How Big Oil Uses the Republican Party to Subvert American Democracy
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In a surprise move, the eight Republican members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee yesterday blocked a floor vote on President Obama's nominee, Gina McCarthy, as U.S. EPA Administrator. In doing so the Republican senators broke their earlier promise to move McCarthy's nomination if she answered an unprecedented 1,079 written questions, a quest she completed. Political observers assume the Republican roadblock is meant to derail or delay the implementation of a new EPA rule, promised by President Obama to finally regulate carbon pollution. The Republican ranking member, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, orchestrated the double cross. Vitter is an unabashed mouthpiece for the petroleum industry and record breaking receptacle for petrodollars having received $1.2 million in oil company largesse during his public service career. With cash gushers of oily money cascading down their open gullets, the Republican leadership's mercenary devotion to Big Oil shouldn't shock us. However, the boldness of the party's most recent assault on the public interest might cause us to ponder how GOP's honchos' knee jerk slavishness to petroleum interest has infected its rank and file.
The perversity of the modern conservative mind is displayed in two studies published last week. Those studies illustrate the extent to which the right wing has become the ideological sock puppet of Big Oil and the GOP's army of right wing Christian fundamentalists oil industry foot soldiers. A peer reviewed National Academy of Sciences report shows that the label "energy efficient" on a product actually makes it less likely that self-identified conservatives will purchase that product. Why? Because morally twisted right wing orthodoxy has taken the "conserve" out of conservatism. Craven hatred of all things environmental has made the labels "clean," "green" or "efficient" pariah among GOP acolytes. Conversely, dirty energy is patriotic and even "blessed."
Big Oil's Orwellian skill at employing the rhetoric of patriotism and emblazoning its enterprises with stars and stripes, has stitched the notion that conservation is synonymous with "anti-American" into the fabric of GOP talking points. In 2006, President George W. Bush's press secretary Ari Fleischer answered a press query about whether President Bush believed in fuel efficiency standards for automobiles saying, "That's a big 'No.'" The President believes that it's an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one. And we have a bounty of resources in this country ... Conservation alone is not the answer."
After a decade of this brand of oily claptrap from the industry's political toadies and its talking heads on Fox News and hate radio, many conservative Americans now embrace the farcical presumption that buying and burning gas is a patriotic act. In 2008, as the oil industry raked in record profits by raking Americans with record prices at the pump, the party of the petro plutocrats proudly adopted Big Oil's rallying cry as its mantra "Drill, Baby, Drill."
By the way, Fleischer's use of the term "blessed" to describe unconscionable profligacy and immoral waste reflect another GOP orthodoxy—the notion that God wants us to burn oil. A second study published this week by University of Pittsburgh Professor David Barker and Professor David Bearce of the University of Colorado found that a fundamentalist Christian belief in biblical End Times is a significant motivating factor behind Republican voter resistance to curbing climate change. According to Bearce and Barker, 76 percent of self-identified Republicans say they believe in the End Times. "Since the world is going to end at a predestined time anyhow," their logic goes, "it would be heretical to curb our destructive appetites under the delusion that we can do anything about pushing back God's ordained date."
Anointing rapacious behavior with religious gloss is an old strategy for both right wing conservatives and the extraction industry. When a House Oversight Committee summoned Ronald Reagan's first Secretary of Interior, James Watt, to explain his caper to sell off American's public lands, waters and mineral rights to oil, mining and timber companies at what the General Accounting Office called "fire sale prices," Watt, a former mining and oil company lawyer, retorted, "I don't know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns." Embracing his party line, along with its hook and sinker, Watt explained that environmentalism was a plot to "weaken America" and dismissed environmentalists as a "left wing cult which seeks to bring down the kind of government I believe in."
Watt was an early proponent of Dominion Theology, the authoritarian Christian heresy that cites cherry-picked phrases from the book of Genesis to advocate man's duty to subdue nature. His carbon industry alliances and Apocalyptical Christianity inspired Secretary Watt to set about dismantling his department and distributing its assets to his pals. His disciple and former employee, Gale Norton, another energy industry lawyer and lobbyists, would continue the chicanery when she succeeded Watt as Interior Secretary during George W. Bush's administration. As Shakespeare observed, "The devil can quote Scripture to serve his own purposes."
In reality, there is nothing patriotic, moral or religious about Big Oil. A storied history of perfidy and greed has distinguished these companies among the most treasonous and piratical of all American business enterprises. Halliburton's decision to relocate to the Cayman Islands after fattening itself on $9 billion worth of inherently crooked no-bid, cost-plus contracts during the Iraq War is only one of many examples of their shaky loyalty to our country. Before it vaulted onto the bandwagon of patriotism, Texaco flew not "Old Glory" but the "Jolly Roger" over its Houston headquarters, proudly adopting the pirate flag as the emblem of a pirate industry.
The threats from global climate change and ocean acidification are only the tip of a melting iceberg. Not satiated with simply destroying the planet, the oil industry's relentless greed has eroded American's economic independence, imperiled our national security, and ruined our global economic leadership and moral authority.
America's national security is rooted in a strong economy at home. As Republican oilman T. Boone Pickens has acknowledged, our deadly addition to oil is the principal drag on American capitalism. Our nation is borrowing a billion dollars a day to purchase a billion dollars of foreign oil, much of it from nations that don't share our values or that are outright hostile to our interests.
Our oil jones has us funding both side of the war against terror! Big Oil has embroiled us in foreign wars supporting petty dictators who despise democracy and who are hated by their own people. The export of $700 billion dollars annually of American wealth has beggared our nation, which, a few short decades ago, owned half the wealth on Earth.
Add to these cataclysmic numbers, the $100 billion annual military cost of protecting oil infrastructure in the Persian Gulf, trillions spent on various oil wars over the past decade, billions more in economic injury from oil spills in Valdez, the Gulf of Mexico and in American rivers from the Hudson to the Kalamazoo to the Yellowstone, the massive damage done to the coast of Louisiana from local drilling companies which aggravated New Orleans' destruction by Katrina, not to mention the hundreds of billions annually in externalized health care costs from illnesses caused by the oil industry.
If the oil industry had to pay the true costs of bringing its product to market, gas prices would be upwards of $12 per gallon at the pump, according to economist Amory Lovins, and most Americans would be running to buy electric cars.
With low cost disruptive technologies like cheap, fast and efficient electric vehicles, and solar and wind technologies poised to displace Big Oil, the industry is using its hold on the Republican Party to permanently embed itself in our economy while subverting science, American democracy, free market capitalism and our sacred belief in an ethical God.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>