ACT I, New Orleans, July 2013 — A local levee board stages a play in which the fate of a sunken city is at stake. A lawsuit is filed; an idea is set in motion: In the absence of state billions sufficient to the Herculean task, enforce the law and make those who destroyed our coast — some five-score oil, gas, and pipeline companies — pay to restore its rapidly shriveling cheniers and wetlands.
Where will ACT V leave us, underwater or above it?
History is a story we tell ourselves to trumpet our triumphs and gain perspective on our failures. If you go by Shakespeare’s version of events, time is nothing more — nor less — than a stage upon which we act out an eternal drama.
Carefully framed in the debate between empire and republic, Tacitus’ Annals begin with Rome’s golden chapter following Augustus’ military triumph over the republic and subsequent instantiation of a rapidly corrupted empire. Thus, was the triumph of a great civilization simultaneous with its betrayal and onrushing annihilation.
That the Roman Republic’s loudest advocates had perished in battle led to a moment in which Augustus was “wholly unopposed,” allowing him to concentrate power within the Caesars alone, a bloodline that rapidly devolved into depravity and outright insanity associated with Augustus’ son Tiberius and his chosen heir, the murderous and insane Caligula.
It was an historical moment characterized — might this also be said of our own? — by unabashed self-interest disguised as representation of the public interest. Tacitus put it this way:
“So corrupted indeed and debased was that age by sycophancy that not only the foremost citizens who were forced to save their grandeur by servility, but every ex-consul, most of the ex-praetors, and a host of inferior senators would rise in eager rivalry to propose shameful and preposterous motions.” Tradition says that Tiberius as often as he left the Senate used to exclaim in Greek, “How ready these men are to be slaves.”
Although no definitive accounts survived the Mad Emperor, inquisitive aficionados of ancient Rome can connect the dots. We understand from Suetonius that Caligula committed “habitual incest with all of his sisters” and from Seneca the Younger, that he killed “merely to amuse himself.”
But if certain aspects of Caligula’s reign can be called into doubt, his conviction that he was Zeus was well documented, leading to Robert Graves’ supposition that the death of Caligula’s pregnant sister resulted from the emperor’s decision to make a meal of their unborn child. Maybe so. In A.D. 41, the senators finally had the good sense to arrange his assassination, rendering the Empire emperor-less once again; a vacuum of vast power awaited direction.
After Caligula’s swift departure, Claudius was just about the last Caesar capable of assuming the imperial helm (stutter, club foot, and all). When his sincere efforts to rule benevolently deposited him in the vortex of politics as usual, he realized his efforts to improve the Empire from within were futile. Claudius instead decided to “let all the evils that lurk in the mud hatch out.” He accomplished this by naming Nero his successor rather than someone, well, sane. His hope was that Nero’s antics would organically awaken Romans to the evils of absolute authority. He was kind of wrong (but it sure made for good TV).
So, what do Tiberius, Caligula, or any of the Romans have to do with Louisiana’s coastal crisis? (Crisis? What crisis, you ask.)
Just this November, Americans passed progressive ballot initiatives legalizing marijuana and raising the minimum wage, yet voted in a Republican majority that is likely to abort these very initiatives. Reared on mass media doubletalk, we are not newcomers to such self-defeating absurdity. Having betrayed the democracy we inherited from our founding fathers, our current government serves the interests of corporations over common people, much as the Caesars painstakingly concentrated power within their bloodline alone. We haven’t assassinated a president in several decades; instead senators proudly vow to do everything in their power to prevent the incumbent from accomplishing anything at all, even if that means shutting down government and defaulting on the national debt.
Separated by civilizations, customs, and nearly 2,000 years, the frantic effort to kill the historic lawsuit filed on behalf of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East against 97 oil, gas, and pipeline companies exactly embodies this tendency by our elected leaders to lick the boots of those they pretend to govern – so long as their pockets are deep.
Here in New Orleans — northernmost banana republic, western-most emirate, intermittent third-world country — crippling decay accompanies abundant beauty. The levee boards oversee another such paradox: flood protection. Of vital importance in a region both sustained by and submerged in water, the boards fight to preserve our beloved sunken city as well as our coastal neighbors. The coastal wetlands, neither land nor water, provide some of the region’s foremost protection against flooding, slowing storm surge before it hits habitable land.
Lest we forget, today’s Mississippi Delta was formed over 6,000 years as the mud-rich river seasonally spilled its banks. In just one human lifetime, however, manmade activity has reversed these processes to the extent that today Louisiana loses a gridiron-sized chunk of land every hour.
Why such accelerated land loss? Ironically, the levees themselves — the vast infrastructure built by the Army Corps and tended by the local flood protection authorities — bear a heavy responsibility. They sluice the mud out into Gulf, precluding the annual floods that kept the marshes alive and growing for millennia. An equivalent villainy: the oil, gas, and pipeline companies that have carved over 10,000 miles of canals through the wetlands since the first permits were issued in the early 20th century.
In so doing, these companies have engendered, in the words of one scientist, a “mercilessly efficient, continuously expanding system of ecological destruction.” The dredged canals sluice saltwater into formerly freshwater environments, killing off the natural vegetation of which the wetlands are composed, while washing away the soil beneath. Viewed from above, the wetlands have eroded into a labyrinth of spookily straight lines traced on what looks like — and soon will be — open water. Each year cartographers erase bayous, islands, and inlets from maps as they wash into the Gulf.
ACT II, enter the litigants — John Barry, author, historian, and ousted SLFPA-E vice-president, pioneered the lawsuit to seek restitution for the damage, arguing that coastal erosion had significantly increased the risk of catastrophic flooding and consequently the cost of protecting New Orleans from it. Much more is at stake in the disappearing wetlands than mere cost, however: “When this suit was first filed, I was asked why we were doing this, why we were suing,” Barry said. “The answer is simple: It’s because we love New Orleans and want it to survive. And we believe if we do not take action, it will not survive.”
According to Jindal’s office, the coastal restoration lawsuit is nothing more than an illegal money grab by a rogue levee board in cahoots with greedy trial lawyers attempting to milk the governor’s generous friends in the erl bidness. But Jindal lacks the courage of his convictions. Having declared the suit illegal, he moved in a panic to make sure that it never reached court, where, if the governor really knew the law, it would have been promptly thrown out — right?
ACT III, in which money reigns supreme — The levee board never presumed to slap oil and gas with the full cost of coastal restoration. The low estimate puts industry’s role in the ongoing catastrophe at 36 percent of total damage. No, what prompted the suit was the evidently vain hope that the courts – not politics – would be allowed to resolve the question of liability. Debunking the fictions circulated by Jindal’s office is as simple as following the money.
Prodigal are their masters in lavishing bribes — er, campaign donations — on our senators and other elected officials. Jindal has banked more than $1 million from Big Oil. State Sen. Robert Adley has received more than $600,000. Even Sen. Bret Allain has received close to $30,000, albeit a paltry sum compared to the $300 million it cost the Koch brothers to buy the recent mid-term elections.
The harbinger of the carbon lobby’s more recent triumph was the buzzing swarm of BP agents who invaded the state’s 2014 legislative session to secure passage of SB 469, henceforth known as Act 544, the bill that sought to kill the levee board’s lawsuit retroactively.
If we’ve learned anything from our ancient predecessors, it’s that incest breeds pestilence – and everyone appears to be in everyone else’s pockets. As Jindal eagerly plots his presidential bid in 2016, what Caligula lurks in the wings, ready to swallow us whole?
ACT IV, in which Evil smirks contentedly, December 2014 — A case to decide the lawsuit’s legality presently advances toward federal court, where it either will be resolved in favor of the people or sent ricocheting into a years-long appeals process. Having witnessed this ludicrous farce of corporate privilege play out in the Louisiana Legislature, we may ask ourselves how the petroligarchy so smoothly undermined the state’s interests and escaped its own contractual obligation to restore the landscapes it had sliced and diced with canals. As with many of the plot turns since Act I, the answer is unpleasantly simple: We let them.
A conspicuous lack of regulation and a cowardly reluctance to enforce what few rules apply is the Great State’s chief failing. In 1990, the EPA’s Inspector General concluded that “Louisiana’s highly productive coastal wetlands are being lost due to inadequate regulation of oil and gas activities” by the state Department of Natural Resources, in part due to “a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry.”
This culture was cemented in the 1980s when it surfaced that unlined waste pits leached toxic, extremely saline solutions into the soil, contaminating groundwater and accelerating the death of vegetation. An oil industry memo from 1986 summarizes the successful lobbying effort to push back against the EPA: “Our environmental legislative and regulatory group, under Pat O’Toole, has been effective in tempering state bills and proposed regulations which would have increased clean-up and disposal costs. Identified savings exceed some $20 million.” But at what cost do these corporations delight at dredging on a dime?
ACT V, the Lost City of New Orleans? — Perennially discussed in the noncommittal language of far-off doomsdays, environmentalism has lingered on the periphery of human crises – until now. Although the Flood Protection Authority’s battle remains a regional issue, rising tides are an increasingly global worry.
Not only New Orleans, but also Manhattan, London, Rotterdam, Venice, Shanghai, and low-lying cities worldwide must confront man’s relationship to water and the weather. Unlike Claudius, we do not have the luxury of waiting for the evils that lurk in the mud to hatch out; rather, an about-face that rejects our culture of insatiable consumption is mandatory if we want to avert the fate of Atlantis.
Oil and gas has an unprecedented opportunity to reinvest extraordinary wealth in sustainable measures for the future. Why not follow Amsterdam’s example and develop an industry posited on flood protection (and, more importantly, survival)? Investing in Louisiana’s Master Plan for Coastal Restoration at the $50-billion, 50-year level would create over 100,000 permanent jobs. Imagine what we could do at the more surely effective $100-billion level.
“If there be nothing new, but that which is/ Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,” Shakespeare opined in 1609. To give credit where it’s due, Ecclesiastes was writing about all of that long before the bard was born: “There is no new thing under the sun.”
Will Act V bring an ending akin to Hamlet, with a foreign prince reporting the death of the royal family? Or will it mark the beginning of a brave new world, grounded in honesty and accountability? Who’s the Emperor of Louisiana, anyway? Maybe it’s time the people rose up against him, as if our very lives depended on regaining the power we’ve forfeited.
1. Tacitus, The Annals of Tacitus, (I.2)
2. Tacitus, ibid. (III.65.i)
3. Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: incest (IV.24), brothel (IV.41).
4. Seneca the Younger: killing (“On Anger.” III.xviii)
5. See BBC episode 13, “Old King Log.”
6. This statistic, circulated by America’s Wetland Foundation – an organization established by Shell in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as a part of an effort to rebrand Louisiana as America’s Wetland (and sidestep the controversy surrounding offshore drilling) – is deliberately couched in football references, leading to the binary of home team (i.e. those that support oil and gas) vs. opposing team (those that expect oil and gas to clean up their mess). See “The Slow Drowning of New Orleans” in The Washington Post, 9 October 2005.
Brooke Schueller is a writer who lives in New Orleans.