Monday, May 10, 2010

A Digit A Day

As my efforts to make Louisiana a more humane and less brutal place when it comes to the use of capital punishment have been largely unsuccessful, I am considering taking a new tack and instead proposing the use of physical, bodily mutilation as a deterrent for criminals and as a way to encourage law abiding behavior among the criminals that prey on Louisiana's defenseless citizens.
No, I have not changed my view on Bobby Jindal's proposal to mandate castration for child sex offenders and remain opposed to such a sanction on the basis that it would demean our contemporary standards of decency while being entirely ineffective in deterring sex offenders, most of whom do not expect to be caught and therefore are unafraid of an improbable punishment.
I propose that, instead, we save such punishments for the corporate executives of the companies that exploit our state's natural resources. With the largest oil spill in history gathering and expanding in the Gulf of Mexico still spewing oil, three weeks after the initial explosion at the Deep Water Horizon oil platform, I have a proposal that is penologically sound, that will encourage a quick resolution to the continuing flow of oil, and which will deter other corporate heads from allowing their companies - all rational actors, I was taught in law school - to allow similar catastrophes.
Here is what we shall do: For every day the oil continues to flow up from the sea bed - destroying the lives of tens of thousands who rely on the Gulf for their livelihood, ruining the habitats of hundreds of species of birds and animals that lives in the wetlands and barrier islands, further degrading wetlands that protects south Louisiana from hurricanes which were already undermined by oil company canals and pipelines - British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward loses a digit. A digit a day. He can choose, start out with pinky toes if he wants, but if doesn't do something to end the flow quickly, he'll find himself with no fingers or toes left and we'll have to get creative. Either with him or maybe we'll start with the Transocean or Halliburton CEO's.
There guys are all Conservatives, I am sure, big believers in accountability who, when they achieve political office, have no regard for the "whining" of my clients on death row. They are the ones that believe that harsh punishments like mass incarceration and the death penalty are the only social programs worth keeping to solve our societal ills. And it's not like we are going to kill them. We'll just leave them fingerless, toeless lessons to corporate heads everywhere that the people who are impacted by their choices are not simply abstractions that exist in profit and loss statements. And, also unlike my clients, these guys are people who we can expect really take risks and contingencies into account before they act so our brutality will have a genuine deterrent effect. Maybe it will put a little fire under Hayward ass, get a solution to this month old problem before the elderly and children along the coast have to be moved inland to protect them from the carcinogenic benzene wafting in with the afternoon breeze. And if it doesn't, at least my anger that my city smells like a goddam gas station will be appeased, however slightly.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Is Louisiana part of our country or isn't it?

Rachel Maddow's closing remarks on her May 3, 2010 show broadcast from Venice, Louisiana were a powerful expression of both what the Gulf Coast and Louisiana face from this enormous natural disaster and also what Americans face with minimally regulated capitalism. To be clear, powerful corporations are making choices everyday that put our lives at risk and they calculate our suffering into their profit and loss statements and, frequently, it's cheaper to create misery than to spend money preventing it. (Who knows what corners were cut, what "efficiencies" realized, in the construction of the "fail safe" blow out preventer that should have closed the flow of oil in this type of disaster. I wouldn't be surprised if we end up finding out that an additional $100,000 part could have prevented this multi-billion dollar disaster.) The government, with the collective interests of the people at heart, is the only way that all of us little ants can stand up and demand that these corporations consider our safety and wellness when they are digging wells, making products, and trading mortgages and securities.

The Conservative Era, from Reagan to Bush (and now, Obama), has created a landscape that would make Upton Sinclair blush. Once the oil is capped and the Gulf is cleaned (if that is even possible), something real needs to be done to clean up Washington D.C. and its stink of corporate influence, which has already managed to pollute almost everything there. Until then, I will sooner eat oil covered gulf shrimp than buy anything that comes out of those fetid waters.

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A transcript of the closing of the May 3 Rachel Maddow Show:

So, here we are again on America's Gulf Coast, the Louisiana shoreline reporting on an environmental, economic and human catastrophe. This fragile stretch of our country being ripped apart again just as the wounds of the last disaster were beginning to heal here -- that of course was hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the barrier islands off the coast here and leveled much of Venice, Louisiana, where I'm sitting tonight. That was 2005. Here we are again in 2010.

If there's a unifying truth in this state, in this region, it is that the wetlands are the only means of survival. Nobody argues this point. Republicans, Democrats, nobody argues this point.

The wetlands are to the Gulf Coast what bumpers and crumple zones are to cars. It's a buffer against the impact, an absorber of destructive energy, a giant protector against disasters. Wetlands slow and weaken hurricanes before they reach places like New Orleans. They support wildlife. They support human economy. They are incredibly, incredibly fragile, and they have to be preserved if they are going to preserve us. The marshes were built by nature over thousands of years, built by the Mississippi River's floods which left settlement in fresh water. That pushed the edge of the continent out into the Gulf of Mexico by as much as 100 miles.

But since, the 1950s, the pursuit of profit has forced 8,000 miles of marshes to yield to manmade canals -- essentially, to make oil exploration and shipping easier. It's estimated that the state of Louisiana loses 25 square miles of wetlands every year. If we were losing that much land to another country, we would be at war.

America has a choice to make about the State of Louisiana. Is Louisiana part of our country or isn't it? Because if Louisiana is part of America, then the American people and the American government have to begin to defend Louisiana against American greed, and multinational greed. Because yes, legally it's the job of BP, the oil company, to clean up this disaster that looms over this wetlands behind me right now.

But who among us believes that any company really wants to defend America, as much as we as a nation want to defend us? The gain sucked out of the sea bed here is private, it's profit, it supersedes to these pesky little regulatory bodies called countries, but the risk here, again, the risk here as always isn't private. It's public, it's national, it's American. It's borne by Louisiana again, literally borne by the land here and by the people here. The incentives all line up neatly for the companies who profit up a natural resources here to take what they can and damn the consequences.

For us as a country, if we believe in Louisiana, somebody's got to stand up against those companies on behalf of the public, the land, the people, the country.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I wrote this piece in late 2007 for an issue of Orion Magazine that collected essays from writers across the world about the impact of climate change on their immediate lives. (Orion did not end up publishing it.) The essay focuses on land use in New Orleans but the overarching theme, hubris, seems timely in light of the environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. I don't think it can be repeated too many times: Katrina's impact on New Orleans (a consequence of levee failures, greedy and thoughtless modern development of flood prone areas, environmental degradation of the wetlands, etc.) and the oil geyser in the Gulf were both man made disasters, failures of engineering, imagination, and respect for the natural environment.

Pandora’s Box in New Orleans

In our creation myths, the Divine grows weary of the small, weak, and overreaching efforts of man and finds it necessary to bring about a grand, humbling event. In Greek mythology man was punished for presumptuously accepting Zeus’ stolen fire from Prometheus by being left to suffer the ills from Pandora’s box. In Genesis we see the vision of man discontent with the bounty provided him consuming the one thing denied by God and, as a result, cast out of paradise and into a world of suffering. Hubristic at our core believing in our hearts that we too are Gods, mankind is yet to be humbled.

I live in a Great American City – New Orleans – that has recently suffered an enormous catastrophe that might have highlighted our more modern brands of hubris. In the myriad causes of the disaster we see many consequences of our vast disrespect for the natural world. We walled in the reluctant Mississippi River for a thousand miles with levees and starved Louisiana’s coastal wetlands of the sediment from which they were created, thus degrading nature’s best storm buffer. At the behest of powerful development interests, we have literally stolen earth for over a century by busily draining thousands of acres of swamps with modern pumping devices to build tract houses below sea-level. We have carved up the already struggling wetlands with shipping canals that allow salt water to infect the brackish wetlands and, more to the point, allow oil interests to extract fossil fuels from below the beds of the wetlands causing the ground beneath to subside. In a world of rising seas from global warming that will only increase the risk of bigger, more powerful storms in the future, our city seems to have learned little from our suffering.

Before the twentieth century, the people who planned and built the historic sections of the city that our visitors are most familiar with were not armed with technology to drain or wall off nature so they built with nature rather than against it. Their good sense resulted in one of the most arresting images to come out of post-Katrina New Orleans, rivaling even the widely publicized photos of a dog eating a bloated human body: a diptych of maps that appeared in The Times Picayune, one showing the current city with those areas that flooded cast in blue and the other showing the pre-twentieth century city. The blue areas in the former were all just beyond the historic footprint of the city and, without exception, none of the flooded areas had been deemed habitable by the city’s fathers.

Without the tools to try to fight nature, and with a consequent respect and deference for its powers, the city's fathers had built their city on the high ground along the Mississippi created from millennia of alluvial silt deposited on the river’s banks as it crept along its crescent shaped turn. And even there, they built on piers, elevating structures several feet above the ground and likely future floods.

For want of a plan that would have prevented the foolish redevelopment of the city’s catastrophically flooded twentieth century neighborhoods, the city has allowed individuals to rebuild as they please. Now here and there among the rows of boarded up slabs homes in the miles of devastation are picture-perfect renovations with manicured gardens and owners who hope and believe that levees can be built bigger and pumps stronger to keep nature – growing ever more furious - at bay. They are encouraged by our leaders who refuse to tell people things that they don’t want to hear or tell us that we should bow our heads to anything. They are emboldened by our technologies, our supposed strengths, that in their noxious by-products, including our belief that they have allowed us to make the natural world after our image and desires, have only put us at greater risk of crumbling into the sea. Believing as we do, we won't back down from this fight and, if history is any lesson, we won't win.