MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - I have often wondered what the Plains Indians felt as hide hunters killed off their bison--the vast herds which were the center of their lives. These days, the poor folks along the Gulf can no doubt identify with those indigenous peoples--and the helpless rage and pain they must have felt. As plumes of oil, toxic to humans and wildlife, invade their beaches, fisheries, and wetlands, they can only stand by and watch helplessly, unable to protect what they love and live from. "I get tears in my eyes, because when you'd pull into that marsh previously, fish would jump and scurry," said one Louisiana resident (quoted in Newsweek), describing a ruined wetland. "[Afterwards,] ain't a bird, ain't a bug, nothing....Everything was dead."
Though the spill in the Gulf was an accident, and the killing of the bison was intentional, there are similarities between the two catastrophes. Both were the result of market forces too big for their actual settings. President Obama and Attorney General Holder have raised the possibility of criminal prosecutions: Given the number of safety violations that BP stands accused of, it may in fact turn out that the Gulf has been savaged by criminals.
But to see this destruction as an accident or a crime is to see it as an aberration. I am much more worried that it is part of business as usual--business as it has been conducted at least since the Industrial Revolution. Since then, our society has been in the habit of letting market forces make decisions for us that rational, compassionate human beings would never make on their own.
After all, hide hunting in the 1870s was illegal, too, in many parts of the West. Quite a few Americans saw the destruction of the bison and wanted to stop it. Others, of course, wanted to "destroy the Indians' commissary," as General Phil Sheridan put it, by any means necessary. But once the railroads linked the West to international markets--and provided an easy means to ship green hides--the argument was settled. "The laws against hide hunting were as unenforceable in nineteenth-century America as laws against ivory poaching are in twentieth-century Africa," says Richard Manning in Grassland. The Law of Supply and Demand simply trumped the statutes on the books of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Describing market-primacy in the extermination of bison on the Staked Plains of Texas, Manning says, "[The bison's] enemy was this new man, whose railroads, like a lens, could focus the hungers of men of the entire world to burn on a single spot in Texas."
Now the hunger of the world for oil is burning, like a lens, on the Gulf of Mexico--and it is incinerating the hopes and dreams of the people there. And whether the spill turns out to be an accident, a crime, or both, it's clear that the drive to meet market demand today--just as in the nineteenth century--overrode caution, foresight, regulations, laws--and any sense of reverence for a place and its inhabitants.
We are all implicated: Our whole economy--including the seafood and tourism industries in the Gulf--depends on fossil fuels. But we have to realize that the "space" inhabited by a global economy is not the "place" where we actually live. The "market" resides in our minds as an abstraction--but it depends, as do we, on the health of actual places. "The market" is bigger than any one place and swats localities like flies. But the economy has no alternative universe to which it can repair. The world may want oil, but it also wants clean beaches to visit and healthful seafood to eat. Now, as the global economy destroys a part of the world, it also destroys a part of itself.
It is time to save the global economy from itself. We are used to seeing market growth as a sign of health, a harbinger of prosperity. But we need to recognize that it has a murderous side as well. Built in to our economy is a reality, which Manning puts starkly: "Industrialization drives extermination." We have been lulled into thinking that the waves of extinctions--the losses of plants, animals, cultures, peoples--that have accompanied the spread of our techno-industrial system across the globe not only have little to do with us but are actually a small price to pay for our prosperity. But now the waves of destruction are coming awfully close to home. The reach for prosperity is undermining our prosperity.
If we are to have the benefits of globalization without the destruction, we must correct the severe imbalance which the Gulf spill has revealed. We need to empower localities, defend ecosystems, support place-based businesses. If the economy has its Goliaths, we need many more Davids.
If market forces can destroy as well as build, we cannot simply give the market its head. We have to use our own heads, and we have to supply the heart, as the market has no heart. And we can begin at home. Perhaps what the world most needs from us now, paradoxically, is that we know, love, support, foster, cherish, and defend the places where we live.