Monday, May 17, 2010

The desire to destroy is also a creative desire

Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wrote it in 1842: Die Lust der Zerstörung ist zugleich eine schaffende Lust. To tell the truth, Bakunin hasn't been foremost in mind as I've watched the destruction of a building slowly accelerate and, this month, hurtle toward flat across the street from where I work in Berkeley. Not until this past Friday, anyway.

For many years the nearly-demolished California Department of Health Services building occupied a site slated to host the Helios Energy Research Facility come 2013, an element of the Energy Biosciences Institute funded by a $500 million investment by energy giant BP (formerly British Petroleum).

Let's get back to BP and 19th century anarchists in a moment. First some visuals, starting with a photo of the DHS building just before workers began tearing out the windows and asbestos, a precursor to bringing in heavyweight wrecking equipment.

Now fast-forward. On Friday, I stood outside UC Berkeley's Earl Warren Hall and took some video of what's left of the building being eaten by a big big machine. Check it out. If you are or ever were a six year old boy, you're going to love this...

Okay, back to BP.

Those who are paying attention -- not just to this blog, but to actual & consequential news -- will recognize the name of this largest U.S. producer of gas and oil as the party responsible for the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig fifty miles off the coast of Louisiana. The explosion killed eleven crew members. The rig sank two days later, and a broken pipe into the undersea well has been hemorrhaging oil into the Gulf of Mexico ever since. A lot of oil. Big, big problem.

As I write this post the dirty laundry hasn't all come to light, but it looks like there's plenty of blame to spread around, from BP owners who failed to take reasonable and mandated steps to safeguard their operation, to federal regulators who were sleeping at the switch, to entropy (the gist of my blog post of May 3rd). Extractive industries aren't known for warm, fuzzy environmentalism, and BP seems to be playing a typecast role in the current eco-disaster.

So try to contain your outrage when contrasting the mess this oil behemoth is making off our southern shores with this leading snippet on the website of the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute:
Embarking on a journey of discovery is always exciting, as any of the scientists at the Energy Biosciences Institute can tell you. Like the explorers of old, the partners in the Institute are setting forth in a colossal search for new breakthroughs that will lead to sustainable, clean fuel sources..."

Can anybody out there spell "greenwashing"? Ruining vast ecosystems with one hand while trumpeting noble intentions for the future with the other ... that can't be what Bakunin meant, can it?

Yet five hundred million dollars is too big an investment to call cosmetic, even for a company with a market capitalization of $150 billion as of mid-May 2010. For investment at that scale, no one can reasonably doubt that BP execs are looking for ways to extend their dominance in energy beyond the time their oil wells utterly destroy the environment. It's best to plan ahead, right?

So I started putting together BP, the demolition next-door, and collectivist anarchism when I emerged from my office around six o'clock on the selfsame day that I shot the video embedded above. Just down the block I stumbled upon a demonstration called by Rising Tide Bay Area and EarthFirst! -- yes, that EarthFirst! -- at the intersection of Hearst and Shattuck, the northwest corner of the site formerly known as the California Department of Health Services.

Not Berkeley's biggest demonstration ever, but it was the first overt sign of dissent I've seen on the site since the DHS building was fenced off some months back. These activists get extra points for enthusiasm, costumes, props (see that guy carrying a replica of UC Berkeley's Campanille?), and for trying to make Berkeley look like the 80s again.

(Yes, I do mean the 80s. Not the sixties. I can't tell you how exhausted I am by media coverage of modern-day political activism that begins, in print or voice-over, In a scene reminiscent of the sixties...)

More photos and the groups' own report of the demo can be found on the Act Against Oil site.

It would be hard to make a case that BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf is a product of creative desire, even in Bakunin's sense. Maybe especially in Bakunin's sense. Nope. BP's disaster looks a lot more like a product of insufficiently regulated industry. When an organization's mission is to generate profit for shareholders, quarter in and quarter out, it's not hard to imagine that an imperative to cut operational costs outweighs warm, fuzzy, environmentalist concerns. If government regulators look the other way, what (short-term) incentive does an outfit like BP have to implement expensive safety and mitigation programs? As an organization, BP's nature, like that of any publicly traded company, is acquisitive. Failure to curb that nature, hard, is a formula for further wreck and ruin. The proof is in the underwater plumes.

For what it's worth, happy birthday, Mikhail (May 18th, by the Julian calendar, say some).

The Mikhail Bakunin's quote at the start of this post is from "Die Reaction in Deutschland" ("The Reaction in Germany").

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