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[Disasters like Katrina present a thick layer of horror that makes it difficult to analyze them.  But Stan Goff, who has seen his share of such things, perceives beyond the hurricane’s material impact an unfolding dynamic of state-failure.  No longer able to arbitrate disputes among competing factions of the ruling class, the state has lost its autonomy.  And as the general public reels from the infernal privatization of disaster response, the state is losing its legitimacy.  When both are gone, the mythology that keeps the flag waving may explode in a terrific intensification that will mark its permanent failure.

“The US state finds itself captured by a clique that completely fails to see how they are undermining the state’s ability to act autonomously – confusing that with the ability of the executive branch to act with impunity.” –JAH]

Exterminism and the World in the Wake of Katrina


Stan Goff


© Copyright 2005, From The Wilderness Publications, All Rights Reserved. This story may NOT be posted on any Internet web site without express written permission. Contact May be circulated, distributed or transmitted for non-profit purposes only.

Helicobacter pylori.

Hardly part of our daily discourse, is it?  But all of us have given and received the popular wisdom, “Stop worrying. You’re going to give yourself ulcers.”  Even though Australian pathologists Barry Marshall and Robin Warren have just won the Nobel Prize in medicine for their discovery (20 years ago!) that ulcers are not caused by stress at all, but by a bacterium with the Latinate name at the beginning of this commentary.

Not only does the popular belief persist that ulcers are brought about by “stress,” the medical community itself resisted this discovery for years.  Entire medical protocols, as well as entire lines of symptom-amelioration pharmaceuticals and commercialized stress-management schemes, had been developed and deployed based on this false belief.  The stress ulcer proved to be no more valid than the Medieval European certainty about “humors” or the persistent New Age confidence in astrology.

The Helicobacter discovery process is interesting because it was an accident.  Marshall was tired before Easter weekend in 1982.  He forgot to wash out a Petri dish at the lab.  When he came back, a colony of Helicobacter pylori had grown out.  Marshall and Warren gazed at the critter long enough to imprint its microscopic morphology into their own neural pathways, and then noticed that the same curly creature was present every time they studied inflamed gastric tissue.

Two morals to this story are (1) that our most treasured and erroneous beliefs are often based on unexamined and widely-accepted premises and (2) that the law of unintended consequences can be our friend if we retain a healthy skepticism about our premises and prepare to follow-up on new information.

For me, the most significant lesson here is that we need new language if we are to think about things in new ways.  The categories, symbols, and meanings extolled in our usual chatter don’t just structure what we DO know.  They structure what we CAN know.

So a blissful monk might fight off this little bacterium without a moment’s inconvenience, but the most beleaguered anxiety patient (say, Robert MacNamara’s wife) will not get an ulcer without it.  Stress management cannot treat ulcers effectively.  That didn’t stop anyone from treating ulcers ineffectively for decades.

The reverberations from Hurricane Katrina (and Rita in its wake) are too numerous to know or name.  Identifying some of the illusions about this so-called aftermath, however, and applying unfamiliar ways of understanding it, will put us on ground high enough to see over the puerile nonsense we hear from the oral formulaic news models of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox.

Ulcers are better understood when we learn to say Helicobacter pylori.  The Aftermath is better understood when we learn to say “exterminism.”

I live in Raleigh, North Carolina.  This is not a constant.  Raleigh is a transient political boundary.  So is North Carolina.  Three years ago, I lived inside another political boundary – Wake County, but outside Raleigh.  I did not move inside the boundary of Raleigh; it moved over me.  We were “annexed.”

Seven years ago, when I first moved to where I live now, I lived in a neighborhood surrounded by a deciduous forest.  My oldest son and I used to walk in the woods past our cul-de-sac, and there was a stream there.  One day, we sat quietly long enough for a beaver and two of her kittens to come paddling up that stream, whereupon they disappeared into a den that we hadn’t noticed before.  Throughout the woods, there were orange plastic ribbons tied onto the trees.  They marked future streets for future subdivisions and for commercial lots.

Raleigh needs to increase tax revenue to promote “growth,” and it has to “grow” to increase tax revenue.  The annexation happened on schedule.  The trees were toppled, the soil graded into flat terraces by giant diesel-powered machines, and last year I was driving down a new road near the stream, where I saw a dead beaver – run over by a car.

Now we have an industrial park, a monster strip mall, a Super Wal-Mart , and hundreds of new Masonite houses with vegetation purchased from the Lowes’ and Home Depot’s Garden Departments.  There are orange plastic ribbons tied to the trees that remain in the shrinking ribbons of forest that were bypassed by the bulldozers.

When I first moved here, I saw another curious thing.  A worm die-off.  For several weeks one late Spring, as I strolled on the asphalt walking trail in my neighborhood and along the concrete sidewalks, thousands and thousands of earthworms emerged after each rain and crawled out onto the sidewalks in writhing masses, where they would be picked off by gluttonous robins or left to shrivel and harden into curly fries under the next sun.  Rain frequently drives worms aboveground for the robins, but the scale of this was different.  I suspect a landscaping chemical, but I can’t know for sure.

Just weeks ago, my younger son, Jeremy, observed a hit and run that knocked a young doe off the road.  He called me on his cell phone, distressed because the deer was alive with two obviously broken legs, lying in a ditch completely conscious and terrified.  I drove out to where he was and put his and the deer’s minds at ease the only way I knew how – I shot her in the head with a .22 target pistol.  She died instantly.  The shot must have nicked the spinal cord because her neck momentarily convulsed around as if she were trying to reach up into a thicket for a morsel before she convulsed and lay still.

Compared to those who drowned in their own homes during Hurricane Katrina, this little doe actually had a merciful death.  The shock of the car hitting her, fifteen minutes of pain and fear, then the relief of death.  We don’t have the willingness to think about what it is like to die slowly, trapped in a sweltering attic with putrid floodwaters climbing at us.  We don’t know how to think about this misery and terror… times millions.  But such is the world.

Katrina exposed us to images of misery and fear – unique to us, just as 9-11 was – that are experienced by millions, by hundreds of millions of people every day.  Much of the world routinely lives in conditions as dire as Katrina’s deadly wake.

Internalities and Externalities
“Progress,” or “growth” chews threw the world like a feral pig – just as it chewed through the forest around my house.  No one intentionally killed the deer or the beaver.  Their deaths were simply a by-product… a statistical probability… the collateral damage of a social system reproducing itself.

Exterminism is this process writ large – writ worldwide.  Exterminism is the final stage of imperialism.

We cannot know the true meanings of Katrina in the familiar language of the Imperium; and we cannot link Katrina to either ecocide or the seemingly maniacal devotion of the neocons to the Iraqi bloodbath by simply comparing the costs of Katrina and the costs of the war.  This goes well beyond shopkeeper logic.

Ecocide – a terrifying danger often ignored on the left and the right – permanent war, and the malignant neglect of Katrina’s victims, are intimately and structurally related.

“Exterminism” was first coined – as close as I can determine from cursory research – by Edward Thompson in 1980, in an essay for New Left Review called “Notes on exterminism, the last stage of civilization.”

Exterminism, according to Thompson, describes “those characteristics of a society - expressed, in differing degrees, within its economy, its polity and its ideology – which thrust it in a direction whose outcome must be the extermination of multitudes.”

Must be… as in “inevitable within the system.”

It is, in other words, the tacit or open acceptance of the necessity for mass exterminations or die-offs (often beginning with mass displacements) as the price for continued accumulation and the political dominance of a ruling class.

“Shock and Awe” doctrine is an expression of exterminism.  Refusal to intervene in the AIDS crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa is equally an expression of exterminism. 

Exterminism is not totally, or even most often, characterized by offensive action against whole populations, but frequently accomplished by calculated neglect – the instruments of which are poverty, disease, malnutrition , and “natural” disasters… and frequently facilitated by economic isolation and the mass displacement of populations.

Imperialism is not merely the oppression and control of nation by nation.  It is a system of inter-dependency in a very specific form – of capitalism.  There is no ideal and universal form of capitalism but only transient forms, bounded by changing externalities and driven by changing internalities.  Today’s form is both imperial and exterminist.  It requires the plunder of nation by nation, and it necessitates mass displacement, mass neglect, and eventual death as part of its inexorable logic.

This is what we saw on a relatively small scale, even if we did not know it, with the spectacle of people starving and dehydrated on flood-besieged rooftops while a smiling George W. Bush cut a birthday cake for a smiling John McCain.  This is what we don’t see – because it is not displayed in our cultural production – in the wasting away of tens of millions with HIV-AIDS in Africa.

In fact, many in the US – whether they will say it aloud or not – find this African die-off perfectly acceptable.

The externalities include resource limitations and the laws of thermodynamics, and are dramatically determined by how we consume of fossil hydrocarbons.  The internalities include the tendencies within the capital accumulation regime – the tendency of population to grow as part of the expansion of capital; the tendency of the rate of profit to fall; and the twin-tendencies of expanding technological mass and urbanization.

The results of interaction between externalities and internalities can be seen from Tal Afar, Iraq to New Orleans, Louisiana.  War and neglect are two faces of exterminism.

The Big Not-So-Easy
The Port of New Orleans is central to the world’s busiest port complex – the Lower Mississippi River.  It is at the terminus of 14,500-mile inland waterway system for the export transshipment of steel, grain, containers, and manufactured goods.  It is the only deepwater port in the US connecting to six class one railheads.  It is also the import point for most of the nation’s imported steel, natural rubber, plywood, tropical produce, and coffee.  In the last 10 years, contrary to the pure free-market ideology, the government has invested almost half a billion dollars in this facility to “externalize” (i.e., socialize) the costs of the corporations who reap the profits passing through this port.

This “externalizing” is not the same as an externality.  It means that public funds are provided to capitalist enterprises via critical infrastructure, research, and development, to ensure their expansion and profitability.

Externalities, on the other hand, refers to the material world and its processes outside the direct gaze of economic activity.  The quantity and disposition of the earth’s remaining oil is an externality.  The social process that determines how it is extracted, refined, and sold constitutes an internality.

The interactions between externality and internality can be measured in numerous ways – from steel shortages, to fishing harvests, to oil production, to climate-change weather patterns… the list of indices is very long.

In January 2004, business journals were abuzz with the news that steel prices had risen 66% in six months because of a global shortage.  Externally, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, as they say, to understand that iron is a finite resource.  Internally, demand for steel was on a rocket-like rise based on the rapid industrialization of China, and less so but significantly India, and the continued demand from industrial metropoles like the United States.

It must also be noted, and not incidentally, that the mining and smelting and forging of steel depend on tremendous inputs of fossil hydrocarbons – steel for cars, steel for ships, steel for corporate office buildings, steel for weapons.  In the aggregate, it is not overstating the case to say that the world is in the early stages of a steel famine.

As the resources are depleted, the strongest will lay claim to the remainder and let the rest shrivel and die if necessary.  Exterminism has a seagull ethic.

Hydrocarbon-powered super trawlers, the direct outcome of capitalist competition in the fishing industry, have laid waste to the world’s fisheries, exploiting two-thirds of them beyond their capacity, toppling coral reefs with their drag nets, and wrecked entire ecosystems by killing “by-catch” – non-saleable sea life that is simply thrown overboard.

By-catch is environmental exterminism.  There is also human “by-catch.”  It might be called Africanization.  Kill everything.  Take what you want.  Throw the rest overboard.  In the “reconstruction” of New Orleans, who will be the by-catch?

Coastal development, agricultural runoff (mostly petrochemicals), and the percolation of heavy metals, PCBs, and other toxins, have killed plant life and contaminated fish.  Galveston Bay, which Hurricane Rita barely missed, has already lost over 90% of its sea grass from pollution.  The coastal wetlands that are critical to ocean habitats are being destroyed at a rate of 20,000 acres a year.

The levees in and around New Orleans were originally built to keep the port clear of silt.  This worked, but the problem then became the build-up of silt on the high-water side of the levees, which required periodic additions to the tops of the levees, weakening the overall structures.

John McFee, writing for the New Yorker (“Atchafalaya”) on September 12, 2005, noted:

“You put five feet on and three feet sink,” a Corps engineer remarked to me one day. This is especially true of the levees that frame the Atchafalaya swamp, so the Corps has given up trying to fight the subsidence there with earth movers alone, and has built concrete floodwalls along the tops of the levees, causing the largest river swamp in North America to appear to be the world’s largest prison. It keeps in not only water, of course, but silt. Gradually, the swamp elevations are building up. The people of Acadiana say that the swamp would be the safest place in which to seek refuge in a major flood, because the swamp is higher than the land outside the levees.

As sediments slide down the continental slope and the river is prevented from building a proper lobe – as the delta plain subsides and is not replenished – erosion eats into the coastal marshes, and quantities of Louisiana steadily disappear. The net loss is over fifty square miles a year. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a fort was built about a thousand feet from a saltwater bay east of New Orleans. The fort is now collapsing into the bay. In a hundred years, Louisiana as a whole has decreased by a million acres. Plaquemines Parish is coming to pieces like old rotted cloth. A hundred years hence, there will in all likelihood be no Plaquemines Parish, no Terrebonne Parish. Such losses are being accelerated by access canals to the sites of oil and gas wells. After the canals are dredged, their width increases on its own, and they erode the region from the inside. A typical three-hundred-foot oil-and-gas canal will be six hundred feet wide in five years. There are in Louisiana ten thousand miles of canals. In the nineteen-fifties, after Louisiana had been made nervous by the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Corps of Engineers built the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a shipping canal that saves forty miles by traversing marsh country straight from New Orleans to the Gulf. The canal is known as Mr. Go, and shipping has largely ignored it. Mr. Go, having eroded laterally for twenty-five years, is as much as three times its original width. It has devastated twenty-four thousand acres of wetlands, replacing them with open water. A mile of marsh will reduce a coastal-storm-surge wave by about one inch. Where fifty miles of marsh are gone, fifty inches of additional water will inevitably surge. The Corps has been obliged to deal with this fact by completing the ring of levees around New Orleans, thus creating New Avignon, a walled medieval city accessed by an interstate that jumps over the walls.

“The coast is sinking out of sight,” Oliver Houck has said. “We’ve reversed Mother Nature.” Hurricanes greatly advance the coastal erosion process, tearing up landscape made weak by the confinement of the river. The threat of destruction from the south is even greater than the threat from the north.

Exterminism does not recognize the precautionary principle.

Sow the Wind and Reap the Whirlwind
By all economically disinterested accounts, two major events are now coinciding that combine externality and internality:  Peak Oil and global warming.  The accelerated burning of fossil hydrocarbons to fuel capitalist expansion has expanded humanity itself to almost 7 billions souls and parked us at a tunnel on the top of a mountain – the Hubbert Peak of oil extraction – and in the process, released enough of the carbon that was captured inside the earth to abruptly (in geological time) raise the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere.  On the other side of this tunnel, the only direction is down, and the road is very, very rough.

In the wake of Katrina and the damage it inflicted on US oil platforms and refineries, Saudi Arabia – the world’s largest oil patch – reluctantly announced that it could not increase production sufficiently to offset the losses.  This is the third time in the last two years that Saudi Arabia has made excuses for not raising production.  Matthew Simmons, energy investor and author of Twilight in the Desert – The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy  – who actually served on Cheney’s energy panel (but who is now the equivalent of Benedict Arnold… or Joseph Wilson) – has been warning that Saudi production projections (which Hubbert advocates said would push Saudi’s peak production past 2012) are inflated, and that Saudi Arabia itself may have already peaked… meaning that the world has passed its Hubbert Peak and will go into permanent decline in the face of increasing demand from the US, India, and China, and in the face of Western Europe’s near total dependency on oil imports.  This is externality and internality pressing in contrary directions like the two faces of the San Andreas Fault.

For a “dematerialized” economy, the United States certainly needs a lot of that material oil.  We have allowed market forces (the valorization of capital under competitive pressure) to design our entire society in ways that trap thousands inside New Orleans during a storm, and will trap millions in the unsustainable suburbs of the not-too-distant future.  Our whole society is now developed around the private automobile – the colossal stupidity of which will astonish future historians for centuries.

Joel Kovel, author of The Enemy of Nature, calls the United States “Automobilia.”  In the same book, he publishes an interesting list of figures.

In 1972, when Earth Day was first declared, the earth was home to around 250 million automobiles.  That number now is around 800 million.  In the same period, oil extraction has gone from 46 million barrels a day to around 80 million; natural gas extraction from 34 trillion cubic feet per year to 95 trillion; coal extraction from 2.2 billion metric tons annually to 3.8 billion; air traffic has multiplied by six, tree harvesting (the cutting down of carbon buffers and oxygen producers) has more than doubled (destroying approximately half the remaining forests of the word); fish harvests doubled; 40% of agricultural soil was degraded; half the wetlands were destroyed; half of the coastal areas in the US were declared unfit for swimming or fishing; the hole in the atmospheric ozone over Antarctica opened to half the size of the continental Untied States; almost 8 billion tons of pollutants are now released annually in the US (disproportionately onto the communities of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans); and not surprisingly annual carbon emissions into the atmosphere have increased from 3.9 million metric tons to 6.4 million.

In that same period, the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere rose one degree Fahrenheit.  That doesn’t sound like much, since we see fluctuations of one degree in our personal lives every few minutes.  But what this degree has done is begin melting the permafrost, melting the iconic snowcap on Mount Kilimanjaro, raising the temperature of the oceans… the effects have been well documented.  Here we will talk about only one effect.  The increased water temperature and slight elevation in sea level that fed energy into and ramped up the landfall of Hurricane Katrina.

From the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton University:

The strongest hurricanes in the present climate may be upstaged by even more intense hurricanes over the next century as the earth's climate is warmed by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Although we cannot say at present whether more or fewer hurricanes will occur in the future with global warming, the hurricanes that do occur near the end of the 21st century are expected to be stronger and have significantly more intense rainfall than under present day climate conditions. This expectation is based on an anticipated enhancement of energy available to the storms due to higher tropical sea surface temperatures.

In this steady accumulation of contradictory forces, external and internal, the Almighty Market – with its field of vision no longer than the next business cycle (or even the next online trade) – fuels the inertia of this runaway train and produces the dog-eat-dog evacuation plan that strands the flooded poor atop their roofs or dying in their attics.

We don’t normally put these emergencies together with the documentation of 112 marine species extinctions since the 1700’s and 16 marine extinctions since 1972.  To do that we have to look at what is in that water, at what has happened to it, and at how the Market determines that those people on the roofs are mere “by-catch.”

This is the essence of exterminism – which accepts massive displacements and die-offs of human beings and of whole sections of the biosphere.  It is the recognition by the ruling class that there are now too few “resources” (note how this term removes these things from the web of life) to support the valorization of capital through “development” of all human society, and the deliberate decision to sacrifice as many as are necessary to perpetuate that class’ power.  The biosphere is collateral damage.

The philosophy of exterminism is après moi, le deluge (“after me, the flood”). This declaration of aristocratic nihilism – allegedly uttered by Louis XV – seems particularly fitting in the wake of the US state’s response to post-Katrina New Orleans.  It is – as Jeffrey St. Clair calls it in Grand Theft Pentagon – “capitalism’s last utopia.”  Exterminism, in fact, marks a nihilist utopia.  This is not a general utopia wrought by capitalism, as it turns out, but a kind of financial-military bacchanalia before the end, which is – as the graffiti said in the biological-apocalypse film, 28 Days Later –  “extremely fucking nigh.”  This utopia is the utopia of the few, perched in their redoubt, surrounded by the furious unwashed in the final days… an après moi, le deluge variety of utopia in which the rich devour everything then let future generations suffer “the flood.”


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