Introduction: What’s the link between Las Vegas and Peruvian Indians?

The goal of this website is to examine today’s issues from an environmental justice perspective. That is: seeing inequality as rooted in an extractive economy dependent on offloading its costs on those with the least power, and noting how people are resisting this.

A secondary goal is to show how these issues connect. This means showing, not telling. Let’s start with a round-up of some recent news and commentary. Take, for example, a fascinating piece in Grist taking a look at Las Vegas:

Las Vegas burns on. Source: Grist / Wesley Allsbrook

Last week, the LA Times ran a story about Lake Mead, Las Vegas’s main water supply, which “is ebbing as though a plug had been pulled from a bathtub drain.” It was the latest in a long line of stories questioning the wisdom of putting a city the size of Seattle in a place that gets as much rain in a year as many cities get in an afternoon. Two days later, the same paper published a profile of 22-year-old Ariana Liuzzi, who works four days a week in the 117,000-gallon aquarium at the Silverton casino, alongside 4,000 tropical fish, playing the part of a mermaid.

Down South, a Peruvian indigenous leader, Ruth Buendia, is recognized for standing up against the government’s plan of flooding her people’s land to create a hydro-electric power plant. At the same time Peruvian Indians are leading the struggle against the poisoning of their land through fossil fuel extraction:

Around 500 Achuar indigenous protesters have occupied Peru’s biggest oil field in the Amazon rainforest near Ecuador to demand the clean-up of decades of contamination from spilled crude oil.

These occupations, unlike the civil lawsuits initiated by Buendia, are not peaceful. Benjamin Dangl reports on how indigenous activists are routinely criminalized by Latin American governments, and Buendia’s success story, though admirable, should be taken in the context of ongoing violence perpetrated against her people’s land, bodies, and culture.

Meanwhile, in eastern US, a former lawyer, Helen Slottje won a prestigious environmental prize for her efforts in helping municipalities resist fracking. Only a loop-hole can save these towns from the poisonous fossil fuel industry, which seems confident that the legal system will, in the end, stand on its side. As Slottje notes, “law is shaped to serve the interests of the wealthy.” To her, there’s a problem with criticising NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) as selfish and privileged.  Sometimes your legal claim to your backyard can actually help fight capitalism. 

Helen Slottje, winner of the 2014 Goldman Prize

NIMBY! I’m so sick of that term. We get accused of that a lot. People say “They‘ve done it in other places! What gives you the right to say no?” But if a serial killer knocks on your door, it’s not NIMBYism to fight back. Property rights have never included the right to hurt someone else. Your right to property has a flip side, which is an obligation to respect other people’s property.

Something like this is what wakes you up. Before I became involved in fracking, I never thought what it meant when I flipped the light switch on. I mean, sure, I tried to conserve energy and things like that, but until you see it coming to your backyard, you don’t realize how terrible it is.

We’re not NIMBY. We’re NIAB: Not in anyone’s backyard. If everyone said “Not here! This is my land!” we’d have a really powerful movement.

Connecting the dots

The image of an actress posing as a mermaid in an aquarium in the middle of a city in the desert, is so absurd it seems meant for a Phillip K. Dick novel or a Futurama episode. It’s chilling that this kind of juxtaposition exists here on earth. But we know that cultural spectacles always exist in spite of, or perhaps because of, a more chilling reality. As the Roman Empire crumbled the nobility drank themselves sick on wine sweetened with lead.

The spectacle of Las Vegas is only symptomatic of a wider trend: a culture that burns the candle at both ends, living as if that candle is endless, trying hard to forget that every culture is dependent on continuous extraction, and this always has its limits.

This never-ending ball–kind of like Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe where diners can pay top dollar to watch the end of the universe while chewing on ethically-made steak–relies on several interlocking systems.

First, it relies on the continuous harnessing of resources. Water is seen as merely a standing reserve, to be used until it runs out. Rather than a public good, it is seen as private, and those who own land upstream have the right to use however much they want.

This connects to the institution of property. Slottje is right to acknowledge that property laws were made for the benefit of the wealthy, and the loop-hole she found to fight the partnership between the legal system and the profiteers will only help stave off the inevitable. In a world where everything is privatised, a claim to private property is one of the only tools we can rely on to fight these mega-corporations. Hence the call for NIAB: if all land-owners resist, then we can stop these giants.

But what about those that have no property? The battle of Peru’s indigenous mirrors that of the indigenous against the first colonization. It makes no sense to battle in terms of private property when the land does not belong to you or anyone. You can imagine the surprise when native americans were presented with a decree from the British Queen that their land no longer belonged to them because they did not have an official written document sanctioned by the state. The fact is that NIMBY–and NIAB–relies on a system of private property ownership that is now pervasive. Those who fight in terms of it are recognized with prestigious rewards. This is great, but we must still recognize that those who fight without legal claim to land by occupying it, putting their own bodies in the way, all-too-often find themselves on the wrong side of a gun.

The institution of property is, and has always been, a means to an end. The end is profit, and its costs are excessive extraction, pollution, and dispossession. And since the availability of the cheapest fuels is in decline, as the IEA recently admitted, there is a rush for unconventional sources. Hence the aggressive expansion toward hydro-power, tar sands, and fracking. Again, those with the least power find themselves displaced and poisoned. Those with the most find themselves in a never-ending party, watching the universe burn out while they squeeze the desert dry.

On the bright side, one dude advocates dropping out entirely. This makes sense personally, but I’m not quite sure if it’s strategically a good move. Rather than throwing up your hands and taking your family to Ireland, it might be more beneficial to nurture alliances with those who have been fighting the system for centuries and have no choice but to keep fighting. It’s these alliances that will hold when private property, the rule of the dollar, and a stable climactic system come to an end.

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