. That's sort of in my opinion what “12 Years a Slave” was kind of about philosophically.
“12 Years a Slave” Poster; Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
But when Brad did the screening with me a couple weeks ago, he was talking about the film in terms of “responsible capitalism” and the idea, the hope really, that there is a way of doing things in which everyone can benefit. And he thinks that should be a goal, that should be something that we consciously make an effort to pursue, rather than this notion of maximum individual profit as the organizing principle.
Horn: So the last question for you is do you have any future projects in mind or things that you're working on?
Boynton: I do, I think I'm going to make a film about my husband, Steven Shainberg. At least that's what I'm thinking today. My husband's a fiction filmmaker and he's about to go make this crazy movie and I'm kind of fascinated by the process of it and by what he's doing. I think the movie's going to be great.
I think it could be really fun to make this film and I'm ready to do something that's really going to be fun.
Photo Credit: Getty ImagesTags: Brad PittOur Brand is CrisisGoniGonzalo Sánchez de LozadaBig MenRachel BoyntonJubilee Oil FieldJubilee Gas FieldWisconsin Film FestivalMadisonwisconsinKosmos EnergyWarburg PincusBlackstone GroupGhanaoilgasOffshore OilOffshore GasExxonMobil12 Years a SlaveAfrica
While almost everyone you know is probably on Facebook, almost no one will say it's cool anymore. In this country, at least. But check out places like Saudi Arabia, where it's more than cool — it's life-changing.
UPDATE 4/17/2014: Waleed Abu al-Khair (who begins speaking at 1:20) has been detained by Saudi authorities for his peaceful activism. Read more at HRW.
At least 28 U.S. senators will speak through the night about climate change, a sign that despite gridlock in Congress, the issue remains salient, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
I get it. My name isn’t super intuitive to pronounce. So I laughed along to this hilarious sketch until I got to 1:53, when the character makes a genuine point about the decisions many of us have made — often as early as elementary school — about how we present ourselves differently in order to be more palatable to society.
Share this with anyone who’s ever been on either end of this conversation. Do it for the Jonathans!
I got really lucky when I found this clip from the BBC’s "Goodness Gracious Me" while searching the YouTube vaults for '90s British sketch comedy renditions of my life’s most awkward moments. Thumbnail image via Thinkstock.
Louisiana State University entomologist Linda Hooper-Bui has been studying the impact of the BP oil spill on insects and spiders for almost four years. She started her study shortly after the Macondo well blew out on April 20, 2010, before any oil washed up on shore. Her work documents the dwindling of the insect population in areas directly hit with the oil.
On April 9th, she returned to Bay Jimmy and Bay Baptiste, areas that were heavily impacted by the oil spill in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.
“Insects are the basis of the food chain. They are like nature's Twinkies,” Hooper-Bui says.
Her studies also monitor fish and birds, since they eat insects. She sweeps areas designated for her study by walking back and forth waving a net, catching whatever insects are present. She then empties the net into alcohol, preserving the insects for testing. She takes note of the wind speed and temperature at each location and collects a sample of sediment to be tested for hydrocarbons.
Weathered oil found coating the surface of the marsh in Bay Baptiste, Louisiana on April 9, 2014. ©2014 Julie Dermansky
Back in the lab, Hooper-Bui sorts insects by species. She sends some out for testing and stores the rest so other scientists can study them. The results of the test reveal the nutrients found in them, including carbon, nitrogen and sulfur. Knowing what the insects are eating helps her evaluate changes in the environment. She compares the data from sites that were oiled to those that were not.
Linda Hooper-Bui holds a bag containing insects collected in Bay Jimmy, one of the areas hardest hit by the BP oil spill. ©2014 Julie Dermansky
Hooper-Bui makes it clear that she is an independent scientist collaborating with other scientists at other institutions. Her work is not part of any government studies or studies subsidized by BP. Funding for her work has come from competitive grants from the National Science Foundation, the Northern Gulf Institute, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative and two grants from LSU. She believes being a scientist is a civic duty, and will not allow her work to be compromised.
Hooper-Bui's first peer-reviewed reports should be available by this summer, but she has been sharing her observations with interested parties all along. She hopes her work will be utilized by those who have to deal with future spills and by those making policy decisions that involve the oil industry as well as locals who are still dealing directly with the aftermath of this disaster.
Since there are fewer insects and spiders for birds and fish to eat, she is seeing a decrease in other species' success.
“This is what happens when the ecosystem seems to be disrupted,” Hooper-Bui says. Her studies show that not only does oil remain in the marsh in Plaquemines Parish, it is still emitting volatile aromatics. Preliminary results indicate the volatiles naphthalene and methylnaphthalene remain in the oil contaminated parts of the marsh, and could be responsible for the dramatic decline in insect population. Naphthalene is an insecticide, according to Hooper-Bui.
While standing on weathered oil on the shore of Bay Jimmy, Hooper-Bui told DeSmogBlog, “I am looking at how an environment rebuilds itself after a catastrophic disturbance. It is a chronic situation in the marsh, not an acute one because the oil is still here,” she notes. “The oil gets remobilized when storms hit, and when the tide is low and the temperature heats up, volatile compounds emit from the exposed weathered oil coating the surface.”
Weathered oil coats the surface on the marsh in Bay Jimmy, one of the areas hardest hit by the BP oil spill. ©2014 Julie Dermansky
Hurricanes affect insects too, so weather factors into Hooper-Bui's data as well. She has been involved with research about storm effects on insect populations since 2009. Her earlier work gave her benchmark data on how insect populations are affected by storms.
“A healthy environment will rebuild itself after a storm,” Hooper-Bui says. “We know that from Isaac – a compromised eco-system is of concern. The plants might look o.k. but the insects are constantly fumigated when the water is not on the marsh (due to north wind or low tides) and the temperatures are high – when sediment is exposed – the volatile compounds come off the marsh and fumigate the insects and they die – we have results for three years to show that, in the field and in the lab.”
Critics of her studies claim there are no volatiles coming off the marsh. But Hooper-Bui stands by her findings.
“We put cages with insects in them where the only interactions the caged insects had with the environment were with the air in the marsh – and they were dying in oiled areas and surviving in non-oiled areas. When the marsh's sediment is exposed and the temperature gets above 85 degrees Fahrenheit, the oil is being biologically degraded, the oil is releasing volatiles and is killing the insects.”
A report released by The National Wildlife Federation before the fourth anniversary of the BP disaster deals with 14 species higher up in the food chain than insects. On dolphins, the report cites the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report that states, “NOAA researchers found strong evidence that the ill health of the dolphins in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay was related to oil exposure.”
And on tuna, “20% of larval fish could have been exposed to oil, with a potential reduction in future populations of about 4%. For a species already in peril, reductions in reproductive success and lower populations can be major impediments to recovery.”
The report goes on to cite a study co-authored by John Incardona, research toxicologist at NOAA. From the NWF report:
“A more recent study shows that a chemical in oil from the spill can cause irregular heartbeats in bluefin and yellowfin tuna that can lead to heart attacks, or even death. The effects are believed to be particularly problematic for fish embryos and larvae, as heartbeat changes could affect development of other organs. The researchers suggest that other vertebrate species in the Gulf of Mexico could have been similarly affected.”
BP refutes the report. BP spokesman Daniel J Graber told UPI, “The National Wildlife Federation report is a piece of political advocacy, not science,” he said. “It cherry picks reports to support the organization’s agenda, often ignoring caveats in those reports or mischaracterizing their findings.”
However, BP has been criticized for claiming the company will make things right in their advertisements. BP’s ads stress they are committed to the Gulf and committed to America and that business is back to normal, yet BP continually objects to a claims settlement the company already signed off on. They have also been accused of acting as trolls on internet sites and spreading misinformation.
Linda Hooper-Bui checking sediment in Bay Jimmy, some of it mixed with weathered oil. ©2014 Julie Dermansky
Hooper-Bui explains, “Insects are important to study because they are the basis of the food chain – and because people don't care about them, I can manipulate them for my studies without upsetting anyone. Insects are like a canary in a coal mine,” she says. “There is a big problem when they start dying.”
To anyone who thinks the oil isn't still out there, Hooper-Bui says, “Come out here and I'll show you. It wasn't cleaned up.”Tags: BP blowoutBP disaster anniversaryLinda Hooper-BuiBP oil spillinsectsLouisiana
It has been roughly twelve years since fracking launched the great shale rush in the U.S. and the biggest problem with the technology — how to safely dispose of the enormous quantities of toxic waste generated — remains unsolved.
In particular, regulators have struggled to fully understand or police the hazards posed by radioactivity found in fracking waste.
The most common form of radioactivity in shale waste comes from radium-226, which happens also to be an isotope that takes the longest to decay. To be exact, radium-226’s half-life of roughly 1,600 years means that well over a millennium and a half from now, more than half of the radium that fracking brings to the surface today will still be emitting dangerous radioactive particles.
Concern about the waste has taken on renewed urgency in light of a detailed report published in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), a peer-reviewed scientific journal which is backed by the National Institutes of Health. The study concluded that worrisome and extensive gaps in federal and state oversight of this radioactivity problem still persist.
“At the federal level, radioactive oil and gas waste is exempt from nearly all the regulatory processes the general public might expect would govern it,” the researchers wrote. “State laws are a patchwork.’”
This is not an entirely new finding. Several years ago, a New York Times investigative piece highlighted how the oil and gas industry routinely dumped radium-laced waste water into rivers. State regulators in Pennsylvania and the oil and gas industry adamantly denied there was a problem.
So what's changed? The recent academic study concludes that even several years later, worrisome oversight lapses remain. As such, the researchers wrote, there is continuing reason for concern.
“We are troubled by people drinking water that [could potentially have] radium-226 in it,” David Brown, a public health toxicologist with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, told the researchers (insert in original). “When somebody calls us and says ‘is it safe to drink our water,’ the answer is ‘I don’t know.’”
But there is more that makes this recent study important. Much of the public’s attention has focused on the hazards of 280 billions of gallons of radioactive wastewater generated every year by drillers. Regulators have found it difficult to keep tabs on how that waste is handled or how it is disposed, often relying on data self-reported by drillers. A study last year found that over half of Marcellus wastewater still winds up sent to treatment plants that discharge into rivers and streams.
However, in order to truly keep tabs on all of the radioactive materials from fracking, it’s necessary to understand that the radium often winds up accumulating on the surfaces it comes into contact with — dirt, pipes and holding tanks.
Some of the researchers’ most interesting findings come from a little-noticed study published in 2013 that found that the soil in fracking wastewater pit soil can carry elevated levels of radioactivity, even after drillers pull up stakes and complete their cleanup efforts.
In that 2013 study, Alisa Rich, professor at the University of North Texas’s School of Public Health, and Ernest Crosby, who spent 28 years as a engineering professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, took a look at the wastewater impoundment pits where drillers often store wastewater before trucking it away for treatment, injection underground or recycling.
Although the study was quite small, based on just two sites on farmland in Texas, its findings were striking.
One of the two pits tested was still actively being used to store fracking wastewater. The other was a site where a pit had been drained and the surface restored and leveled to match the surrounding farmland, where livestock feed was being grown, and the samples were taken from a depth of six inches.
They were surprised to find that the drained pit still showed elevated levels of radioactivity. They wrote:
Data from this limited field study showed elevated levels of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation to be present in reserve pit/sludge material and also in the soil of a vacated reserve pit after draining and grading to original topographic levels. Based on the use of the pit, the presence of radioactive materials was not anticipated. Agricultural land adjacent to the drained reserve pit may have an increased potential for radioactive material taken up in livestock feed crops growing on the land due to wind transport, runoff and migration of soil on adjacent land.
They cautioned, however, against inferring that all drained pits would show elevated radioactivity, explaining that the radioactivity could have been there before the pit was used to store fracking wastewater, in part because the oil and gas industry’s long history in the region meant that they did not know whether that land already had been contaminated before it was used to store wastewater.
Their unexpected findings indicated, however, that more research is needed into how adequate remediation is when it comes to wastewater impoundments, creating new questions about the adequacy of cleanup regulations for shale gas well sites.
In some states in the Marcellus region, where radioactivity levels are generally higher than in Texas, drillers are permitted to simply bury solid waste like wastewater impoundment liners on site. In West Virginia, for example, drillers may simply bury liners used to store wastewater from vertical gas wells, although they may be required to obtain a landowner’s permission if the well is horizontally drilled.
The propensity for radium to accumulate also raises questions about the metal tanks, trucks and pipes used to transport fracking wastewater.
Combined with other elements like barium or strontium, the radium can form radioactive flakes on metal pipes used to transport the wastewater, for example, a problem that regulators refer to as pipe-scale. In filters, like the ones recently discovered illegally dumped in North Dakota, the radioactive materials can also start to build up. If enough radium concentrates in one place, the radiation it produces can become strong enough to potentially penetrate a person’s clothing and skin, making it hazardous to simply be near it.
But the Environmental Health Perspectives review found that there is little oversight to protect workers from radioactive accumulation.
“Workers are covered by some federal radiation protections,” author Valerie J. Brown wrote, “although a 1989 safety bulletin from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration noted that NORM sources of exposure ‘may have been overlooked by Federal and State agencies in the past.’”
State regulators in Pennsylvania told the researchers that there was no evidence indicating that workers or the public faced a health risk from the radioactivity.
“But given the wide gaps in the data,” Ms. Brown noted, “this is cold comfort to many in the public health community.”
Photo Credit: The Earth, Oriented to Asia surrounded by barrels of nuclear waste, via Shutterstock.Tags: shale gasshale oilRadioactiveMarcellusradiumradium-226half lifedecayradonpeer-reviewedNational Institutes of Healthfracking pitswastewater impoundmentslinersbariumstrontiumremediationclean upburied linersEnvironmental Health Perspectivespublic healthDavid Browntexaspennsylvaniawest virginiapitstestsalpha radiationbeta radiationgamma radiationlivestockCropssoildirtpipestanksworkersOSHANorth Dakotaradioactive dumpingValerie J. Brown