MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - It is hard to get out of a gilded cage, and that's what we Americans live in when it comes to fossil fuels. We like the cheap food and transportation that fossil fuels provide, and we take for granted the availability of inexpensive products made of plastics and other oil-derivatives. We can't imagine living without comfort and convenience, and so all too often we prefer to see only the glitter, not the bars.
But for many people in the world, the hard iron is all too visible. This discrepancy between what we see and what others see is the subject of Julia Baird's recent essay in Newsweek, "Oil's Shame in Africa." Baird quotes CUNY School of Law professor Rebecca Bratspies: "Problems associated with oil production are usually invisible to those of us who consume vast quantities. We don't see how dirty it is. [The recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico] is a more extreme version of daily events in Nigeria, where the oil companies have had a complete and total disregard for the environmental implications of their actions." According to Baird, what the Nigerians have gone through has not been deemed newsworthy in the West.
"Oil 'accidents' [in Nigeria] occur almost weekly," she writes. "Each year since the 1960s, there has been a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez's into the Niger Delta.... Large purple slicks cover once fertile fields, and rivers are clogged with oil leaked decades ago.... Locals complain of sore eyes, breathing problems, and lesions on their skin." All of this has happened and is happening, she says, beneath Americans' notice.
I have to admit that the atrocities Baird describes were news to me. I had also thought that our Gulf residents couldn't get any unluckier -- until Baird pointed out the difference in how they are treated compared to their counterparts in Nigeria. The President of the most powerful country in the world insists that the Gulf spill be cleaned up and US residents compensated, whereas in Nigeria a fragile government, newly embarked on a parliamentary path, seems unable to hold oil companies accountable for damage to its citizens.
Spurred by Baird to shed my shameful designation as Irresponsibly Ignorant, I engaged in a few days of research. Soon I saw that today's ineffectual Nigerian government is a huge improvement over the previous military regime and that oil production was accompanied in the past by even more intense suffering.
Back in the 1990s, the Ogoni people, who inhabit the Niger Delta where the majority of oil drilling in Nigeria takes place, protested against Royal Dutch Shell's pollution of their farm fields and waterways. The most prominent spokesman was Ken Saro-Wiwa, an internationally known poet who headed up the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). MOSOP called on Shell to clean up oil-spills and compensate farming and fishing communities for the loss of livelihoods. MOSOP also asked that some part of Nigerian oil revenues be used for economic development in Ogoniland. Nigeria was run at the time by a military regime that worked hand-in-glove with Shell. Shell supplied the money and in some cases the equipment for special police and military units charged with pacifying the Ogonis. What followed was what the New York Times called "a campaign of terror against the Ogoni people" -- arrests, beatings, torture, killings. The culmination was the arrest of the leadership of MOSOP, who were charged with murder and brought before a specially constituted military tribunal, which quickly sentenced them to death. Despite international protests at the lack of due process, Ken Saro-Wiwa and five equally out-spoken Ogonis were hanged on November 10, 1995.
I find it a hard fact to get my mind around -- that the production of fossil fuels, which has provided my society with so much spin-off prosperity, is at the same time an out-of-control machine that crushes people and places. And yet apparently both things are true and are connected to each other. At the time Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues faced execution, Nigeria was exporting 40% of its oil to the U.S.; today the U.S. gets some 10% of its oil from Nigeria.
Is there anything we can do? Baird seconds Professor Bratspies's recommendation -- that the U.S. insist -- and join the international community in insisting -- that oil companies clean up their spills and compensate their victims wherever they are, in Third World as well as western countries. Such an emphasis on responsibility might well have led BP to be more safety conscious, and the Gulf disaster might have been averted.
In addition, I know that if I as an individual do not make a special effort, my awareness and concern will be caged up once more and held apart from those who are paying an unacceptably high price for my comfortable way of life. But entwined as I am with the benefits of fossil fuels, I also want a seat at the Grown-ups' Table. I can see I will never be let in on discussions of real things -- difficult or contradictory or unpleasant as they may be -- if my heart and mind are locked behind bars.