Big Oil And The Deep Story

In 1948, Standard Oil commissioned Robert Flaherty to make Louisiana Story, about a Cajun family made rich by leasing their land to oil drillers. Famous for its long panning shots of lush bayou wilderness and frolicking swamp creatures, following exploits of a boy and his pet raccoon, the film was one of the earliest PR campaigns to reassure Southwest Louisiana residents that they could profit from oil without jeopardizing their beautiful habitat or idyllic way of life.

Flaherty shot on location at Bayou Petite Anse near Avery Island and hired locals to play the characters of his original screenplay, earning Louisiana Story distinction as a pioneering work of cinéma verité. In 1949, the film got an Oscar nomination for Best Writing in the Motion Picture category while, curiously, winning Best Documentary at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards. Flaherty never intended his film to be a documentary. But the line between fact and fiction remains blurred in the ongoing saga surrounding Big Oil in Southwest Louisiana.

“I think Louisiana Story had a big part in digging these canals and stuff,” says Joseph Boudreaux, a Gueydan native who played the boy protagonist in the film, in an interview for a documentary about Flaherty. “Look how innocent this rig is, and this 12-year-old boy sitting on top [of] that Christmas tree, him and his ’coon. A lot of people said, ‘Well, what harm is that?’ I think it did prepare people for Big Oil.”

These are the murky waters into which sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild dives in her nonfiction bestseller Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. While the book makes no mention of Flaherty, Hochschild provides a powerful corrective to the filmmaker’s rosy tale; her examination of right wing populism takes her deep into bayou country — “the buckle in America’s energy belt” — where systematic industrial pollution has devastated residents so completely they’ve come to accept environmental blight as an unavoidable fact of life.

Hochschild befriends Mike Schaff from Bayou Corne whose house and entire community were swallowed up in a sinkhole caused by an oil and gas operation. She talks to Lee Sherman from DeRidder, a worker ordered by his bosses at a hydrocarbon manufacturing plant to dump the company’s toxic byproducts into a nearby waterway, and how he was unceremoniously fired after becoming ill from toxic exposure he endured on the job. She gets to know Harold Areno from Bayou d’Inde, whose ancestral farm was turned into a wasteland when those chemicals flowed downstream. His family lived off the land for generations until, suddenly, everything around them began to die off. One by one, the Arenos were diagnosed with cancer.

“I remember sitting under the cypress for shade in the heat of the summer. The moss hanging on it was green then. Frogs could breathe and they could find all kinds of minnows. Then industry came in. It began to stink so bad you had to leave the windows down on hot nights. It killed the cypress and grass from here clear out to the Gulf. And you still can’t eat the fish or drink the water,” Harold Areno recalls.

Hochschild documents Louisiana’s long history of environmental disaster, including the Texaco drilling accident that caused the Lake Peigneur sinkhole, petrochemical contamination in Cancer Alley, the BP oil spill and Louisiana’s fracking boom. But those events form not so much Hochschild’s ideological point as her point of departure for inquiry. She wants to know why so many victims of pollution, like Harold, Mike and Lee, support right wing politicians who enable and protect polluters — a paradox that serves as a grim motif throughout the book.

Louisiana loses a football field of coastline every hour, but voters nevertheless oppose regulations on the drilling operations responsible for wetland erosion. Lafayette Parish and Calcasieu Parish are two of the most polluted counties in the nation, and yet the state welcomes industrial polluters with laissez faire hospitality and massive tax incentives. Though coastal Louisiana is home to America’s first climate refugees, evacuated from Isle de Jean Charles, most residents polled are in denial about the cause of rising sea levels. Louisiana is the nation’s No. 1 producer of hazardous waste, and we have the highest rates of cancer mortality in the country. Yet, we largely oppose Environmental Protection Agency standards for the water we drink and the air we breathe.

To unravel the paradox at the heart of Louisiana politics, Hochschild spends four years ethnographically detailing her subjects’ “deep story” — the web of emotional logic that drives partisan loyalties unintelligible to outsiders. That web is dense and varied, but it largely comes down to socioeconomics; working class Republicans vote against their own interests out of a desire to “identify up” with wealthier people.

Physical displacement takes a backseat to the greater threat of economic invisibility, as most are unemployed or scraping by on low wages. Right wing media stories on the threats of immigrants, terrorists and affirmative action give cause to their angst. Promises of jobs give them hope, and political screeds about government red tape stifling the economy give them a platform. So they dig their heels in and reinvest their faith in the free market’s pledge to deliver them from poverty.

Like the narrative in Louisiana Story, the deep story hinges on the allure of wealth. And while Hochschild empathizes with her subjects’ desire for upward mobility, she uses statistical data and analysis to show that the economic justification for deregulation is more fiction than fact. To wit, Louisiana’s poorest residents bear the economic cost of industrial pollution, as it diminishes their natural resources, property value and health, while they rarely share in corporate profits. An MIT study shows the stronger a state’s environmental protections, the more jobs available, and that surely resonates with the 90,000 fishermen who lost their livelihoods in the wake of the BP oil spill.

The billions of dollars in corporate incentives given to the oil industry — which currently employs around 2 percent of the state’s labor force — have come at the expense of thousands of education and health care jobs. And oil revenue hasn’t done much to change Louisiana’s status as the second poorest state in the country.

One of the greatest paradoxes of all, Hochschild points out, is how robust blue state economies rely on the energy production of poor red states but don’t bear any of the environmental costs; thus, they are the ultimate beneficiaries of pollution, and those who bear the brunt of pollution are “victims without a language of victimhood.”

Without that language, we’ve come to accept Robert Flaherty’s benevolent portrayal of Big Oil while roundly dismissing his beautiful Louisiana landscapes as hopeless fantasy, disinheriting ourselves from our own story.

Hochschild’s work is a much-needed and timely intervention. Strangers restores that language and shows us how, by hearing each other out, we can stop the role that political echo chambers play in widening partisan gulfs. How we can use verifiable data to uncover the fictions that parade as facts. And how we can speak out against the dumping, dredging, fracking and spilling that make Southwest Louisiana increasingly uninhabitable. If we are not to become strangers in our own land, we must become its protectors.