Hochschild sits in the office of Westlake, Louisiana mayor Bob Hardey, who shows her the video of a ceremony marking the beginning of the “single largest foreign direct-investment manufacturing project in U.S. history,” a giant petrochemical complex for the South African company Sasol. Hardey improvises his speech at the ceremony, telling the Sasol executives that four generations of his family have lived in Westlake, but he encouraged his son to sell the land where he was building his dream house to Sasol.
By telling his son to sell his land, Hardey makes a spectacle out of his loyalty to industry above even his own family. More than any other figure in this book, Hardey’s attitude and policies toward the petrochemical industry demonstrate the close emotional ties between big business and local government.
Hochschild describes Westlake as “a sprawling gray expanse of smokestacks rising from immense steel-girded fortresses” that is often inundated with the smell of chemicals—in his speech, Hardey says it “smells like rice and gravy.” Hochschild is meeting Hardey to begin “exploring the institutional context conducive to the worldview” that her friends on the right hold.
Westlake already seems dominated by industry, both visually and culturally. By equating the smell of toxic chemicals with that of rice and gravy (a Southern staple), Hardey suggests that chemical production is truly a cornerstone of Southern culture.
Hardey drives Hochschild around town, showing her the restaurants, churches, shops, and schools that sustain everyday life in Westlake. He also points out “which buildings will come down, and which others will go up”—Sasol bought out churches for millions, but landowners that held out can still have their land sized by the state (and specifically, by Hardey) through eminent domain. Hardey still mows the lawns in town, which keeps him “connected to the place he deeply loves.”
While Louisianans like Mike Schaff and Harold Areno see the past embedded in the present landscape, Hardey sees the future: Westlake looks to him like one enormous chemical plant to come. Even though he loves the town, has roots there, and even mows its lawns, he is delighted at the prospect of everything he knows being destroyed to pave the way for new industry. And, because Hardey has the power to coerce people into selling their property to Sasol, many people have no choice in the matter, though Hardey does not seem to see this as a conflict of interest.
Hardey envisions a 25-30% growth in population—but many of the new residents will be temporary construction workers living in a Sasol “man camp.” The local Economic Development Alliance is encouraging locals to train themselves for the construction jobs, but those locals face difficulties competing with more experienced Irish and Filipino workers and worry that those new workers might be “rapists or burglars.” Hardey notes that Sasol’s investment will do nothing to fix his city’s budget deficit. He is even holding a small piece of land in the way of the construction zone, which he plans to sell to boost the city’s budget.
Despite Hardey’s enthusiasm for chemical investment, he actually knows that the benefits to his town will be slim. He embodies a version of the Great Paradox from the government’s perspective: he chooses to prioritize industry based on his personal loyalties and feelings even though he knows that doing so may not help him fulfill his job, which is to do whatever is in the citizens’ best interest.
Hochschild summarizes the century-long history of expanding oil extraction in the region. New fracking technology promises to release enormous underground deposits of natural gas and bring well-paying jobs to the region, as well as turning the United States from a net importer to a net exporter of energy. Fracking also brings incredible environmental risks—although journalists and locals have voiced concerns about the pollution, the state government has already okayed Sasol’s predicted pollution and now other companies are using the precedent this set to demand higher pollution limits.
With fracking, as throughout the history of energy production in Louisiana, promised economic benefits are attractive enough to the state government that environmental concerns fall by the wayside. The government weighs the thrill of promised wealth against the anxiety of pollution, which it can choose not to see. In other words, even government decisions are made on instinctual feeling rules and not through an analysis of material costs and benefits.
The Westlake city government is trying to teach residents how to deal with air pollution—drive less, mow the lawn more, and watch out for red flags that mean “today’s not a good day to be outside” for people with respiratory problems. Hochschild wonders whether any of this is really necessary—in a “strange cycle,” Sasol is making plastic water bottles, which more and more Louisianans will need precisely because companies like Sasol are polluting their water.
Just as the Arenos suffered the downsides of PPG’s spill, Hardey expects Westlake residents to quietly suffer from Sasol’s pollution rather than hold the company accountable. In fact, through the “strange cycle” Hochschild observes, Westlake also stands to make residents start paying a private company for what used to be a public resource: clean water. As in Bobby Jindal’s state-level administration, public resources flow into private hands.
Hochschild summarizes the oil policies of Huey Long, Louisiana’s governor during the Great Depression, who taxed oil companies to fund schools, hospitals, and infrastructure. She compares these policies with those of Bobby Jindal, who instead defunded public services and paid oil companies to invest in Louisiana. Hochschild asks Hardey about his politics, and he says he has “had enough of poor me.” He criticizes welfare and affirmative action policies that he believes give an unfair advantage to minorities.
Long’s policies demonstrate that the “high road” strategy often used in blue states has been successfully applied in Louisiana and can harness oil money for the public good. But Hardey rejects this strategy precisely because he does not believe that the government should be in the business of uplifting the needy—rather, he thinks that the poor should make a living through their own private interest.
Hardey explains that he himself had difficulties in school but “discovered [he] could do things” while working at the Phillips 66 petrochemical plant. Hochschild suggests that he wonders, “why couldn’t blacks and legal immigrants do the same?” Other locals Hochschild interviewed “felt the same, only more strongly”—the family was already “a chancy redistribution system all its own” and they “didn’t want the government playing favorites on top of that.” Hardey favors Jindal’s oil incentives because this seemed like the only way “to get companies to come to Louisiana instead of Texas.” He sees pollution as a “problem from the past,” already resolved by EPA restrictions, and he sees cancer as genetic, unrelated to the region’s toxic pollution.
Hardey reveals the origins of his loyalty to industry: working at the Phillips 66 plant helped him develop a sense of self and pride in his abilities. Like many other conservative Louisianans, he sees economic success as directly reflecting personal ability and hard work, but he fails to see how other groups lack the same opportunities to find well-paying work. Just like Mike Schaff with climate science, Hardey’s devotion to the chemical industry determines the way he interprets science.
Hochschild examines a “Regional Impact Study” Sasol conducted during the construction, which suggested that the scientists they need will only want to move to Westlake if it can “improve the quality of life” there. Hochschild reminds the reader that public infrastructure took an enormous hit under Governor Jindal, while Sasol’s report suggested that Westlake “needed a thriving public sector” to attract talented workers to the oil industry. In other domains, too, Sasol is a “tough bargainer.” It demands that the state, parish, and town governments pay for the majority of certain infrastructure projects—like new wells and roads—that Sasol alone will use.
Even Sasol, the company investing billions of dollars in Westlake, would prefer a “high road” strategy like those implemented in California and Louisiana in the 1930s under Huey Long. This is paradoxical since Sasol claims that it chose to invest in Louisiana because of government incentives following a “low road” approach. Its infrastructural demands mean that Westlake might actually suffer economically from its investment.
Hochschild notes that nobody at the groundbreaking ceremony mentioned the Condea Vista ethylene dichloride leak in Westlake, the largest chemical leak in the history of the United States, which had been going for decades by the time it was discovered in 1994. Condea Vista hired workers to clean up the chemicals but never provided them with the necessary safety information or equipment. Ultimately, only about 10% of the spilled chemicals were cleaned up, and many of the cleanup workers developed mysterious health issues and sued the plant.
Again, Hochschild points the reader to a history of pollution and industrial mistreatment of workers that has been erased from the Louisiana landscape through structural amnesia. Regulators again failed to do their jobs, and Condea Vista poisoned workers without consequence just as PPG did to Lee Sherman and his coworkers. Disasters due to government’s alliance with the oil industry are apparent in the Louisiana landscape but missing from citizens’ memories or public political discourse.
Environmental activists—including Lee Sherman, Harold and Annette Areno, and Mike Tritico—helped out with the case against Sasol. But, before long, a new plaintiff joined the case and created so much strife among the workers that they dropped the lawsuit. In the years after the spill, “the tarnished memory of Condea Vista had faded”—and Sasol took over the same plant that Condea Vista used to run.
Condea Vista went to extreme lengths to shut down their workers’ class action suit—it again prioritized profit over creating safe conditions for its workers or compensating them reasonably for their suffering. Despite this, Louisianans continue to praise oil jobs and forget how the industry has violated its workers’ rights.
Hochschild starts to think that Bob Hardey, one very powerful person with the “least resistant personality” type that chemical companies seek out, might have been Sasol’s key to forever transforming Westlake. Hardey admits that, after four generations, much of his family is now forced to leave the town due to the construction. He still wants to be buried in his family’s cemetery—which is now surrounded on all sides by land zoned as “heavy industrial.”
Hochschild sees that all Sasol needs to push through their investment is a single powerful politicians who prioritizes corporations’ private interest over the citizens’ public interest. People like Hardey help transform the Great Paradox from a principle of resistance to government into a principle of government itself.