Posted By Rusty Shackleford on June 12, 2010
Over the weeks since British Petroleum (BP) started the worst-ever man-made environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico , David Vitter, (yes, that David Vitter, the whore-mongering, “family values” U.S. senator from Louisiana) has been defending BP, arguing for a liability cap to protect BP, for more off-shore drilling, and against just about anything the federal government is doing to try and clean up BP’s mess. That the senator who ostensibly represents the people of the State of Louisiana, who have arguably suffered the most from BP’s staggeringly irresponsible behavior, would loudly champion the interests of an international corporation over those of his own constituents is audacious, to say the least. But then Senator Vitter is probably banking on the “cheap bread” that he is throwing to the people to keep their minds off of how badly they are being screwed. Vitter’s “bread”? Jobs. Vitter is banking on the notion that the people of Louisiana, still reeling economically from the punishing meted out by Hurricane Katrina, will blithely look past the horror that continues to unfold in the Gulf of Mexico, past the devastation of the state’s tourism and fishing industries, past the utter ruination of Louisiana’s magnificent coastal beauty, and instead latch onto the promise of “more jobs” (in the oil industry). In an era when our citizens are so disinclined to look past empty platitudes like “jobs are good”, Vitter must might pull it off. On the other hand, history and events of which I have first hand knowledge, would put the lie to the doom-saying of Vitter and those of his stripe.
I grew up in a mill town in the Pacific Northwest. Many of my family and friends were directly employed in the forest products industry. Most of the town’s economy ran on the wages paid by jobs in the paper mills, lumber mills, and in the forests themselves. Before they were even out of high school, some of my friends were working as choker setters, the traditional entry-level position for would be loggers. So I have never been a stranger to the importance of the forest products industry’s impact on my home town and the many communities like it throughout the Pacific Northwest. Likewise, I was constantly bombarded by the industry’s stock PR line about trees being “America’s renewable natural resource”. While companies like Weyerhauser, Simpson, and International Paper did spend considerable resources on replanting the areas they “harvested”, often proudly pointing out that they “plant ten trees for every one harvested”, the obvious fact was that they were cutting down far more timber, in raw board feet, than they ever actually grew. You see, planting trees is a fairly quick process. Growing them to maturity, on the other hand, takes decades, or even centuries in the case of “old growth” timber in a “climax” setting – the ancient cedars and redwoods that grow very slowly and only out of an already old and undisturbed forest. The inevitable result of the rapid clear-cutting of the great forests – the decimation of the forest products industry, was hastened by two things; the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, which laid waste to much of the standing timber that fed into the local economy, and Strix occidentalis caurina, the Northern spotted owl.
The Northern spotted owl was listed as an endangered species in 1990. This action put large swaths of old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest (the owl’s only habitat) off-limits for logging. As might be expected, the timber companies, mills, and even the affected labor unions were up in arms about this “threat” to their livelihoods. And just as predictably, the Republican politicians who represented a handful of wealthy timber and mill owners were crowing about “jobs” and how “people should be more important than owls”. By this time, of course, the still standing and harvestable old growth timber was insignificant in the scope of what once was a thriving, if already doomed, industry. The loss of the owl habitat to “them conservationists” just didn’t make that much difference.
Again, to anyone with basic arithmetic skills and willing to drive past the camouflage strip of trees that is commonly left next to the highways, it is plain that most of the trees in the Pacific Northwest that contributed so much to the economy there have been cut down. As a private pilot, the extent of the man-made devastation in hills around my home was all the more apparent. All that remains there now are relatively low value species and a genuinely renewable Douglas Fir monoculture that provides a fraction of the material formerly moving through the industry. And stumps, lots of stumps. And yet, even as mill after mill closed, in some cases turning entire communities to veritable ghost towns, the industry was spewing their same “trees are renewable” lie. Many of my friends and family, and their coworkers, who had swallowed this lie, suddenly found themselves unemployed and with no prospect of that changing. A handful of people made billions of dollars and have packed their suitcases with those dollars and left. The people who actually did the work were left wondering what they would do with their lives.
I would have my neighbors here on the Gulf Coast (where I now live), who depend on the petroleum industry for their livelihood, be spared a similar experience. Oil jobs are going away with the oil. When that happens, and it most certainly will happen, tens of thousands of workers in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama will find themselves on the street. And the mess left behind will make the clear-cut mountainsides of my native Pacific Northwest look like a pretty nice place.
Letting BP continue to operate as they do won’t spare any jobs. The world is already moving away from fossil fuels. Our country’s once budding alternative energy industry was gut-shot during the Reagan years. Germany and China have moved into that space with speed and determination. David Vitter should know this. In fact he probably does, he just doesn’t care because he doesn’t really represent the people who voted for him. He represents the interests of the people who own BP, and Shell, and the rest of the oil companies that have bought and paid for his protection.
It is about jobs, Mr. Vitter, but not the ones which make your employers wealthy and which appear to be have dealt an insult to the environment the likes of which we have never seen. We will not be distracted by your veiled threats that we will starve if we don’t allow your bosses to continue business as usual. We would like to see a leader who will champion policy that actually has a hope of guaranteeing the welfare of his constituents. Stop fighting for BP and start fighting for the alternative energy industry and the jobs it will provide to your constituents when they are left, unemployed, in a befouled and used up world.