Law of the Jungle: review

By Cherice Bock, Whole Terrain editor

Law of the Jungle jacketPaul M. Barrett’s new book, Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who’d Stop at Nothing to Win, recently came across my desk. It tells the true story of a New York lawyer, Steven Donziger, who stood up against big oil (Texaco, later bought by Chevron) for the people of the Ecuadorian rain forest and eventually won a $19 billion lawsuit in Ecuador, but who used shady tactics at best. I had heard of this case but hadn’t followed it closely, so my sentiments were with the Ecuadorian people and the lawyer standing up for them, but this book brings those sentiments into question. I’ll give a brief book review here, with thoughts about how this book’s topic relates to Whole Terrain’s upcoming theme of trust, and stay tuned for a future blog post with a Q & A with the author.

The book shows empathy for the lawyer Steven Donziger’s desire to bring justice for the underdog, and for his uncanny ability to stay in the expensive litigation game against a huge, well-funded corporation. It also shows the other sides of the story: the people of Ecuador still have not received reparations and must live with oil waste created by Texaco and by their own government’s oil corporation, as well as others; the fact that Texaco fulfilled its contracts and cleaned up the portion of its mess technically required of it; and the frustrating corruption of the Ecuadorian government as it colluded with oil companies for big profits and continues to drag its feet when it comes to clean up costs. The story also includes a number of celebrities who lent their star power to the cause of cleaning up the Ecuadorian rainforest, such as Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, as well as Bianca Jagger. These stars are the ones who seem to be doing actual good for the indigenous people of Ecuador, helping build rain catch and purification systems so that rain forest inhabitants don’t have to drink from polluted rivers and wells (see Rainforest Fund).

Barrett writes for Bloomberg Businessweek and is the author of several nonfiction narratives on issues of provocative interest to Americans: GLOCK: The Rise of America’s Gun, American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of Religion, and The Good Black: A True Story of Race in America. In Law of the Jungle, he takes on another interesting and provocative topic, messing with the easy dichotomy of “evil” big oil and “good” environmental lawyers standing up for the little guy. The book itself is a good read, although rather slow at the beginning as the reader gathers requisite background information. A few chapters in, I was hooked, and wanted to know how Donziger and the people of Ecuador got from a hopeless, penniless struggle against Texaco to a $19 billion lawsuit, as the subtitle promises. The rest of the book maintains a faster pace and keeps the reader interested, explaining the stranger-than-fiction plot twists and character developments that occurred over the course of the last 20+ years.

Reading Law of the Jungle through the lens of our upcoming journal theme on trust, I couldn’t help but pick up on the trustworthiness (or lack thereof) of all the major players in this story. Ironically, Texaco’s slogan in the 1940s promised, “You can trust your car to the man who wears the star” (Barrett, 2014, p. 68). Perhaps we could trust our car to this man, but can we trust our planet to him? Can we trust our children’s future to him? Can we trust that the gas that he so blithely pumps into our car is acquired justly? And should these questions of justice, ethics, and morality even be questions to which we hold large corporations? How do we go about creating a system wherein a multinational corporation has incentive to treat the people and the land from which it acquires its resources with dignity, respect, and a healthful setting? How do we trust that this happens not only within our borders, but in the collection of our nation’s resources from around the world?

Those for whom the lawyer, Steven Donziger, files this class action lawsuit trust him to receive the cash required to clean up their land and water, and to receive proper medical care for illnesses inflicted by exposure to oil. Donziger, who acts as the key figure around whom the rest of this true tale revolves, goes all-in to make sure he wins this case for his clients. He recognizes that since he is underfunded and doesn’t have the economic and political clout of his opponent, he’s going to have to work the system in order to make any headway. He understands that the Ecuadorian legal system relies heavily on bribes, and he steadily inches into the realm of bribes and subterfuge as the legal battle drags on for years, then decades. He sees himself as a steadfast defender of the rights of his clients, but from an outside perspective, it is easy to see that he has crossed lines in such a way that he no longer retains the moral high ground. Barrett says, “Donziger convinced himself he had no choice. To vindicate his clients, he had made a Faustian bargain. It seemed to him the only way to win against a deep-pocketed global conglomerate determined to bury the case,” and he quotes Donziger’s personal notes, which state, “I feel like I have gone over to the dark side” (Barrett, 2014, p. 113).

One of the main hallmarks of trust is vulnerability, and all parties involved recognized this: Donziger didn’t want to give in and admit defeat because it would signal to others that big oil could not be beaten; Texaco/Chevron didn’t want to give in because it would signal that they could be taken down by an upstart lawyer and a bit of bravado; and the country of Ecuador didn’t want to give in because they would rather a big oil company pay the clean-up costs rather than themselves. Therefore, none of these parties ended up acting in an entirely trustworthy manner. Each did not want to accept the vulnerability of recognizing his or their own mistakes, apologizing to those who had been injured or lost family members, and do what it took to clean up their mess. All the while, those impacted most by the oil spills and contaminated land and water could do nothing but trust, could remain nothing but vulnerable.

The most ironic part of this story is the $400 million+ that Texaco and Chevron spent on this lawsuit, not to mention the legal fees incurred by Donziger and his team (Barrett, 2014, p. 255). What if all of that money had instead been spent on cleaning up the rainforest? What would it look like for corporations to choose trust and vulnerability, to choose people and relationships, over immediate profits?

Personally, I distrust oil companies, assuming they are seeking bottom line profits no matter what the environmental and human cost. In other words, I do not trust oil companies. This book does nothing to change my mind on that front. But what if Texaco had recognized its mistakes, recognized that, even though it was following a legal policy in Ecuador, it had not treated the powerless residents of the area with respect? What if it had done the right thing way back in the 1990s and cleaned up the region and taught PetroEcuador to do the same? I would have seen that work and moved in the direction of trust for that corporation. That would have done wonders for the corporation’s image, in my mind, and I would have been more likely to support them with my business. Trust would have been built, and their company name strengthened through vulnerability. Is it possible that big businesses could eventually learn from this mistake and do what it takes to fix humanitarian and environmental crises, rather than litigating them to death?

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