The more conservative you are, the worse off you are likely to be and the sooner you are likely to die. This holds even on the county level, Hochschild finds, after an analysis of EPA data shows a correlation between political views and exposure to pollution. Yet the very people most damaged by conservative policies are most likely to vote for them.
Nowhere is the abuse as frightening as in Louisiana—with the exception, perhaps, of its neighbor to the east (“Thank God for Mississippi!” is the unofficial state motto). Louisiana is the second-poorest state and second-to-last in human development, which is a measure of individual freedom. The state’s rate of fatal cancers is about 30 percent higher than the national average. For all its antifederalism, Louisiana is fourth in accepting government welfare, with 44 percent of its budget coming from Washington. (Many of Hochschild’s Tea Party friends are beneficiaries of federal welfare programs.) Louisiana has the highest rate of death by gunfire (nearly double the national average), the highest rate of incarceration, and is the fifth-least-educated, reflecting the fact that it spends the fifth-least on education. It is sixth in the nation in generating hazardous waste, and third in importing it, since it makes a side business out of storing other states’ trash.
Louisiana’s governor is among the most powerful chief executives in the nation, a legacy that dates back to Huey Long’s administration, and under Governor Bobby Jindal’s dictatorship, between 2008 and 2016, the state’s prospects declined with unprecedented severity. After he reduced corporate income taxes and expanded the exemptions granted to oil and gas companies, the state’s revenue tumbled roughly $3 billion. He transferred $1.6 billion from public schools and hospitals to oil companies in the form of new tax incentives, under the theory that the presence of oil and a robust petrochemical infrastructure were not incentives enough. (The Louisiana Legislature is not only soaked with oil and gas lobbyists—during a recent session there were seventy for 144 legislators—but many lawmakers themselves hold industry jobs while serving in office.) Jindal fired 30,000 state employees, furloughed many others, cut education funding by nearly half, and sold off as many state-owned parking lots, farms, and hospitals as he could.
Despite these punishing cuts, he managed over the course of his administration to turn a $900 million budget surplus into a $1.6 billion deficit. National agencies downgraded the state’s credit rating. The damage was so great that it helped to bring about one of the most unlikely election results in recent American history. Jindal’s successor is John Bel Edwards, a Democrat—the only one to hold statewide office. Edwards is vehemently pro-life and agnostic about climate change, but he is determined to hold the oil and gas industry responsible for funding their share of coastal restoration. He currently enjoys a 62.5 percent approval rating. Almost a year into his first term, however, despite several emergency measures, the state remains in arrears.
e paradox that most baffles Hochschild is the question of environmental pollution. Even the most ideologically driven zealots don’t want to drink poisoned water, inhale toxic gas, or become susceptible to record flooding. Yet southwestern Louisiana combines some of the nation’s most fervently antiregulatory voters with its most toxic environmental conditions. It is a center of climate change denial despite the fact that its coast faces the highest rate of sea-level rise on the planet.
Hochschild discovers a walking personification of these ironies in a Cajun oil rig engineer named Mike Schaff. In August 2012, Schaff was entering his home in Bayou Corne, about seventy miles west of New Orleans, when he was jolted by a tremor. His concrete living room floor cracked apart. The sound, said a neighbor, was like a “garbage truck had dropped a dumpster.”
More than a mile beneath the bayou, a Houston-based drilling company named Texas Brine had drilled into a vast salt dome, ignoring warnings from its own engineer, with the complicity of the state’s useless Department of Environmental Quality. (In Louisiana, environmental regulators are, in the words of an EPA investigation, “expected to protect industry.”) Texas Brine drills for salt, which it sells to chlorine manufacturers, but other companies had used sections of the salt dome to store chemicals and oil. Texas Brine drilled too closely to an oil deposit and the structure ruptured, sucking down forest and causing seismic damage to the homes of 350 nearby residents. Officials began referring to Schaff’s neighborhood as the “sacrifice zone.”
Texas Brine refused to take responsibility for the accident. It claimed that earthquakes were common in the area (they are not) before blaming a different salt dome tenant for the collapse. If that wasn’t enough, Texas Brine asked the state for permission to dump toxic wastewater into the very sinkhole it created. Jindal did not visit the site for seven months, though it is only forty miles south of the capital. Four years later the sinkhole is 750 feet deep at its center and has grown to thirty-five acres. Methane and other gases bubble up periodically. Residents who defied evacuation orders avoided lighting matches.
After seeing his house, neighborhood, and way of life destroyed by corporate greed and state-sanctioned contempt for the natural environment, and many of his neighbors diagnosed with cancer, Schaff was forever changed. “They think we’re just a bunch of ignorant coonasses,” he told a Mother Jones reporter. Schaff became an environmental activist, railing against the “disrespect that we have been shown by both Texas Brine and our state officials themselves.” He marched on the statehouse, wrote fifty letters to state and federal officials, granted dozens of interviews to local, national, and foreign press. When state officials claimed they had detected no oil in the bayou, he demanded that the EPA check their work.
But Schaff continued to vote Tea Party down the line. He voted for the very politicians who had abetted Texas Brine at every turn, who opposed environmental regulation of any kind. He voted to “abolish” the EPA, believing that it “was grabbing authority and tax money to take on a fictive mission…lessening the impact of global warming.” The violent destruction of everything he held dear was not enough to change his mind.
Shaff’s story is an extreme but representative example of what so many Louisianian voters have brought upon themselves. “The entire state of Louisiana,” writes Hochschild, “had been placed into a sinkhole.” When confronted with the contradictions in their political logic, Hochschild’s subjects fall into “long pauses.” Cognitive dissonance reduces them to childlike inanity. When asked about catastrophic oil spills that result from lax regulation, one woman says, “It’s not in the company’s own interest to have a spill or an accident…. So if there’s a spill, it’s probably the best the company could do.” Madonna Massey says: “Sure, I want clean air and water, but I trust our system to assure it.” Jackie Tabor, whom Hochschild describes as “an obedient Christian wife,” says: “You have to put up with things the way they are…. Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism,” which is a gentler way of saying that premature death is the sacrifice we make for capitalism. Janice Areno, who worked at Olin Chemical without a facial mask as an inspector of phosgene gas and suffers mysterious health ailments that she believes are “probably related to growing up near the plants,” finds comfort in an anthropomorphic analogy: “Just like people have to go to the bathroom, plants do too.”