The Downside of Progress (There Is No Upside)

If I were a professor teaching a course on the downside of progress, and I wanted to lay bare all the tropes of the industrial “accident,” I would need no other item on my syllabus than this article about the recent leak of chemicals into the Elk River in West Virginia.

In this article we see all the familiar tropes: all the unstated premises that make up not only every similar event but every media story describing them. Let’s just take the statement made by (I swear I’m not making this shit up) Freedom Industries President Gary Southern: “Our friends and our neighbors, this incident is extremely unfortunate, unanticipated and we are very, very sorry for the disruption to everybody’s daily life that this incident has caused.”

Some “friends and neighbors,” eh? If my friends or neighbors poisoned my water supply, I’m not sure any kind of apology would suffice, but I’m very sure that they wouldn’t be my friends any longer. The fact that corporations are constantly poisoning our water (and air and soil and food and…) should not be lost here. As for a “disruption to everybody’s daily life,” this statement assumes that the corporation isn’t normally disrupting anything, like ecosystems, water cycles, food webs, or any of the other intricate, interwoven processes that make up living systems.

The most worn-out trope, though, has to be the insistence, on both the part of the corporations and of the media outlets they’ve long-ago bought, that these kinds of leaks and spills and explosions, etc. are accidents: “unanticipated,” freak occurrences—when in fact they are simply included in the cost of doing business. Every dam breaks. Every pipeline leaks. Every fracking drill site contaminates ground water (and causes earthquakes) eventually. This chemical leak is no more an accident than the fact that the plant was built right next to a river, had no safety systems in place, and was one “woops” away from leaving 30,000 people (and countless non-humans) without potable water for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, local residents are finding it “ridiculous” that Walmart is out of bottled water. This reluctance to face the obvious is the last hallmark of this much-repeated pattern (“first as tragedy, then as farce” doesn’t even come close to describing it). When Company A destroys the water supply, we don’t question the existence of Company A, but instead immediately plead with Company B to supply—for a price—the substance that was (or should have been) free in the first place before Company A had their “unfortunate” “accident.”

This is our culture, folks.

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