Calling for a Change of Heart

Interview with John Keeble, originally published at Bloomsbury Review

As I drove to meet John Keeble, my car hit a bird, a red-shafted flicker. There was a flash of orange, a flutter of wings, and then it was over. I stopped the car and watched the bird die, then sadly drove on. I wasn’t sad because it died, but because it brought home what inevitably happens when modern culture meets the natural world.

The natural world is dying simply because it’s in our way. The spotted owl lives in forests we measure in board-feet, so it’s got to go. We value cheap electricity more than animal life, and the sockeye salmon are in our way.

On March 24, 1989, Blight Reef in Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska happened to be in the way of the Exxon Tanker, Valdez. The tanker grounded and spilled 11 million gallons of oil. The leading edge of that spill eventually traveled more than 450 linear miles, soiling beaches and suffocating every living thing in its path. It is estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 otters died in that spill, and more than 575,000 birds.

In his book, Out of the Channel, John Keeble examines the chain of destruction set off by the Valdez spill, and tries to understand its causes, which go beyond the simple culpability of Captain Hazelwood, and even beyond Exxon’s purely economic view of the world, to embrace our entire culture. He also examines the effects of the spill on the local communities, both human and natural.

Keeble is the the author of four works of fiction, most recently Broken Ground, and is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. This interview was conducted over three weeks in April 1991.

The Bloomsbury Review [Derrick Jensen]: Why did you write Out of the Channel?

John Keeble: Outrage. But one thing that struck me when I first went up there was the paradox of the whole situation. The oil spill was out of control. There was an irony between the fact that the oil was out of control and all the rational talk about it. The same thing happened in the Persian Gulf in an even more horrifying form. Schwartzkopf talked of 100,000 Iraqi dead. Birds were dropping out of the sky in Kuwait City because of burning oil wells.

TBR: The book seems to be about systems. Even the title, Out of the Channel, has to do not only with ocean channels, but bureaucratic channels.

JK: Yes. For example, VECO, the primary cleanup subcontracting company, had two subsidiaries, one of which was union, the other nonunion. Each would not accept the other’s recovered oil. That is the kind of absurdity we encountered daily.

TBR: Even from the beginning, everyone except the locals seemed to be more interested in setting up systems than in actually accomplishing anything.

JK: Many of the Exxon Employees were absolutely mortified by what happened. Frank Iarossi [then Exxon’s head of shipping] was one of them. One of the things that separated him from some others is that he was there and he got out of his closet, made a point of seeing what it was like. What I understand from people who worked closely with him is that this made a difference. Maybe the problem was not the employees of Exxon. Maybe they were scapegoats, just as Hazelwood was a scapegoat.

So to get to the point, we’re not necessarily talking about the failures of individuals so much as we are about the failures of systems. The individuals fail, I guess, when they refuse to question the system they are operating within, even when it becomes apparent there is something terribly wrong. And then the next problem is, how do you manage to shake people loose, or how do people manage to shake themselves loose?

WE’VE LOST OUR CAPACITY to keep big corporations accountable, to insist on their accountability.

TBR: Doesn’t it say in the Declaration of Independence that is our duty to fight against an oppressive government? What about an oppressive system?

JK: As a matter of principle, I would have to say that it is the duty of the individual to fight against an oppressive system. And the level of cooperation that exists between federal and state governments and large private corporations amounts to an oppressive system. It’s really difficult, though, for us to take the effects of the oppression seriously on a day-to-day level, because we Americans are living in a state of relative comfort.

TBR: So where are we headed?

JK: I have an answer to that in two parts: We’re in a position where we’re beginning to see quite clearly the warning signs of a world that is slipping away. The signs are becoming increasingly dramatic. It has to do with mass culture, and the way that human beings are really vermin on earth. We’re like rats in all the nooks and crannies. It’s really out of control. So as a response to that, societies tend to fall into totalitarian or repressive systems as a way of trying to control it. But it’s getting away from us in terms of pollution on the one hand and devastation of armies and peoples and cities and cultures on the other hand.

TBR: And individual psyches.

JK: And individual psyches, on a massive scale. These are the early warning signs of a system that is starting to slip away. We are losing our ability—I almost said “grip,” but that is not the word I want to use—our ability to maintain balance.

TBR: So we’re in for more of the same.

JK: Until a new balance is found or an old balance is restored. I would prefer the old balance with every bone in my body, but there’s a part of my brain that tells me that won’t happen.

Part two, then, is how do we conduct ourselves. There are a number of stages one can go through. The first stage is to try to be like some of the people I observed in Alaska, people who were faced, particularly in the early stages of the spill, with what they thought might be the end of their lives as they knew it. They had the capacity to contain the horrifying contrarieties, or the paradoxes they were presented with, yet to continue to conduct themselves in a positive way. That’s the first step. What some of us need to do, who aren’t faced with this directly, is to conduct ourselves as if we were faced with it. From there you go on to community action, so long as you can continue to act with some kind of hope.

TBR: Somehow it seems easier to conduct yourself in a positive way when you’re not associated with a system.

JK: Systems tend to create patterns. Patterns reduce the fluidity with which one can interact with the world. But then you have a practical problem, which is—the level of the population being what it is—how are you going to deliver fuel on the necessary scale? I don’t have the solution, but I think one exists. Ken Adams, a vice-president of Cordova Fisherman United, asked, “When do the oil companies become accountable, and when do companies undergo a change of heart?” When they do, then the number of spills will be drastically reduced. No amount of Coast Guard regulation, no number of double-hulled ships will matter until the oil companies have a change of heart.

TBR: But if a company does have a change of heart, won’t it become economically inefficient and be replaced?

JK: What we could do about that is very clear. We could say we’re not going to buy Exxon fuel until Exxon becomes accountable as a company. Then when we have an agreement with Exxon, and we are convinced they are going to follow it, we could move on to Texaco. The strategies for doing something about the situation are very simple. The problem is not figuring out how to do something about it, but getting enough people to have a change of heart themselves to something about it. Maybe that’s the purpose of the book.

TBR: Where does capitalism fit into all this?

JK: What is capitalism? Do you mean international superproprietors? What I witnessed in Alaska was the tremendous gap between energetic, ambitious people and the power of monopoly. And the incredibly devastating effect, not only economically but also spiritually, a monopoly can have on an independent ambitious people. What we’re seeing in this fifty-year microstep of history is that we’ve lost our capacity to keep big corporations accountable, to insist on their accountability.

TBR: I thought your treatment of Hazelwood, captain of the Valdez, was more fair than any other treatment I’ve seen. And more complex.

JK: Hazelwood was used as a scapegoat. The trick is to allow yourself to perceive the complexity of things as fully as possible, for the sake of truthfulness. And at the same time to not allow the complexity to paralyze you.

When I write I have to the job I have to do. I can try to be simple, but when the problems are complicated, it’s wrong not to try and capture the complexity.

One of the things I’m really trying to communicate is the necessity not to accept oversimplified versions of complicated problems. That certainly has become the norm. As a result we have political campaigns based upon the American flag the perverse use of unfortunate people, like the criminal Willie Horton. Those kinds of symbols are used to replace information.

In some ways, particularly as it applies to information, our society is totalitarian. It leads, as Kunders says, to a lightness of being. The flag, Willie Horton, Hazelwood—those symbols are very lightweight. Whereas to try to take in the sometimes contradictory, sometimes difficult-to-comprehend reality, makes one heavy. And we have to accept some of the heaviness.

ONE OF THE THINGS I WOULD HOPE READERS WOULD THINK ABOUT is how to address the problem of information. And how they can conduct their lives in a way that will be effective.

TBR: Tell me your idea on sound bites and the medium of television.

JK: When I was researching, I traveled between Alaska and Spokane because it was cheaper. As a result, I would see the outside coverage, and frequently there seemed to be very little connection between what I had seen and what was being presented on television. The print journalists were, in general, more accurate, and some of them very good, very impressive, both in person and in terms of results. TV journalism up there, on the other hand, was abrasive, aggressive, and destructive, I felt. The you come down here and see these sound bites, which are so fragmentary in their presentation that they are untrue.

It’s all very thin. We have to hope that the thinness of the information people are allowing to pass into them, that the thinness of the kind of entertainment that people are indulging themselves in, the thinness of so much of our so-called literature, and that the thinness of human relations will take us to a point of exhaustion, and that we will then turn to something else.

The first settlement between Alaska, the federal government, and Exxon broke down. One of the primary causes, I suspect, was the arrogance of Larry Rawls when the settlement was first announced. In effect, he said, “It’s a good settlement because it won’t affect our profit margin, nor will it affect the take of our shareholders.” And that’s absolutely correct from his vantage point. But the callousness, arrogance, and stupidity of that statement is quite extraordinary. He is callous, and his callousness is systemic. I don’t think you’d have to back him against the wall to fix him. I think you could just drop him somewhere, and let him figure out how to build a fire to keep warm. It would put him in touch with something besides his stockholders and his desk.

The final irony to this story is that even after the public outcry and after the overturning of the settlement by a federal judge in Alaska, a new version of the settlement went through a few months later with essentially the same provisions.

TBR: What response do you hope for from readers?

JK: That they will be conscious of the incompleteness of the information they receive. Behind the information about various things, like catastrophes and wars, is a great deal more complexity than they are led to believe. It is very likely that there is a great deal of heavy-duty political and economic maneuvering going on behind the scenes that they’re not going to be aware of unless they look closely into the story.

One of the reasons why information, if you can call it that, is allowed to remain so incomplete is that we have to continue to conduct our lives. If we start chasing all these various intrigues and political fiascos, we might need to spend most of our lives doing that. So one of the things I would hope readers would think about is how to address the problem of information. And how they can conduct their lives in a way that will be effective. One of the most compelling things in Prince William Sound was the powerlessness of the communities. And set against that is the fact that the Native people and the fishing people are very self-reliant, and were very willing to do things, both mechanically in terms of the oil spill and in terms of trying to inform the public of what was actually going on. Yet ultimately, I think, in the face of the economic power of Exxon and the ties that the petroleum industry has with government, the communities are at an incredible disadvantage. That’s one of the major problems of this country that we need to deal with: how to find a way to return power to communities.

TBR: Do you see any way to do that?

JK: I see a couple of ways, but they would require a tremendous amount of work and a serious change in our way of thinking. The quickest way to accomplish it is to have a national catastrophe. That sounds terrible, but as long as people who managed to stay alive through it stayed alert and of good heart, that would be the quickest way. The other way would be to try to reform the system. I suppose we could have a series of setbacks which were not on the level of a national catastrophe. I think there was a moment in the first couple months following the oil spill when something on the order of a political reformation in the state of Alaska was very near to happening, because the truth about shipping practices was suddenly evident to all. It was briefly possible for community people to see all the nooks and crannies the oil companies and government had managed to fill, and out of which they had to be leveraged. The longer the clean-up went on, though, and the more Exxon took control, the more obscure the nooks and crannies became.

TBR: We seem to be on an information treadmill. How do we catch up? A person could devote his life to the study of one very small field…

JK: The publishing industry is not cooperating. There’s a relationship here between capitalism and the way in which information is handled. Particularly when there are capitalist institutions which have tremendous power, because then any information that comes under their purview is going to have spin to it. It swerves lightly in the air. In the publishing industry, there are now a very small number of very large companies.

When we get to the point where the industrial and economic monoliths have either direct or indirect control over information, then our society will have locked up. We’re very close to that now. When it happens it might be a good thing because our seriousness needs to be called into being. In the same way that it took an environmental catastrophe to bring the Alaskan people out of themselves, it may take a catastrophe of the word to do the same to those of us who care about language.

TBR: I keep thinking about Orwell’s 1984. Obviously 1984 has come.

JK: In order to take action you’ve got to find a where the resistance is. So first find a way to clarify that. By the way, the response to this devastation of the word is already happening. In the last twenty years there has been a great growth of small publishers, like weeds almost. But when it all becomes clear, when Gulf owns Random House and Rupert Murdoch owns HarperCollins and GE owns…and so on, when that picture is finally completed, it will be clear to many of us where the resistance is and what we must do.

TBR: In his book, Green Rage, Christopher Manes suggests that it’s civilization itself which the resistance that civilization must be unmade.

JK: The first thing Barry Lopez said to me when he heard I was working on this project was, “We’ve got to shut this machine down.” And he’s right.

TBR: So what can we do? In your book you mention people blockading oil tankers. Is that OK?

JK: For a time in Alaska, I think it would have been. Ken Adams said, “Exxon is not accountable.” We can conclude from this that we must find a way to make these companies accountable. And it may take blockading the channel, or tying a fishing boat to the anchor of a tanker, which means the tanker cannot move without capsizing the boat. Of course, if the tanker decides to go ahead and move, then we’re on the other side of the veil. It would be interesting to see what would happen if we were taken to the other side of the veil.

TBR: In the book, somebody suggests plugging the pipeline.

JK: Or cutting it. Blowing it up somewhere.

TBR: But that would cause massive environmental destruction.

JK: Right. Figure out any way to stop the flow. The fishing people were very angry.

TBR: That would be acceptable?

JK: Good question. I think Exxon’s leases should have been lifted. With the final settlement we were talking a little over three billion dollars paid by Exxon. I don’t think that’s sufficient, because ultimately it’s their responsibility to pay up in total. Even Hazelwood’s supposed drunkenness was their responsibility because he had a record which they failed to track. They should have been shut down, at least temporarily. If I rob a bank, I’m probably going to be sent to jail.

All across the country, plant after plant is dumping toxic materials into our waterways. My view is that those places should be shut down. It’s that simple. Pretty soon most would get the message. So as a culture we’re not the least bit serious about implementing the remedies available to us. And if it takes action to make it clear that those remedies are necessary, I’m in support of it. Am I going to go and blow up the pipeline? No. Would I have tied on to the anchor of a tanker? Maybe, if I had a boat. But mainly what I’m trying to say is that you’ve got to begin with the conduct of your own life.

TBR: So are you hopeful for our future?

JK: I’m fighting. I’m writing. That’s got to be an indication of hope.

TBR: What is the source of this hope?

JK: I believe in the human spirit. It’s a question of what kind of shift can you make: It’s also a question of are we going to make the necessary shifts now or later? If we don’t make them now, we will have to make them later. We have to continue to fight, especially those of us who are concerned with language and with writing. Our job is to hold on as tightly as we can to the powers in language and to mean it when we say something or write something.

Originally published in The Bloomsbury Review, Volume 12/Issue 1, January/February 1992

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