Sunday, 20 June 2010

Maternal Mortality and Deepwater Horizon

Naomi Klein wrote a brilliant article in yesterday's Guardian: 'Gulf Oil Spill: a hole in the world'. Here's a taste of what she says, in an article which acknowledges its debt to Carolyn Merchant's 1980 book, The Death of Nature:

Thankfully, many are standing not in wonder at humanity's power to reshape nature, but at our powerlessness to cope with the fierce natural forces we unleash. There is something else too. It is the feeling that the hole at the bottom of the ocean is more than an engineering accident or a broken machine. It is a violent wound in a living organism; that it is part of us.
John Wathen, a conservationist with the Waterkeeper Alliance, was one of the few independent observers to fly over the spill in the early days of the disaster. After filming the thick red streaks of oil that the coast guard politely refers to as "rainbow sheen", he observed what many had felt: "The Gulf seems to be bleeding." This imagery comes up again and again in conversations and interviews. Monique Harden, an environmental rights lawyer in New Orleans, refuses to call the disaster an "oil spill" and instead says, "we are haemorrhaging". Others speak of the need to "make the bleeding stop". And I was personally struck, flying over the stretch of ocean where the Deepwater Horizon sank with the US Coast Guard, that the swirling shapes the oil made in the ocean waves looked remarkably like cave drawings: a feathery lung gasping for air, eyes staring upwards, a prehistoric bird. Messages from the deep.
And this is surely the strangest twist in the Gulf coast saga: it seems to be waking us up to the reality that the Earth never was a machine. After 400 years of being declared dead, and in the middle of so much death, the Earth is coming alive.
When I read that, I remembered what happened when I had a sudden haemorrhage late in my fourth pregnancy, and the strange feeling of helplessness as blood pumped from my body. I often reflect on the fact that, had I not been in a modern hospital equipped to perform an emergency caesarean, I would have lain there bleeding until my baby and I were both dead. Is that how Mother Earth feels right now, I wonder?

But there's an added twist. I was living in Zimbabwe, and my life was saved because I was a relatively rich expatriate who could afford to give birth in a private hospital. Although maternal mortality rates have improved significantly in the last decade, the most recent figures released by the World Health Organisation show that 343,000 women a year still die through causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, 99% of them in the world's poorest countries. Afghanistan is the most dangerous country in the world in which to give birth - a statistic which reflects shamefully on our military interventionists who after so many years of violent and incompetent meddling have done nothing to improve those women's lives. But apart from Afghanistan, it is African countries which cluster near the bottom. Zimbabwe is 164 out of 181.

So what's the connection with Deepwater Horizon? A few weeks ago, The Guardian carried a bleak report about environmental damage done by oil spills around the world as a result of the poor safety standards and exploitative policies of the major oil companies. In the Niger delta, the activities of the oil company Shell are estimated to have resulted in at least 2,000 sites requiring treatment because of oil pollution. Morever, 'Independent oil and environmental experts estimate that between 9m and 13m barrels of oil have been spilt in the delta area during the past 50 years – equivalent to an Exxon Valdez disaster every 12 months.'

In other words, 'Mother Earth' suffers in the same way that ordinary mothers suffer, in silent and ongoing anguish in the poorer countries where nobody knows and nobody cares, although her misery far outstrips the occasional well-publicised emergency in the richer countries. And yet rich mothers still sometimes die in childbirth, and sudden haemorrhage remains a significant cause of maternal mortality even in well-equipped hospitals. Sometimes, nature outstrips our best technology. That individual mothers sometimes die giving birth may be a fact of life, even if we smooth out every economic injustice and save many more than we do today. But if we destroy the maternal body upon which we all depend, if the Earth herself bleeds to death, what then? In this case, even as the people of the Gulf despair, perhaps the one small consolation is that this maternal crisis is happening in a country rich enough and powerful enough to take action.

It may be that it's not too late, but soon it will be. We have a placental relationship to the Earth, and if we poison that life-giving body or rip open its arteries, we too are doomed.

How long until a political leader emerges who is brave enough to acknowledge that it's not Britain that's broken - it's our very way of being human, and much of that has to do with our economic system and the capitalist ideology which underpins it. We are careering downhill on an ambulance that has lost its brakes, while the mechanics are fiddling with the dashboard trying to work out how to dim the lights.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tina - the pipe will be capped, BP rescued and slowly the clean up will happen (or we will forget about it). We will all shelve this in the back of our minds and all keep using vast quantities of oil. I fear it will take something even bigger than this disaster to change things. Too pessimistic?


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