Hochschild sees a variety of handmade signs in the crowd of 150 protestors at the state capitol building in Baton Rouge. This is where she first met Mike Schaff, who wore a yellow “Bayou Corne Sinkhole” T-shirt and introduced a fellow sinkhole victim “with tears in his voice.” He said that he was a “water baby” who grew up and wanted to retire right on the bayou. But the sinkhole ruined his dream and he began writing to his state representatives.
When Hochschild first met Mike Schaff, he was fighting government overregulation. Now, Mike is calling for government regulation. His transformation shows how personal experience can generate political transformations, just as political differences can block personal relationships across the divide.
The protest was for Senate Bill 209, which would require drilling companies to reimburse residents who lost housing due to drilling-related accidents within 180 days; the state legislature, largely run by current and former oil industry leaders, tabled the bill. Mike also protested on a number of related issues, such as Texas Brine’s later request to use the sinkhole they created as a toxic dumping site. He wrote 50 letters to officials and did 40 media interviews, joking that he was nearly becoming “a tree-hugger.”
The legislature, which clearly works with the oil industry rather than against it, once again forces the public to deal with the consequences of private irresponsibility. Although many other Louisianans worry that government regulations will deprive them of their livelihoods, the state government’s lack of regulation is what has deprived Mike.
After the sinkhole first opened, Mike organized a group of residents and got in touch with General Honoré. Honoré worked with them to start the Green Army, an umbrella group for smaller environmental organizations, and hoped that people would stop thinking that “the environment is a soft, feminine issue.” But Mike was disappointed that he so often cried while speaking about the disaster and hoped that he would learn to “speak with no tears, just anger.”
Mike shares Donny’s emphasis on the masculine ability to endure danger, and a person’s emotional reaction to hardship seems to determine whether one has truly endured it. Similarly, many conservatives see the environment as “soft” and “feminine” because people usually relate to it emotionally—through nostalgic memories of their childhood or their affinity for fishing on the weekends—rather than as the ecological foundation on which human life is built, and fundamentally a matter of human health.
Mike dedicated himself to the oil industry all his life but saw his income stagnate while others nearby made millions, including an Exxon engineer’s wife who complained about the “substandard” housing on Mike’s side of the highway, the star of the TV series Duck Dynasty, and a fellow sinkhole victim who proclaimed himself “‘a poor’ man” in front of a crowd that knew better. Mike loves fishing and spending time on the bayou, but he had little time to do so since his childhood—he had not “seen a month’s vacation since [he] was twenty-two.” His job was to estimate the properties and cost of materials used in oil storage and drilling construction, and even after ten years of loyal work he only got three weeks off per year—including sick days.
Even though government and industry declare oil jobs the solution to Louisiana’s economic woes, Mike’s oil job brought him no economic advancement and undermined his American Dream. After a lifetime of hard work, capitalism gave Mike little by way of reward, while people around him got rich suddenly and seemingly at random before turning around and calling him an eyesore. His disdain for the rich is a response to his structural squeeze, and it is a response he shares with the progressive left rather than his fellow Tea Party voters.
After a lifetime of hard work, Mike was thrilled to finally retire and find “time with his new wife, time fishing and hunting, time with his grandchildren” at his new house in Bayou Corne. But, before long, the sinkhole opened and Bayou Corne became “a ghost town encroached on by thirty-two acres of toxic sludge.” Three years after the town’s residents fled, scattering all over the region, Mike still thinks that “Bayou Corne will always be home.”
Mike sees Bayou Corne as home in part because he spent his life working towards membership in an ideal small, self-sufficient community like the one where he grew up. Bayou Corne represents this nostalgic ideal for him, even if it the town no longer exists.
Mike finds that his past in the oil industry makes him a dangerous foe to it in the present. He knows the science and the economics behind it, he knows which chemicals are dangerous and why, and he knows that many Louisianans are not aware of these dangers. But he struggles to square his Tea Party politics “on matters of government and tax” with his newfound environmental advocacy, in which (to his chagrin) he is surrounded by liberals. He wondered what it would take to “add the environment to the agenda of the Tea Party.”
Mike’s scientific literacy is an enormous political asset. However, he senses that his newly-hybrid political views threaten his membership in the Louisiana ideological community to which he feels attached; he realizes that trust and politics often go hand-in-hand in contemporary America and fears that his changing politics will affect people’s ability to trust him.
Hochschild talks about the 1980 drilling disaster at Lake Peigneur, just a few miles from Bayou Corne. It was remarkably similar: a drilling company, Texaco, punctured a salt dome and created a whirlpool that “sucked down two drilling platforms, eleven barges, four flatbed trucks, a tugboat, acres of soil, trees, trucks, a parking lot, and an entire sixty-five-acre botanical garden.” A “memory-softening” documentary released years after the accident focused on the drill bit that caused the accident (rather than blaming Texaco) and marketed the disaster site as a tourist attraction. Then, in 2013, eight months after the Bayou Corne disaster, the Louisiana state government authorized toxic waste dumping and further drilling in Lake Peigneur, backing the drilling company that was “forgetting—or overriding—both disasters.” Activist groups sued the state government and managed to delay the drilling.
Once again, new environmental disasters are layered on top of old, forgotten ones. The new disaster at Bayou Corne repeats the old one at Lake Peigneur almost exactly. In response, the government and industry supported a structural amnesia that erased this disaster’s memory from the landscape—here, represented by the documentary. Once that memory was forgotten, the cycle of disaster and cover-up was repeated.
Mike wants to bring the Louisiana Tea Party to his side. His state has 40% of the United States’ wetlands, provides more than a quarter of its seafood, and is losing a land area of “an average football field every hour” to sea level rise and oil extraction. The federal government had to de-list 31 communities that have been swallowed by the sea and formally recognize the country’s first “climate refugees.” In 2014, after oil companies failed to keep their promises to fund flooding protection measures, the Southeast Flood Control Commission tried to sue the companies. But Governor Jindal and the state legislature blocked the effort and tried to take the repair money out of the state budget instead. Mike jumped at the scandal: he wrote to fellow Tea Party members and set up a meeting.
Mike sees an opportunity to win the Tea Party over to environmentalism when the governor tries to spend government money on something the government should not be funding. He hopes he can win the Tea Party’s trust by getting them to empathize with environmentalists’ distrust of government. Of course, this will be difficult because, although the Tea Party hates unnecessary government spending, they tend to side with the oil companies that the governor is protecting from the rest of the government.
But both groups of Tea Party activists were confused by Mike’s environmentalism—the environment “was a liberal cause.” Mike suggests that environmental advocacy is compatible with Tea Party proposals—they could abolish the EPA and make insurance companies, rather than the government, take charge of drilling regulations. But Hochschild worries that this was exactly the arrangement at Bayou Corne—in fact, the insurance company sued Texas Brine and did not pay out damages. In an aside, Hochschild argues that it is impossible to truly have personal freedom “without a national vision based on the common good.”
Mike turns to capitalism to save the environment—even though, in Bayou Corne’s case, capitalism destroyed it and insurance companies tried to skimp on their obligations by suing Texas Brine even though government regulators approved their activities. (To Mike, this is a reason to have insurance companies do the regulating.) For the first time, Hochschild openly declares that political decisions have to prioritize public over private interest, which she offers as an argument against deregulation.
To some degree, Mike agrees: perhaps they need “a skeleton crew at the EPA.” But he thinks that global warming does not exist and believes that the EPA uses it as an excuse to hoard money and power. He blames government expansion for the erosion of small-scale communities like his own and bases his image of the federal government on what he knows about the Louisiana state government, which he sees as a kind of “financial sinkhole.” To an extent, this makes sense: after the 2009 bank bailout, the government seems allied with Wall Street against the people.
Mike might be the only environmentalist who denies global warming. To Mike, the state government is a sinkhole in the sense that it swallows resources as well as the promise of small, independent communities. Mike clearly does not believe that private companies will “self-regulate,” but unlike liberals, he also does not believe that the government will regulate effectively. Louisiana’s catastrophic government gives him solid evidence for this belief.
Another one of Mike’s complaints against the federal government is that it “wasn’t on the side of men being manly.” With women able to financially support themselves, people increasingly able to live as openly transgender, and same-sex marriage gaining national acceptance, Mike sees traditional masculinity as threatened and male-dominated institutions like the police and military suffering from the “cultural erosion of manhood.” Whereas he accepts the federal government insofar as it fights biological, environmental pollution, he fears it is simultaneously causing a different kind of cultural pollution.
Mike’s investment in masculinity recalls the last chapter, when Donny extolled the virtues of daring while the men and women dined at separate tables. Mike’s worry about manhood’s decline reflects the cosmopolitan self’s increasing displacement of the traditional endurance self. In a world where men and women can be whatever they want, there is no longer a clear-cut formula for male honor.
Mike has a part of each type of endurance self: he is “a fighter but not a Cowboy, a man of religion but not a Worshipper, and a Team Loyalist but critical, in one big way, of his team.” He sees the need for certain protections from the government but fears that it will grow too large.
Mike’s blended expression of the endurance self points to the broader variety of endurance selves Hochschild encountered in Louisiana.
Once, at night, Mike noticed that all the houses in Bayou Corne were dark. One of the few other residents who stayed was Nick, who did not want to move because his wife was suffering from breast cancer. His house was gone, too, and even his dog was dying. One evening, Mike crossed the street to see Nick because it looked like he was suffering from “something new.” Nick told Mike that his son had just gotten pancreatic cancer, and the men “wept together for a long time.”
Like the landscape, Nick’s family has endured layer after layer of catastrophe because of pollution. Again, Mike cannot help but cry, and Hochschild implicitly challenges his assumption that tears imply weakness by portraying his empathy and solidarity with Nick as a form of strength and resilience—a microcosm of the tight-knit community that Mike so deeply values.