Tuesday, March 8, 2011
8. 3/8/2011 - Man meets Nature; Nature meets Man
(Note: because of a lack of access to Wifi and a desire to post (somewhat) shorter entries (thanks for the good advice, Deane), I’m posting one today and one tomorrow. Today’s blog is about the Gulf Coast region of Texas and Louisiana, which I left three days ago. Tomorrow’s blog is about Acadiana Louisiana, Mardi Gras (who knew?) and Fat Tuesday, which is today, so if you are planning on getting your Mardi Gras on, as Maggie Mae and Lucy Lou did, best get at it).
After the BP spill/disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, I was naively surprised to learn that Gulf Coast residents want the oil and gas industry in their backyards (so to speak). There was a particular man who was a media sweetheart at that time – Billy Nungesser, the Plaquemines Parish president. (a Louisiana parish is akin to a county in other states). He spent a great deal of time on the air, saying the Gulf states residents do not want the oil and gas industries to pull out of the area, that Obama had no right to restrict drilling (the first contract to drill, since the disaster, was just approved this past week) and that the fishing industry will survive this disaster, as they had so many before. He represented the local view in this area that an intrusive, over-regulating federal government is the problem, not industry (he also, by the way, has been accused of being a bit too cozy with industry). And, while he had a great deal of respect and empathy for what the flora and fauna of the region were experiencing as a result of the disaster, he also represented the local view that there are too many environmental regulations and they are getting in the way of job-creating, family-feeding industries (by the way, I heard this over and over again talking to folks who live on the Gulf Coast, both in Texas and Louisiana. I mean talking to folks who live there, not folks who have second homes and vacation there). He also, by the way, was plenty pissed that the disaster was not managed better, that the spill was not contained sooner, etc.
Living within the lovely Olympia bubble I inhabit (as many of us do – may not be an Olympia bubble but another form/place), I had no idea how thick industry is along the Gulf Coast, in particular oil and gas (refineries and the like) and chemical industries. Imagine my surprise as I leave Padre Island (outside of Corpus Christi, which in and of itself was no peach – mostly spring break haven, excepting the charming town of Port Aransas) and start traveling along the back roads and byways along the coast. The sky started to cloud up with dark, thick clouds making the drive ominous. Large, sprawling industrial complexes are everywhere. And, we are not talking about a few buildings with a smokestack or two. We are talking acres upon acres of scary and menacing industry structures.
I had planned to stay one night at what looked to be a very charming county park, Quintana Beach County Park. The website had beautiful pictures of the park and there were several excellent ratings by users. Indeed, the park was charming, but I almost had a heart attack getting to it because of what I had to drive through (mile upon mile of frightening industry) and what was directly behind the park. It’s like that great video that recently went viral – of animals doing silly things and given human voices. In particular, I'm thinking of the bird that plays the “daytime/nighttime” game. On one side is nature, on the other side is man’s ugliest creations. Turn in one direction, “nature.” Turn in the other direction, “man.” “Nature.” “Man.” Etc. And this repeats itself all across the Gulf Coast. Wildlife sanctuaries are butted up against industrial plants spewing ungodly chemical smells with squadrons of pelicans flying among the billowing stacks. Quite the sensory contrast.
I had a similar experience driving through the part of El Paso where you can see El Paso on one side of the freeway and Juarez on the other. Guess which side had the billowing factories and which side had nature? Or, at least, a more attractive view of humankind? And, the most remarkable maquiladora visible from the freeway is Asarco, the company that left the brownfield/Superfund site in Tacoma which is still in the process of being cleaned up. The lack of environmental regulations right over the border (as well as cheap labor) is sometimes a motivator for companies to move (I can’t say that Asarco did this as I have no proof).
Even more dramatic than the “nature/man” contrast at Quintana County Beach Park was the degree to which the folks staying, and working, there paid no never mind to what was just behind them. The park employee who checked me in said that I shouldn’t be concerned, just look the other way. If anything were to happen at any of the plants, they would call the park and we would be told to go into the water (!). She also told me that there are 6,000 oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. The folks I talked to in the campground were oblivious. Several of the people come back to the park every year; most said, “oh, I don’t even notice it.” (And I'm not even talking about the mosquitoes!)
Almost everyone I’ve talked to, so far, no matter where they fall on the political ideological spectrum, are talking about bringing good, production jobs back to the U.S., That we can’t continue to survive as a consumption/information economy. I have to admit that the (very) small part of me that is Marxist (production related) agrees with both the conservatives (who are saying let the free market do what it can) and progressives/liberals (who are saying NAFTA and other like treaties/agreements/move toward globalization have torn the heart out of working/middle class in this country). We need better jobs in this country. But, do we want what I saw on the Gulf Coast? What to do? Maybe some answers will emerge with more time on the road and more conversation with others (and, using more gas, of course).
p.s., I’m deeply aware of the irony of my reaction to the oil/gas industry and my reliance on it in order to take this trip/have these adventures/do this research.