HOUSTON—Bryan Parras stood in the shadows cast by glaring floodlights ringing the massive white, cylindrical tanks of the Valero oil refinery. He, like many other poor Mexican-Americans who grew up in this part of Houston, struggles with asthma, sore throats, headaches, rashes, nosebleeds and a host of other illnesses and symptoms. The air was heavy with the smell of sulfur and benzene. The faint, acrid taste of a metallic substance was on our tongues. The sprawling refinery emitted a high-pitched electric hum. The periodic roar of flares, red-tongued flames of spent emissions, leapt upward into the Stygian darkness. The refinery seemed to be a living being, a giant, malignant antediluvian deity.
Parras and those who live near him are among the hundreds of millions of human sacrifices that industrial capitalism demands. They are cursed from birth to endure poverty, disease, toxic contamination and, often, early death. They are forced to kneel like bound captives to be slain on the altar of capitalism in the name of progress. They have gone first. We are next. In the late stages of global capitalism, we all will be destroyed in an orgy of mass extermination to satiate corporate greed.
Idols come in many forms, from Moloch of the ancient Canaanites to the utopian and bloody visions of fascism and communism. The primacy of profit and the glory of the American empire—what political theorist Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism”—is the latest iteration. The demand of idols from antiquity to modernity is the same: human sacrifice. And our cult of human sacrifice, while technologically advanced, is as primitive and bloodthirsty as that which carried out killings atop the great Aztec temple at Tenochtitlán. Not until we smash our idols and liberate ourselves from their power can we speak of hope. It would have been far, far better for the thousands of activists who descended on Paris for the climate summit to instead go to a sacrifice zone such as Parras’ neighborhood and, in waves of 50 or 100, day after day, block the rail lines and service roads to shut down refineries before being taken to jail. That is the only form of mass mobilization with any chance of success.
Parras—who organizes protests and resistance in the community through Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), a local group he co-founded with his father, Juan—was standing in Hartman Park. He pointed out the array of storage tanks and other equipment clustered around refineries run by Valero, LyondellBasell and Texas Petrochemicals. The neighborhood, known as Manchester, is hemmed in by the Rhodia chemical plant; a yard for trains that transport tar sands oil, gas, coal and toxic chemicals; a Goodyear synthetic rubber plant; a fertilizer plant; a molasses plant; wastewater treatment plants; and tanks of liquefied chicken. There are numerous superfund sites here. The neighborhood is one of the most polluted in the United States. A yellowish-brown dust coats everything. The corporations, Parras said, are not required to disclose the toxic chemicals they store and use to refine or treat their products. The people who live in this industrial wasteland, who dream of escape but remain trapped because they are poor or because no one will buy their homes, know they are being poisoned but they do not know exactly what is poisoning them. And that, he said, “is the really scary thing.”
The chemical operations “are killing people, although no one wants to admit this is happening,” he said. “And it is largely Mexican-Americans” being killed.
“Alarms go off inside the refinery,” he said, “but we in the community do not know what they mean. We live in a constant anxiety. We will see cops or fire trucks arrive. The 18-wheeler trucks fall in the ditches because the streets are so narrow. People die prematurely, often from cancer. There are schools here. Kids are often sick. Energy levels are depleted. I was always tired as a boy. There is a lot of hyperactivity. Children cannot concentrate. The chemicals add to problems of obesity, especially the diesel particular matter. The fruit and vegetables we grow in our gardens are black. The chemicals lead eventually to heart disease and lymphocytic leukemia. But the impact of the chemicals is not only biological or physiological. It is psychological. You feel you are less, especially when you see other communities.”
“We are near a port,” he went on. “There are men on ships for long periods of time. There is a lot of sex trafficking. There are a lot of drugs. There are more bars on these streets than stores. If you can’t escape, you end up, at best, in a low-paying service industry job or prostitution.”
“We have a metal crushing facility,” he said, pointing into the gloomy night haze. “There is a worldwide shortage of metals. They grind up cars, buses and appliances into shards of metal. There have been explosions. They do not always drain the liquids in the vehicles. There are combustibles. There have been fires. There are particulates thrown into the air. The noise from the crushing is 24/7.”
We walked down a narrow, sloped street past rows of small, ranch-style homes built by poor Mexican immigrants in the 1930s. Manchester is one of the most depressed neighborhoods in Houston. The beat and high-pitched wail of a Tejano ballad blared through the open windows of a shack. Parras told me as we walked along the unlit street how he and other young activists organize protests and photograph emission violations and how Valero’s private security personnel harass those engaged in such activities in the streets around the refinery.
“We are followed, photographed and have our license plate numbers taken down,” he said. “We don’t always know who [is watching us]. They drive black cars with tinted windows. There is a security threat [to the petrochemical equipment]. It is easy to walk up to these trains or into the Valero facility. But what we are doing is documenting their negligence. Our concern is for the people who live here and the employees. Do they really think we are going to shut down all these facilities? Houston is built on oil and gas. On top of that we have the endemic racism and colonialism towards Mexicans and Indians, any brown person. This is where Manifest Destiny began.”
We met up with other young activists including Yudith Nieto, who was reared in Manchester by her grandparents. She suffers at 26 with an array of health issues including asthma, a damaged thyroid and chronic back pain she suspects is the result of stress and heavy metal contamination. “I can’t afford a toxicologist to tell me if my pain is connected to what I have been exposed to in my environment,” she said. Nieto, Parras and other TEJAS activists, along with fellow activists from across the country, led a series of protests against the now-rejected Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in or near Houston.
“People are afraid to get involved,” Nieto said. “They are poor and often undocumented. Or they have been in and out of the prison system. The Border Patrol carries out raids. We are trying to educate people. We did an air-monitoring project over the summer and into the fall where we collected particulate matter. We go to City Council meetings. But our congressman, Gene Green, is pro-industry. He showed up at a chemical security hearing and said he was there to represent the industry.”
Nieto expressed frustration with wealthier, largely white sections of Houston that she said have failed to rally to the defense of her neighborhood and have “tokenize” her and other Mexican-American activists.
The activists took me to one of the seedy bars near the port. The sign out front read “Cobetasos,” slang for buckets of beer, and advertised a “Show de Bikini.” Four overweight women danced or drank at the bar with white and Mexican-American laborers. The bars, which prey on the impoverished women and the single men who work in petrochemical industries and on the tanker ships, offer the only signs of human activity late at night.
“Those who work in these industries come in from outside Houston,” said Yvette Arellano, also with TEJAS. “They live in cheap motels with a ‘20 days on and 20 days off’ schedule. It feels like I never meet another Houstonian. They are from Colorado, the Dakotas or Louisiana. We don’t have man camps. We have motels. These are mostly temporary workers. They are not full time. This creates issues with safety. No one wants to complain about safety when they know they might not have that job if they complain. And so no one says anything.”
The 21 international climate summits that have been held over the decades have produced nothing but empty rhetoric, false promises and rising carbon emissions. Paris was no different. We must physically obstruct the extraction, transportation and refining of fossil fuels or face extinction. Those who worship before the idols of profit will use every tool at their disposal, including violence, to crush us. This is a war waged between the forces of life and the forces of death. It is a war that requires us, in every way possible, to deny to these industries the profits used to justify gaiacide. It is a war we must not lose.
Chris Hedges previously spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.