“The Macondoization of the World” and “rules written with human blood”

Today’s New York Times includes a story on President Trump’s rollback of offshore drilling rules developed after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and “written with human blood:”

These regulations were written with human blood,” said Lillian Espinoza-Gala, a former offshore worker who now serves as an industry safety consultant and opposes easing protections. “The only way we can honor those who lost their lives is for us to learn how to do this in the correct way.

In a 2013 paper with the Religion and Culture Web Forum at the University of Chicago’s Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion, I explored the ways in which the Deepwater Horizon explosion could be illuminated by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, given that the rig was drilling in a prospect code-named “Macondo” after the fictional town at the heart of that novel. I quote an extended passage from that paper below. Go ahead and read it all. Or skip to the ninth paragraph if you’re impatient for a reminder of what it might mean that the rules being rolled back were “written with human blood.”

mid-April 2010, the oilrig Deepwater
, a fifth-generation, ultra-deepwater, dynamically positioned, and
column-stabilized drilling rig—in other words, one possessing the most powerful
and sophisticated drilling technologies in the world—suffered a massive
explosion, killing eleven rig workers and injuring sixteen others. Deepwater Horizon had been drilling in
Mississippi Canyon Block 252, an oil and gas prospect in the Gulf of Mexico,
code-named “the Macondo Prospect.”
Code-names without relationship to identifiable geographical or
geological information are routinely assigned to drilling areas in order to
preserve secrecy and facilitate casual reference. In any given year, these
names may be meaningless references to heavenly bodies, beverages, superheroes,
or cartoon characters. In this case, however, the accident itself lends
unintentional and ironic meaning to the code name: “Macondo” referred to a
fictional Colombian town at the center of a 1967 novel by Nobel Prize winning
Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose novels and short stories are
notable for magical realism, the invasion of “highly detailed, realistic
settings… by something too strange to believe.” The well had been assigned
this name because BP had donated the naming rights to the United Way, which had
auctioned them off to a Colombian-American organization that chose the name
“Macondo” in order to honor Marquez. There is no way the
organization could have known how terribly fitting the name would be.


Marquez’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude,
chronicles the rise and fall of Macondo, tracing six generations of its
founding family, the Buendias. Few novels share the scope of One Hundred Years of Solitude. As Gene
H. Bell-Villada writes, “To approach One
Hundred Years of Solitude
is not just to read a novel, but to stumble upon
a vast cultural territory and glimpse a dizzying array of people and patterns,
horizons and meanings.” The
book’s “bewilderingly high rate of incident” and non-linear storyline make a
detailed summary of Macondo’s history challenging even for the most astute
literary scholar and impossible in this space. Tracing the town’s history
from its founding to its demise, Marquez explores such perennial themes as
time, solitude, and subjectivity. For our purposes, though, it is important to
note that the fictional town’s downfall is preceded by the construction and
operation of a foreign-owned banana plantation. The plantation’s owners aim
both to provide food and to accumulate wealth by exploiting local natural
resources. All sorts of techniques are employed to this end, as Marquez satirizes
“Yankee technology and its more grotesque gigantisms in the elaborate hardware
applied… to a harmless banana.”As Bell-Villada notes, the plantation evokes “the rise of giant
corporations and their technology, both
miraculous and destructive
.” Technologies
employed at the Macondo banana plantation were as powerful as means that had
hitherto been “reserved for Divine Providence,” employed by a corporation of
globetrotting gringos in an attempt both to feed more people and to amass a
greater fortune.


But the gringos’ fortune was Macondo’s
misfortune. The banana plantation was marked by inhumane working conditions,
just as was the United Fruit Company plantation on which Marquez loosely based
his fictional estate. And as in the historical case of the United Fruit Company
plantation in Cienega, Colombia, tensions surrounding labor conditions led to
an explosive social atmosphere, a conspiracy between the corporation and the
government, and the brutal massacre of plantation workers. In Macondo, workers invited
by the plantation owners to discuss the conditions of employment walked into a
trap, and three thousand of them were gunned down by government forces. The
corpses filled 200 train cars, which carried them away to the sea and to
oblivion. The town was then systematically purged of the memory of the incident
in a mysterious conspiracy that preceded the apocalyptic end of the town in a
whirlwind or hurricane, an environmental catastrophe of biblical proportions.


The episode of the banana plantation—its
founding, its labor disputes, and its ignominious massacre—is in one respect just
one among many moments in Macondo’s story of “fascination with scientific
inventions… as sources of wealth, power, control,” which reveal a frantic but
futile desire to “grasp and manage” the world. In another
sense, it is the decisive moment in the town’s history. Marquez describes the
events surrounding the massacre as “the events that would deal Macondo its
fatal blow.” The
efforts of the plantation owners to control nature and to produce both profit
and food were the source of the town’s eventual downfall.


While Marquez’s Macondo was destroyed by a
whirlwind at the end of the novel, it lives on through echo, allusion, and
irony. The 1974 Roman Polanski film, Chinatown,
for example, includes an allusion to Macondo. Jake Gittes, a private
investigator, spies upon Hollis Mulwray in the “El Macondo Apartments”—a
reference revealed to be intentional by Production Director, Richard Sylbert—suggesting
parallels between Marquez’ Macondo and a Los Angeles community intent upon
transcending its own limitations and exploiting its resources to the fullest.The plot ofChinatown turns
on the intentions of investors and engineers to make Los Angeles both wealthy
and habitable by redirecting the Owens River. As with One Hundred Years of Solitude, parts of Chinatown are loosely based upon a true story: the history of the
Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which brought water to Los Angeles
through a system of aqueducts and dams, an engineering feat unlike any that had
been undertaken before. As
with One Hundred Years of Solitude, in
the end of Chinatown the exploitation
of scarce resources in Los Angeles proves to be a source of ruin and points to
the downfall of the town itself. Like Macondo, the development of Los Angeles,
including efforts to make it a more livable and wealthy place, resulted in the
production of risk. Thus the name, “Macondo,” has come to symbolize unadulterated
will to power, the vanity of the human condition apart from restrictions, and
the calamities that often accompany enterprising, but overly ambitious,
intentions to transcend natural limits.


Polanski’s echo of Marquez is matched by the Deepwater Horizon, lending Macondo fresh
relevance through a realism more tragical than magical. Drilling a well in the
Macondo Prospect, the Deepwater Horizon was
exploring at a depth of 18,360 feet below sea level, more than three miles
below the surface of the earth.
This was supposedly a more or less safe endeavor, as the same rig had
previously drilled the deepest recorded offshore oil well at a depth of over
35,000 feet below sea level. The
giant machinery of the Deepwater Horizon
was built by the Korean firm Hyundai Heavy Industries precisely for the purposes
of harnessing hitherto inaccessible fields of oil in order to produce the
energy required to make industrial and post-industrial lifestyles possible,
concentrating wealth, power, and control while leveraging technology to lift
many from conditions of poverty.


But on April 20, 2010, something went awry
with the machinery of the Deepwater
, causing a bubble of highly combustible methane gas to travel up
the pipeline from the ocean floor to the rig platform, resulting in an
explosion and a fire that engulfed and eventually sank the rig. In
an effort to maximize profits by cutting costs and corners—an inclination
confirmed by investigators as common to the industry and to the corporations
involved in the Deepwater Horizon incident—the
team in charge of preventing the flow of methane gas from the well into the rig
had done careless work. Further incompetence led to a misinterpretation of data
that would have served as an early warning that the highly combustible gas was
quickly rising to the surface. By
the time anyone recognized the problem it was too late to prevent the
disastrous explosion.


After the April explosion, oil gushed from
the sea floor well for almost ninety days; a trickle continued until the well
was capped in September, almost six months after the spill began.
More than five million barrels of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico in what
White House energy advisor Carol Browner described as “the worst environmental
disaster the U.S. has faced.” As
one might imagine, the ecological costs to the Gulf of Mexico were
extraordinary. Thousands of animals perished, many more suffered and lived. In
an interview with Rowan Jacobsen, Bill Finch, Director of Conservation for the
Alabama Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, described the event as “merely the
latest [event] in a hundred-year catastrophe along the Gulf Coast.” In
the same way that the massacre of workers in Marquez’s Macondo is one among
many similar events in a 100-year history that led to the town’s downfall, and
yet the most decisive, the Deepwater
spill is one among many events in the gulf’s 100-year environmental
catastrophe, and yet perhaps the most telling.


The human burdens of the disaster were also
extraordinarily high. The economy of the gulf region suffered one of its worst
summers ever, and the more immediate costs were even starker. Of the 126 people
on board, eleven perished and more than a dozen others were injured. In the
immediate aftermath, those present reported that “there’s guys burning and some
guys missing limbs. It’s like a war zone.” Of the dozens evacuated to
shore, some reported that a security detail immediately drove them to a hotel
where they were sequestered without access to lawyers, family members, or the
media, and coerced into signing papers waiving their rights to file claims
against Transocean, the multinational corporation that owned and operated the Deepwater Horizon. If true, the parallels with
Marquez’s Macondo may be even deeper than at first is apparent: Just as the
multinational agricultural corporation of One
Hundred Years of Solitude
“[established] in solemn decrees that the
[massacred] workers did not exist,” Deepwater Horizon rig workers were pressured to fill in date, name,
and address on pre-printed documents indicating “I was not a witness to the
incident requiring the evacuation and have no first hand or personal knowledge
regarding the incident” and “I was not injured as a result of the incident or
evacuation.” On
paper, at least, the memories of those closest to the incident had been erased,
which parallels memory of the incident in the world at large. The oil spill
that followed the apocalyptic end of the Deepwater
in a whirlwind of flame and charred flesh was covered extensively
by every major media outlet in the world and resulted in the immediate
stigmatization of Transocean, Halliburton, and BP. Consumer boycotts of BP
pumping stations were matched by a government-mandated moratorium on offshore
drilling. But the boycotts and the moratorium were a short-lived form of
remembrance and resistance. They soon gave way to business-as-usual, reflecting
the presumption that these types of events have become incidental to
contemporary pursuits of both wellbeing and profit.


The most striking parallel between these
Macondos—Marquez’s, Polanski’s, and Transocean’s—is the systematic production
of peril as incidental to the production of wealth, power, and control by
technological means. Our efforts to “grasp and manage” the world, to produce,
distribute, and consume goods, and to overcome scarcity, often result in calamity.
Moreover, whether in the form of massacre (Marquez), murder (Polanski), and
mayhem (Transocean) or in the transformation of the environment (all three
Macondos), the mastery of nature for the purposes of enhancing welfare and
producing wealth often entails the “production of unequal nature.”
Whether accidentally, incidentally, or purposefully, good and bad environments
are produced and then distributed in ways that create inequality. Some live in
the midst of relative environmental integrity, and some suffer under conditions
of a disintegrating environment. In sustaining some lives and livelihoods, we
imperil others.

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