What can being a pagan mean if isn’t valuing the earth, the ecological, the life world as valuable, sacred, worth fighting over? For me the word is valueless as an identifier without that basic foundation. Pagans may be polytheists, pantheists, animists, even non-theistic but if there isn’t that why bother. I came into Paganism, in its organized sense, around 30 years ago. The days of Starhawk and Reclaiming, when there was no doubt that defense of the earth was a key part, yet over the years great attempts to mainstream as just another lifestyle have been successful to some degree. I moved onto other forms of Paganism, but the sacredness of earth always remains fundamental.
The world is in a much worse position nowadays; even in the best of projections there will be a world where so much has been destroyed or damaged beyond repair. How do we grieve has to take its place alongside celebratory rites. Dark ecology is a thing—one making more sense than deep ecology in these times. Is nature a capital N essence, as in much Pagan thinking, which is an inheritance from the Romantic era or is it a nearly infinite mesh of life and death, countless beings of nearly endless variations all interconnected?
Timothy Morton, author of Ecology without Nature, The Ecological Thought and Hyperobjects came up with the term dark ecology, which allows that “ecological thought includes negativity and irony, ugliness and horror.”* Dark ecology avoids the masculinist, ableist, (or essentialist feminine) rhetoric found in much environmental thought.
The earth damaged by the endless assaults of petroleum-based civilization, of late capitalism, of artificial consumptive lifestyles bashes back in events like Harvey, partially natural and partially created by humans and the decisions of those in power. Like unregulated development in river bottoms, the spew of chemical plants and toxic dumps, all unleashed on the unsuspecting in flood tides. The floods are coming and we have made them worse, and that we, is actually a ‘they’, the so-called leaders, who have abdicated care in anything other than their own greed.
And yet Harvey reveals a messy, muddy and frightening nature, the exhalations of long dead organisms –the oil, the recombined elements of earth into stained air, the hazards of the mechanisms of production fused with the primordial past and the haunts of the future. Ten-foot alligators appear in flooded homes, the dark swamp emerges swallowing up the modern city of freeways and endless suburban sprawl. There is much to see, much to take in, a negative gift so to speak. The ugly reveal. There is much throwing together of those usually not seen together, an emergence of that which is always connected but usually not allowed to be spoken of. The smell of sewage and the stink of corpses.
The horrific concoctions are monstrously showed—monster coming from thed Latin word monstrum, a showing of divine portent. The Chemical Coast, as the Texan coast is sometimes called, is where EPA cases have been waged for 17 years in some cases without result in towns like Port Arthur and Charlton-Pollard where sour crude is produced by Exxon-Mobil. Their plant there releases at least 135 toxic chemicals, many of which — including 1,3-butadiene, benzo[a]pyrene, and styrene — are carcinogens. This plant has long been in noncompliance with the Clean Air Act (source: The Intercept).
According to The Intercept: “Between 2000 and 2016, while the people who live next to the plant waited for an investigation, the refinery emitted more than 400 million pounds of pollution into the air. Yet in all those years, the EPA never once consulted the people who were most affected.”
According to an analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity, a cocktail of nearly 1 million pounds of particularly harmful substances, including benzene, hexane, sulfur dioxide, butadiene and xylene have been emitted by more than 60 petroleum industry plants operated by ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and other businesses since the hurricane. These are neurotoxins and carcinogens. Neighborhoods near these plants and refineries have long suffered higher rates of asthma and leukemia than other areas in the state. Texas is one of the most deregulated states and that fact is a big part of Harvey too.
The standing waters are a contaminated stew of sewage, chemicals, animal carcasses, and to top it off, rafts of fire ants, invasive from Brazil. These ants, which can produce extremely painful bites and even hospitalizations, are adept at creating living rafts; their legs interlocked, the eggs, larvae and queen stay safe in air pockets. Through the manipulation of water surface tension these insect rafts don’t sink even when washed over by waves. This is a new genre of flood as horror. Above, chemical explosions in facilities that require the refrigeration of volatile compounds release organic peroxides into the air. The petrochemical industry has created a noxious sorcerous release, especially impacting the poor, African Americans and Latinos. Harvey shows us in its ominous disclosures, its reveals of our sourness, an impending frightening future. We will be reading Harvey for a long time.
I have been in a plane flying high above a tropical storm, and looking down at a gyre far below with its spiral morphology as an animist sensed I was looking at a vast entity, one of immense power, but short-lived. But whose after-effects can be very long. This time in the face of Harvey we are looking at something of both nature and neoliberal capitalism fused completely together. The Gulf Coast is the heart of the fossil fuel industry, at least in the US, and like the sorcerer’s apprentice the rising waters it has unleashed careen out of control. And who has the spell to stop it? To start with we must find the courage to really look into that monstrous face, which reveals connections at the heart of the political/economic order, and name it.
*The Ecological Thought, 17.