Achille Mbembe is a social theorist who focuses on how sovereignty (exercised by governments or organizations) in the modern era adopts an attitude and policy orientation entailing the “instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations.”[i][i] Mbembe coins the term necropolitics to capture what he sees as a pervasive form of modern sovereignty defined by the widespread subjugation of life to death. Mbembe describes how necropolitics produces death-worlds wherein vast populations are regarded with the status of “living dead.”[ii][ii] Mbembe’s formulation of the living dead entails decision points whereupon sovereign agents allowed for lines to be drawn between valued and discarded populations.
We in the west have believed ourselves immune from necropolitics. We believe our sovereigns—our governments and corporations—endorse the liberal notion that the population is the source of value and therefore warrants special protections. However, we have been fooled because of our complacency and arrogance.
We now confront necropolitics in our domain. The BP oil spill was the first flag.
On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, producing the largest oil spill in American history. The blow-out occurred 5,000 feet below the surface, complicating efforts to contain the mega-disaster that followed. At least 4.9 million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico before the well was capped 87 days after the initial explosion.[iii] This figure does not include releases of methane and other gasses, which are estimated to have constituted at least a third of the petroleum hydrocarbons released by the well.[iv]
BP sprayed at least 1.9 million gallons of toxic dispersants to break the oil up into small molecules.[v] Corexit 9527A and 9500A, manufactured by Nalco, were the primary dispersants used.[vi] The EPA asked BP to stop spraying this dispersant after concerns were raised about its toxicity, but the EPA subsequently waived its ban when BP claimed no other dispersant was available in adequate quantity.[vii] In point of fact, the EPA actually had limited control over BP’s use of these dispersants, as reported by Wendy Sheppard in Mother Jones
In the case of dispersants, companies must ask the EPA for permission to use specific products—but the only basis for approval is whether those products are effective at breaking up oil. Companies are required to test the short-term toxicity of the dispersant and the oil-dispersant mixture on shrimp and fish, but those results have no bearing on approval, and there's no requirement to assess the long-term impact. In fact, it's the EPA that must prove an "unreasonable risk" if it wants companies to disclose what is in the dispersant—hard to do when the agency, you know, doesn't know what's in it.[viii]
Sheppard quotes Richard Denison, senior scientists with the Environmental Defense Fund, who remarks that "We have a chemical policy that essentially has required very little testing and very little evidence of safety for pretty much all chemicals on the market, and that covers dispersants." The Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976, grandfathered in 84,000 chemicals whose risks have yet to be tested or disclosed.[ix]
Corexit 9527A and 9500A have acute neurotoxic effects, according to a 1987 report published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health titled “Organic Solvent Neurotoxicity.”[x] The Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for Corexit 9527A states that “excessive exposure may cause central nervous system effects, nausea, vomiting, anesthetic or narcotic effects," and "repeated or excessive exposure to butoxyethanol [an active ingredient] may cause injury to red blood cells (hemolysis), kidney or the liver." Furthermore, both forms of Corexit are acknowledged in their MSDS to bio-accumulate in marine life.[xi] Marine biologist, Dr. Riki Ott, who had studied the health aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, publicly warned that Corexit is toxic for humans during its application in the Gulf over the summer of 2010.[xii]
The BP oil spill was a clear sign of the encroaching politics of death. Fukushima is an another unmistakable development. Today’s article in the Washington Post reveals the encroachment of necropolitics and the subordination of life for profit:
One of the e-mails said that during the first week after the earthquake, a major U.S. company, Bechtel, offered to provide desperately needed equipment to pump sea water to cool the Fukushima reactors, but the price of $9.6 million came in at more than a dozen times what the e-mail called the “original price.” Bechtel says the original estimates were made by U.S. Agency for International Development and that Bechtel charged only for the actual equipment and expenses for designing or arranging delivery of the one-of-a-kind system — without a profit. The Energy Department stepped in to provide “a couple of million,” the e-mail said, and instead of three or four sets of pumps and hoses, only one was delivered. While assuring Americans publicly that there was no danger, the NRC did not disclose one worst-case scenario, which did not rule out the possibility of radiation exceeding safe levels for thyroid doses in Alaska, the e-mails show. “Because things were uncertain, we considered it but the data that was available . . . did not support that very pessimistic scenario so no, it was not discussed publicly at that point,” NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said. In the end, Alaska was not affected.
(Mufson, 2012 Feb 7 http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/messages-show-conflict-within-nrc-after-japan-earthquake-and-tsunami/2012/01/09/gIQA2ll6uQ_print.html)
Of course Alaska was affected. Sea life is dying there as I write.
Those industries involved in nuclear production have a sordid past for their entire industry hinges upon the containment of secrets: secrets about the actual costs of mining and processing uranium; secrets about the depletion of uranium supplies; secrets about the health effects from mining, processing, and burning uranium; secrets about the extent of plant emissions; secrets about the dangers of spent fuel rods; secrets about the health effects of low-levels of ionizing radiation; secrets about the degree of subsidies needed to make “nuclear” an energy option.
Nuclear is an industry of death. It showers workers and citizens with DNA damaging energy even under optimal conditions. When something goes wrong, as it did in Fukushima and has in numerous other incidents, the effects on health can be catastrophic.
Yet, we live under a reign of necropolitics where the health of populations is subordinated to the interests of power and greed. The welfare of the population matters not to these government and industry officials who profit from death itself.
Necropolitics has a momentum. Once life has ceased to have value in one terrain, the logic of death and dispossession will colonize yet another. A politics of life that is agentive and transformative must rise to confront the logic and power of necropolitics. A politics of life must reject the means and tools of necropolitics, including violence and destructive sources of energy production. Necropolitics is corrupting our capacities even as I write. The time is short for articulating and enacting a transformative and vibrant politics of life. We must confront openly the lies of the agents of death and demand their resignations. We must demand reform. We must demand the prioritization of human health and welfare and the sustainability of ways of living.
[i][i] Mbembé, J. Achilleand Meintjes, Libby "Necropolitics," Public Culture 15.1 (2003): 11-40. Project MUSE. Web. 29 Aug. 2011.
[ii][ii] Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” 40.
[iii] Robert Lee Hotz “Oil Still in Gulf Study Estimates,” The Wall Street Journal (2010, August 17): A5.
[iv] Siobhan Hughes and Robert Lee Hotz “Oil-Cleanup Estimates Draw New Fire,” The Wall Street Journal (2010, August 8): p. A3.
[v] Dahr Jamail “BP anniversary: Toxicity, Suffering and Death,” Al Jazeera (2011, April 19): http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/04/20114161153981347.htmlDahr, Jamail “Is the Gulf of Mexico Safe? Experts, Fishermen, and Residents Disagree with Federal Agencies’ Claims that the Gulf and its Seafood Are Safe,” Al Jazeera (2010, November 5): http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2010/11/201011465847225269.html.
[vii] Kate Spinner “Did BP's oil-dissolving chemical make the spill worse?” Herald Tribune (2011, May 30): http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20110530/ARTICLE/110539976/-1/news?p=all&tc=pgall&tc=ar.
[ix] “Swimming in Chemicals: An Excerpt from 'Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products,” PBS (2008, March 21): http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/412/Exposed-Toxic-Chemistry.html.
[x] Cited in Tom Philpott “Chemical Dispersants Being Used in Gulf Clean-Up Are Potentially Toxic,” Grist (2010, May 6): http://www.grist.org/article/2010-05-06-use-of-toxic-chemical-dispersants-to-fight-the-oil-spill-a-murky.
[xi] Philpott “Chemical Dispersants Being,” http://www.grist.org/article/2010-05-06-use-of-toxic-chemical-dispersants-to-fight-the-oil-spill-a-murky.
[xii] Jamail “Is the Gulf of Mexico Safe,” http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2010/11/201011465847225269.html.