Simone de Beauvoir’s garden of meaning
What is existentialism? For Simone de Beauvoir (b. 1908) the discipline is a response to the human need to find a ‘place in a world turned upside down’. It cannot be explained succinctly. Still, let’s have a go.
Pyrrhus and Cineas
In her 1944 essay Pyrrhus and Cineas Beauvoir looks to explain humanity’s quest to find meaning by way of analogy.
Pyrrhus has a plan:
‘We are going to subjugate Greece first,’ says Pyrrhus.
‘And after that?’ asked Cineas.
We will vanquish Africa.’
‘We will go onto Asia … ’
‘And after that?’
‘We will go on as far as India.’
‘Ah! I will rest.’
‘Why not rest right away?’
According to Beauvoir, Cineas’ question haunts our projects. For why do anything? What’s the point? We’re only going to end up where we started.
However, it’s only Pyrrhus who leads an authentic life. Whereas many people fail even to question their lives, he directs himself towards goals, having the imagination to forge something for himself from the world.
Pyrrhus doesn’t leave to return home, where he started: he leaves to conquer; then to conquer again ... Each time he decides a new end. Each time he ‘transcends’ his situation.
‘The paradox of the human condition is that every end can be surpassed, and yet, the project defines the end as an end.’
The values we draw from our projects are never intrinsic, ready-made, or universal. To believe they are is to possess bad faith.
‘By identifying himself with his sex, his country, his class, with the whole of humanity [or God], a man can increase his garden, but he increases it only in words … [T]he fly on the stagecoach claims he is the one who led the carriage to the top of the hill.’
We give the world meaning through our engagement with it, an act which is accomplished with freedom and subjectivity. We throw ourselves towards ends with uncertainty: the price of leaving the world of ennui and inertia behind us. But, by choosing the locations and the limits of our projects, we snatch ‘the world from the darkness of absurdity’.
This garden must belong to me; I cultivate it. It even transcends me when I die.
‘I am enclosed within it until death because that garden becomes mine from the moment I cultivate it.’
It matters that our values are not given to us. My garden cannot be merged with the sterile void of the Universe, a passive equilibrium.
Being is not fixed to things: being is fixed to itself in a mode of transcendence. Like Pyrrhus’ journey, projects don’t end: ends are surpassed by other ends. Conquer or rest: it doesn’t matter which you choose. Just choose!
‘Is that my business? What does India matter? And what does Epirus matter? Why call this soil, this woman, these children mine? I brought these children into the world; they are here. The woman is next to me; the soil is under my feet. No tie exists between them and me. Mr Camus’s Stranger thinks like this; he feels foreign to the whole world, which is completely foreign to him … The inert existence of things is separation and solitude.’
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What, exactly, kills people on the banks of the Mississippi River?
I think about St. James Parish in 2020 during pandemic, and the nearly-$10-billion chemical facility currently being installed over a mass slave burial ground and multiple nineteenth century sugarcane plantation estates because parish administrators, hiding their actions, altered rules to accommodate the toxic-benzene-emitting industrial plant without the knowledge of their black neighborhoods. I also think about how St. Gabriel experienced something very similar in the 1990s. Of the top 25 US counties with the highest death rate from covid, 10 are in Louisiana’s chemical industry corridor, including the US’s highest death rate in St. John the Baptist Parish, which is also the same site as the US’s highest risk of cancer from airborne sources. Just how obvious and egregious can environmental racism be?
Here’s a map of covid death rates and airborne carcinogens to consider:
St. James is among the top 20 counties in the US with the highest death rate from covid. Ignoring the major hint in the term “Cancer Alley,” epidemiologists working for the US federal government have “answered” this question when asked by local media. In recent releases, these doctors, along with chemical company PR representatives, say that “obesity and hypertension” might explain high death rates of black communities in Louisiana. Since 2015, as emissions in the US generally decreased, carcinogenic emissions in Louisiana have steadily increased, and many major new chemical facilities have been permitted to build. Recently, especially since around 2014, administrators and officials of St. James Parish tried to hide what they were doing when they quietly rezoned residential neighborhoods as “residential/future industrial” zones to allow the leasing of land for Form*osa’s $9.4-billion major new petrochemical project which will include about 15 new facilities on 2,300 acres of land, built directly over a slave mass burial ground and two separate nineteenth century sugarcane plantations. The Form*osa site will be allowed to emit over 73,000 pounds of benzene into the air each year (the highest of any location in the US with the sole exception of Shell Norco’s facilities). Form*osa is expected to emit between 1.6 to 3.5 million pounds of airborne emissions each year, and Louisiana regulators are expected to issue the corporation permits which would allow them to double the amount of airborne carcinogenic emissions in the parish when the facilities open in 2022.
This brings to mind something that’s been happening in nearby St. Gabriel since about 1994, involving similar weaponization of zoning regulations against black neighborhoods in Cancer Alley. St. Gabriel chose to incorporate itself as a city so that it could limit chemical facilities. But that didn’t stop the chemical companies. When parish administrators and state regulators really want to make some cash and appease chemical industries, they find ways to subvert local neighborhoods and organizers.
As carcinogenic airborne emissions generally decline in the US, here is the increase in emissions in Louisiana:
Both US government epidemiologists and major chemical companies operating in Cancer Alley, when interviewed by local and major international media publishers since the virus outbreak, have been asked variations of this question: “Do you think that there might be a connection, that people living at these sites with extreme amounts of airborne carcinogens happen to have a disproportionately high risk of death from a virus that attacks the lungs?” And repeatedly, US government-employed epidemiologists and chemical companies have answered by suggesting that “there’s not enough evidence” or “possibly, but who can say?” And instead, they propose that “Cancer Alley has high rates of diabetes, obesity, and hypetension” that “are especially high among minority communities” for some reason, and therefore these “co-morbidities” are to blame.
Location of St. James, St. Gabriel, St. John the Baptist, and major chemical facilities between New Orleans and Baton Rouge [from Pro/Publica and the Times-Picayune]:
So, what happened in St. Gabriel? In 1994, the unincorporated town of St. Gabriel, along the southern edge of Baton Rouge, north of St. James, voted to become a formal city, apparently so that it could have the power to prevent industrial chemical companies from brutalizing their community. But chemical companies and their allies and enablers in Louisiana state institutions didn’t like that.
In a major report in October 2019, Pro/Publica made some notes. To paraphrase:
St. Gabriel is able to stop chemical companies from expanding within technical city limits, but the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality still lets major companies build right on the edge of the city, such that, as of 2019, the risk of cancer from airborne emissions is still worse in St. Gabriel than in 99% of the US, and the BCP facility in St. Gabriel is ranked among the top 10 worst emitters of airborne carcinogens in the US.
Back to St. James, the site of Form*osa. In St. James Parish, about 15% of land is already owned by chemical companies, and over 40% of the parish consists of wetlands. In 2014, the parish administrators passed an ordinance allowing chemical companies to expand in the “predominantly black” 5th district, at the same time that the administrators banned chemical companies Petroplex and Wolverine from building near affluent white neighborhoods. At least 3 other major chemical plants are also being developed in the parish. Maps from Pro/Publica and the Times-Picayune:
From Ramirez’s article, for Grist, on covid and chemical facilities, 4 May 2020:
But the company has a head start. In 2014, the St. James Parish Council had quietly changed the land use plan for Lavigne’s district from “residential” to “residential/future industrial,” welcoming new industry with little public input. Then, this January, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) approved permits for the Taiwanese plastics manufacturer Formosa to build a $9.4 billion petrochemical complex in St. James Parish. [...] Formosa’s own models show that it could emit more of the carcinogenic compound ethylene oxide than just about any other facility in the country. These levels would exceed the benchmark that the EPA uses to determine if exposure poses cancer risks. [...] The gargantuan facility will consist of 14 separate plastics plants, two of which are ethylene glycol plants. [...] The Formosa spokesperson wrote to Grist that “officials have not suggested there to be any link between industrial emissions and COVID-19.” The company instead pointed to Louisiana’s elevated rates of diabetes, obesity, and hypertension, which “are especially high among minority communities.” Adding insult to injury for the predominantly black residents who live near the proposed facility in Lavigne’s district, Formosa’s chosen location sits on two former 19th century sugarcane plantations and a slave burial ground. Although Formosa did not initially disclose this information, a public records request by RISE showed that the company knew that formerly enslaved people were buried beneath the land during its obligatory land survey in 2018. [...] [End.]
Map of St. James, from The Advocate, Baton Rouge:
Graphic is from earlier in April 2020, but still:
Hypertension is real, and it is a burden, and it does kill, so I don’t mean to diminish the experience of people with these difficult conditions and covid-related co-morbidities (I have hypertension and type 1 diabetes myself). But blaming these conditions without acknowledging environmental racism isn’t satisfactory.
Of the top 25 counties in the US counties (with a population over 5,000) with the highest death rate from covid, 10 are in Louisiana, including St. James Parish, which sits right in the geographic center of Cancer Alley. And St. James Parish sits immediately adjacent to and shares a border with another notable site: St. John the Baptist Parish, which is the US county with the highest death rate from covid and also the site of the US’s highest risk of cancer from airborne sources and also the site of the only chemical facility in the US that releases carcinogenic chloroprene. St. James Parish also shares a border with Ascension Parish, which has the highest amount of toxic airborne emissions in Louisiana, at over 12.5 million pounds emitted each year.
From the Grist article, May 2020:
“So many people here have died of cancer. 2014 was a real awakening for me, because I lost five people that were very close to me,” Felton told Grist. “My sister-in-law died first of cancer in February, then my brother-in-law the next month, then my husband, he died of respiratory problems. If that’s not a red light going on telling me something is wrong, then what is?” Outside her window, she can already see two chemical facilities on the horizon, and if it wasn’t for the pandemic, she said dark smog would usually obscure her view of the facilities. She worries about what will happen when Formosa’s operations begin. “Somebody needs to do something.”
But don’t forget: The US government, its doctors, and major chemical companies say that it’s the “hypertension” which kills people.
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