May 132010
 

“The Gulf appears to be bleeding. Will we ever be able to stem the tide?”

John Wathan

A little more than thirty years ago, my parents drove their muck-green, diesel-fueled VW Rabbit down the east coast to visit the Everglades for the first time. They were young, in love, and just out of college with barely a penny to their name. They drove all day and all night, stopping once overnight in a seedy motel so dirty and full of cockroaches that it was cleaner to sleep in their sleeping bags on top of the bed sheets; when they finally reached the Florida Keys, they set up camp in the National Park, amidst the teeming wildlife and unique, delicate, sometimes deadly beauty of the wetlands. It was a story they would tell my brother and me many times throughout our childhood — the foolishness of the journey, the bare essentials packed in the trunk and only a few dollars to spare in their wallets, and the memory, most of all, of how beautiful it was, despite or perhaps because of all the insects, the lethal snakes, the alligators lurking below the surface of the shimmering waters.

Blood in the Water

Like others, I have been struggling for the past few weeks to write about the Gulf of Mexico oil leak — even the phrase “oil leak” seems too flimsy to capture the tragic power of gushing crude oil bubbling up 5,000 feet to the surface of the ocean and spreading fast, oozing its way towards the coastline. I cannot seem to wrap my mind around it, and pictures cannot do the tragedy justice: distant aerial shots of the spill can hardly capture the immense scale, while intimate photographs of birds soaked in poisonous black sludge, sea turtles washed up dead on shore, hard hats and human hands covered in the reddish oil like blood, can so easily be dismissed as isolated incidents. Besides which, they have become familiar to us, the same heart-wrenching images trotted out after every oil spill or accident. Meanwhile, graphs illustrating government projections of the leak’s impact, updated daily, seem bizarrely irrelevant with their amoeba-like pools of bright aquamarine shading and little, harmless-looking red blips scattered along the coast.

The timeline of government involvement and media coverage since the Deepwater Horizon off-shore oil rig exploded, killing eleven, on 20 April 2010 and began spewing deadly sludge into the sea, illustrate a fundamental reluctance by everyone involved to acknowledge the scope of the disaster and begin effective prevention and clean-up as soon as possible. Recent reports detail neglected, damaged, misused or useless safety measures while bemoaning the fundamental lack of government oversight and regulation, though the woeful inability of government agencies to regulate the very industries which provide them funding has been widely documented in the past. Meanwhile, even those clean-up measures being pursued at present are either wildly ineffective or unrealistically extreme, some potentially making the spill even worse. Workers in the industry have wondered if — as in the case of the disgustingly inadequate use of booming — such measures are in fact primarily “for show” for the sake of government officials and media outlets and, by extension, the poorly-informed public in general [warning: the above link about improper booming contains, in addition to crucial insights from an industry insider, a great deal of rage and foul language which some readers might find offensive].

Who exactly is to blame for the breakdown in safety measures and the explosion and collapse of the oil rig — leased by Transocean, the world’s largest off-shore drilling company, to BP who operated the rig but subcontracted out certain work to Halliburton, including the faulty cementing process undertaken just before the blowout — remains the subject of much accusation and finger-pointing. Who ultimately receives the blame, and who is forced to pay the price, however, are hardly related questions at this point, as tourism tanks, the fishing industry falters, hundreds of miles of fragile wetland come under threat, and Louisiana calls for government intervention to relieve BP of its bumbling efforts at the same time that the White House asks Congress for $10 million to fight oil-spill related litigation.

In light of all this noise, controversy and suffering, I was unable to withstand the sudden feeling of overwhelming hopelessness and depression when I read the other day that, despite the thousands of gallons of oil spewing every hour into the Gulf, six out of ten Americans still support off-shore drilling and consider its economic advantages to outweigh the potential environmental damage it could cause. This justification — weighing meager economic benefit against the devastating cost to life and health of millions of living creatures, human and nonhuman alike — seemed to reek of the worst kind of myopic consumerism and human exceptionalism. My trust in my fellow human beings to recognize needless suffering and dangerous gambling with the earth’s ecosystems, and to act appropriately or at least change their opinions in response, was deeply shaken.

Nature as Luxury

Over the weekend, I tried to express my sense of helplessness and despair to a coworker, in the face of our country’s apparent ignorance and apathy about the real cost of its energy-addiction. “Can you imagine,” I asked him, “a few years from now, if worse comes to worst and the oil spill spreads to the Gulf Stream? Beaches all up and down the east coast could be polluted, whole segments of the population that depend on clean oceans and the creatures that live in them could be in jeopardy. The Everglades might never recover. And that’s just from this one spill. Who knows how many other poorly-designed and dangerously-run rigs might collapse next year, next month, tomorrow?” His response, though full of concern, was simple, “When was the last time I was at the beach?”

At first, such an answer seems selfish. It is easy to feel angry at exactly that kind of socio-cultural narcissism that says if it doesn’t affect me directly, then what’s the big deal? But hearing not dismissal, but resignation in my coworker’s voice gave me pause. I believe a deeper problem lies at the root of this attitude of indifference: one of access and luxury. In other words, a problem of class.

When tragedy strikes like lightning out of a threatening sky and the Tower comes crashing down on our heads, we routinely understand the experience as shattering to the ego, forcing a recognition of our arrogance and a fundamental reevaluation of our priorities. If we happen to be lucky enough, that is, to live in the Tower. Such was the effect I expected the oil leak to have on the energy politics in this country, hoping for at least some good to come of the seemingly unstoppable monster rising from the deep and creeping towards land. But increasingly, a large segment of the population in this country live cut-off both from the natural world and from the benefits of exploiting its resources, while the rest of us have come to treat nature as a luxury, which we can feel free to enjoy or ignore according to personal taste.

Only thirty years ago, my parents could make the trip, although young and almost broke, to experience the Everglades in person. Now, both financial instability and changing cultural expectations have turned such a journey into little more than a pipe-dream for many of my coworkers and others of the working class. People work harder and for longer hours than they did only a few decades ago, while technological innovations like computers, cell phones and video games have quickly come to dominate our concept of “recreation” or down-time. Though the neighborhood I live and work in is wedged between the two largest parks in the city, those I see there most often during my hikes have driven in to ride their thousand-dollar bikes or walk their pure-bred dogs, while my coworkers head for the bar or the casino, or stay home to watch television. This is a class division that exists not only because of financial resources, but because our cultural norms have transformed these pockets of nature — whether they are city parks, national wildlife preserves, or the vast stretches of ocean spanning between continents beyond country borders — into luxuries. And when nature is a luxury, you can take it, or leave it.

Loving the Earth

As a Pagan, the natural world rests at the heart of my spiritual practice, but as a pacifist I feel compelled to turn a critical eye on my own relationship with the earth and its ecosystems to ensure I have not come to rest comfortably with the notion of nature as a luxury item, a religious accessory. To treat the natural world as a commodity or convenience, even if a soul-nourishing one, would be to demean or reduce it, to deny its power, to dishonor it in all of its gory, glorious complexity. In other words, to view the natural world as a luxury is to commit a particular kind of violence against it. We have seen the very real ramifications of this subtle violence in the past few weeks. Few of us today live in a world where we must face the harsh obstacles of untamed wilderness, though many of us are daily confronted with the burdens and injustices of civilization. It can be as hard to care about the tragedies affecting fish and birds a thousand miles away, as it is difficult to appreciate nature in our own backyards for more than its aesthetic and therapeutic qualities.

Yet it is my conviction that in order to remedy our abusive, exploitative relationship with the very earth that sustains us, we must learn again how to live as part of the natural world with awe, with reverence, and with love. It is easy to feel a tug of pity as I watch the pathetically struggling gull gasping in slime, or to feel sentimental regret over the thought that my partner and I might never be able to follow in my parents’ footsteps and see the Everglades as they once were. But there is real sorrow, and rage, when I think on the human species as an animal of nature in its own right, capable of selfishness, ignorance and destruction on such a scale. Confronted with this reality, and the reality of the natural world as itself bloated with strife and death, I swing between despair, and the ugly wish that Mama Earth rid herself of us once and for all and get on with her life. The only thing that can resolve this for me — the only way I can make peace with this reality of the natural world — is through love.

To seek the beauty and balance in the cycles of creation and destruction, life and death, to acknowledge a joy that permeates and lifts up these moments of desperation and depression — this is not a simple task. There is something disingenuous, even dishonest, about those who would criticize a view of the natural world as beautiful and awe-inspiring because it is “superficial” or naïve. Without a capacity to see the beauty within destruction, to seek the spirit and meaning by which we might better live our lives, it becomes all too easy for us to shrug our shoulders at our own acts of violence and dismiss them as “only natural.” But we do not love the natural world because it is lovable. We love the world because we have a bone-deep need of it, a longing to be whole.

This need gives the lie to all issues of energy politics, luxury and class. How capable are we of sustaining or excusing the activities of organizations like Halliburton or BP in the face of this need? How can we dispassionately weigh the luxuries of a few more years of cheap energy against it? How can we deny it in ourselves and in others, expecting high-definition televisions and three-dimensional fantasy worlds to be adequate substitutes? It is in accepting, bearing witness to and celebrating this need, this love, I believe, that we might take the first step towards redressing the abuses our culture has so long practiced and restoring ourselves to sanity as animals of nature.

  20 Responses to “Nature, Blood and Luxury: Reflections on the Gulf Oil Leak”

  1. Photographs courtesy of The Huffington Post.

  2. They need to seriously look more into this and do more~ not just on this tragic spills but also preventing it to repeat itself

  3. I fear the denial of our destructive actions and the consequential neglect of the graves we are digging for not only human begins but for all beings, has become so very much a second nature to us that many of of don’t see any problem; and the ones that recognise the problems only have the choice between mourning or accept our brutality and live to the max as long as possible.
    The Love you are talking about is a trans-personal, all compassing one. Not many of us are capable of feeling this Love, where love has become very much an expressing indicating the problem of who you will sleep with tonight. Who still can love the rain, a tree, or an idea of Oneness of all beings?
    In my own little way I try not to become a cynic, but it is a depressing time we are living in…

  4. In my gloomiest moments I think that, a few open-pit mines apart, the sum total of human technological civilization will be a layer in the rocks, like the boundary dividing time before and after the meteoric hit that ended the dinosaurs (possibly excepting birds), with many life-forms gone extinct and Nature again slowly filling suddenly vacant ecological niches with new species.

    • The “Darwin Awards” are just some humans’ attempt to describe what Mother Nature does totally naturally.

      The species which so fouls its own nest that it makes itself extinct, is allowed to do so, having thus proven itself unfit for survival.

  5. @Baruch – it isn’t often I hear others with this line of thinking. I’m certainly not going to defend the actions of humans in regards to the destruction of our environment. I think that just like wanting to keep your own individual homes clean and in good working order, we should all want to treat our entire home (ie the planet) with respect. That being said, I do think that the Earth will go on turning. Something else will take our place when we are gone and it will change, but Earth will survive with or without us. Sometimes I think the environmental movement is more about saving our *own* butts than about saving the earth.

    • Laura, I think you’re right (or at least, I hope you are) about life continuing on after the human species has fallen by the wayside – though with the invention of plastics, I worry that the mark we leave may be much longer-lasting than any previous species so far in the planet’s history.

      On the other hand, I think that reverence for nature must also include a reverence for our own place in nature and a recognition that we, too, are “children of the Earth” and thus worthy of reverence. Otherwise, we resort to the same kind of dualism us-vs-nature that so easily gives rise to abuse. The attitude that would have us sit back and secretly hope humans will just die off quickly and harmlessly, though it’s one I can sympathize with in more depressing moments, seems to me to have a certain fundamental pessimism about it, a basic lack of self-respect. How can we really live up to our response-abilities when it comes to living gently with and on the Earth, when we can’t even respect ourselves enough to want this kind of healthy relationship?

      I think that’s what worries me most – not the idea that the Earth needs us to “save” her, but the more cynical view of humanity as cut off at the root from the Earth and not worthy or capable of “being saved” ourselves. If we hold reverence for the Earth, then at some point we’re going to have to admit that we, too, evolved here and, in some strange way perhaps we don’t understand, we belong here… and then start acting like it, instead of like abusive invaders and arrogant conquerers.

      • Once subduction of all of today’s surface tectonic plates has happened, the new surface will be totally scrubbed clean of the detritus of human societies and their hubris.

  6. Something that would help hugely is more shift in the attitude that vehicles, the bigger the better, are not only a status symbol and a marker of adulthood, but a sacred part of the American identity. There’s been progress in the last decade, but we need much more. This mindset has been built up and heavily developed by advertising and marketing in the same way that appliance retailers pumped the “nuclear family in every house” vision in order to sell more stock. Advertising sets the standard for social norms more than anything else in this country, even religion, and advertising has imprinted the idea that smaller cars, biking for any reason other than exercise, public transit, and just walking are for deadbeat losers who can’t manage to get hold of a car.

    Around here, especially in the last 20 years or so, getting a car when you hit sixteen has replaced any other coming-of-age ritual we may have had. Many job applications not only ask if you have a car, but require the year, make, and model, and if it’s not what they consider a “reliable car”, it may count against you getting the job. Smaller, more fuel efficient cars are for high school girls, not real men, and only no-account poor people (or Black and Hispanic people among bigots) and muggers ride the bus. Cars are seen as the heart and soul of America, and attempts to diminish them in size or status is packaged as unpatriotic.

    All this serves the auto and petroleum industries really well, goshdarnitwhodathunk. I know that change is expensive, and can put jobs in jeopardy. I also know that selfish, greedy fatcats and others who don’t want the status quo shuffled can spin that reality to make it look more unpalatable and non-functional that it really is for their own benefit.

    People are going to need to start thinking in “seven generations” mode, instead of just how something may or may not affect them personally, right then. The last time I was in a conversation with a couple of people where I said as much, they assured me they were much too smart to be mindlessly sucked in to the Socialist Lie like I had been, and to go indoctrinate someone else.

    • I think your description of the role of cars in this culture is dead-on, Snoozepossum. I was probably not as affected by it, being female in a culture where “getting your first car” is much more a male’s rite of passage, but even I still get funny looks when I explain to people that not only do I not own a car (and I walk or bike for miles some days, just for the pleasure of it), but I haven’t driven one since I was seventeen. And I do know that the company I work for won’t promote people to any kind of “managerial” level unless they have a car.

      Sometimes I think the best lie you can tell a person is that they’re just too smart to have to change their minds. It’s so effective, precisely because we’re all so eager to believe it!

  7. “…in order to remedy our abusive, exploitative relationship with the very earth that sustains us, we must learn again how to live as part of the natural world with awe…”
    Ali, you can start by setting us all an example and stop using a computer. You know, the one you just used fully aware its existence is solely dependent on abusively exploiting the earth, in some ways much worse than merely extracting oil, with many of its components incapable of ever being recycled. We expect your next posting to be your last and your next diatribe given as a lesson while standing on a street corner. Naked. I’m really wanting to find out how you plan to live as part of the natural world without being hunted down and eaten alive or, at the whim of nature, starving or thirsting to death or dying of exposure. May the gods see you.

    • Haakon, I do apologize for not responding sooner – for some reason I did not receive your comment until today.

      Since the general form of your argument is so very common, it turns out I’ve already written a response to it: please see paragraphs 11 – 21 in this post (which began as a discussion about house cleaning and spiritual cleansing but quickly expanded into a close analysis of several very common, logically-flawed counter-arguments that tend to crop up around controversial issues – the one you use here is what I call “the fallacy of similarity” which stems from a deep fear of hypocrisy in a culture that assumes a classless and totally free society).

      The personal vitriol of your comment in particular, however, does make me wonder what your real concern is…. Since there are certainly people who have followed precisely the advice you give (some of them writers I greatly admire, whom you’ve probably never heard of – otherwise you would know that people can both survive and contribute meaningfully to discourse while living “off the grid,” even if that is not how I choose to pursue my own aims at this time), it does seem like your goal is more the marginalization of voices of dissent than it is honest concern for what will help the planet.

      Did I write something that hit home?

  8. [...] Shaffer at Pagan+Politics, looks at our tendency to see nature as a luxury instead of a necessity, and that we need to recommit now more than ever to changing our relationship with the Earth. “Yet it is my conviction that in order to remedy our abusive, exploitative relationship with [...]

  9. I agree that the Deepwater Horizon spill is a very serious environmental issue.

    However, crying wolf over it and making exaggerated statements does not help the discussion. It only further polarizes both sides and gives the other side ammo to discredit you .

    First, this spill is dwarfed by the Ixtoc I spill in the Gulf in 1979. Ixtoc I spilled an estimated 3M barrels of oil. This makes it the second largest oil spill in history, right behind the Iraqi oil spill caused by Saddam Hussein in 1991. There is a huge variance in the numbers given for the DH flow, but at the ranges quoted it would take somewhere between 90 to 600 days for the DH spill to surpass the Ixtoc I spill.

    Can you imagine a few years from now, if worse comes to worst and the oil spill spreads to the Gulf Stream? Beaches all up and down the east coast could be polluted, whole segments of the population that depend on clean oceans and the creatures that live in them could be in jeopardy. The Everglades might never recover.
    Given the rate of spillage and the size of the area you propose, how would this happen? Oil does not spread out infinitely, and it degrades over time (it actually degrades much more rapidly in the warm Gulf waters than, for example, in Alaska). Discuss possibly damage in Louisiana and the precious wetlands there, as well as the local fishing areas. These are very real and serious concerns. But proposing that the oil can flow out infinitely along the entire East Coast does not follow any reasonable scientific justification and belittles the real issues of local damage.

    Who knows how many other poorly-designed and dangerously-run rigs might collapse next year, next month, tomorrow?”

    Historically, the Five Worst Blowouts are:

    Well Comments Volume Released
    1. Sedco 135F and the IXTOC-1 Well In 1979, the IXTOC-1 blowout flowed uncontrollably in the Bahia de Campeche, Mexico until it was capped 9 months later. 3,500,000 barrels
    2. Ekofisk Bravo Platform Phillips Petroleum’s Ekofisk B platform experienced an 8-day oil and gas blowout in 1977 during a production well workover. 202,381 barrels
    3. Funiwa No. 5 Well Oil from the 1980 Funiwa 5 blowout polluted the Niger Delta for 2 weeks, followed by fire and the eventual bridging of the well. 200,000 barrels
    4. Hasbah Platform Well 6 Drilled in 1980 by the Ron Tappmeyer jack-up, exploratory well No. 6 blew out in the Persian Gulf for 8 days and cost the lives of 19 men. 100,000 barrels
    5. Union Oil Platform Alpha Well A-21 The 1969 Union Oil Platform A blowout lasted 11 days but continued leaking oil into the Santa Barbara Channel for months afterwards. 80,000 barrels

    So including DH, this is 6 significant sea-based well blowouts between 1969 and 2010, so you can either (1) using pure averages, estimate it will be about 6+ years between such an accident, or (2) note the last major blowout happened 30 years ago, indicating wells are getting much safer and it may be another 30 years before another such major accident, not ”next month, tomorrow”.

    So please, if you want to be taken seriously and listened to and not look like you’re an eco-nag crying wolf, try to make more reasonably factual statements about the spill and its consequences.

    You want a more nuanced discussion? Try Can an oil spill really be cleaned up?

    And statements like This justification — weighing meager economic benefit against the devastating cost to life and health of millions of living creatures, human and nonhuman alike are not useful. The world economy, whether you like it or not, currently depends on oil. Yes, we need to change it, but either trying to deny it or insist on immediate changes simply won’t work. See what happens when you try and gas goes over $4 a gallon. It is not some ‘meager economic benefit’. Nor do problems in the Gulf, as much as I personally love it, represent a serious threat to mankind as a whole. It’s much like, perhaps, Haiti. A great local tragedy for those involved, but it is not a global threatening issue. Try to make a more balanced comparison between the two, please.

    Only thirty years ago, my parents could make the trip, although young and almost broke, to experience the Everglades in person. Now, both financial instability and changing cultural expectations have turned such a journey into little more than a pipe-dream for many of my coworkers and others of the working class.
    Say what? I have friends who have made such journeys recently; going cross-country on little to no money, sleeping in their cars, and seeing the glories of the US. Why is now any different? I have a friend even now on her way to NY state on such a journey. Don’t try and tell her that her concept of recreation is dominated by cell phones and video games. And the parks near me as recently as last weekend are still full of people of all socio-economic classes enjoying nature (at least when the weather is good ;-) ).

    • Wooly, obviously your experiences in some respects differ sharply from my own, which I can certainly appreciate. I think in general it is still accurate to observe that the use of technology as entertainment among all classes has increased dramatically in the last generation, and that the amount of land not being utilized as urban/suburban space has most definitely shrunk. Your local parks may be quite crowded – but trying to fit even the same percentage of a larger population into a smaller area will give the appearance of a crowd. Furthermore, my point about taking nature as a luxury isn’t necessarily contradicted by higher park attendance, in the same way that an assertion that the personal iPod is a luxury item isn’t necessarily contradicted by an increase in iPod sales.

      In the end, though, I simply do not agree with your opinion that to talk about the direness of a situation is detrimental to the process of solving these environmental abuse problems. I certainly never claimed this was the worst spill/leak in history, though it is the first one that I have experienced as a concerned and informed adult myself. In addition, the hyperbolic language I used when discussing the “worst case scenario” of the disaster while at work in order to express my frustration is, in any case, supported by articles that Jason has quoted in his recent post over at The Wild Hunt.

      But in the end, a wolf is a wolf is a wolf, and the fact that other spills in recent history “dwarf” this spill only makes the entire situation more horrific. What excuse does the previous generation have for having witnessed at least a handful of spills even worse than this one, and yet persisting in and even expanding on the wrong-headed thinking and consumerist lifestyle that are their cause? I do not believe that standing by as this proverbial wolf attacks and shaking our heads saying, “O, well, you should have seen the wolf we had last year” is a rational response at all, mostly because I do not mistake cool dispassion alone for rationality. We should not be subjecting the planet to this kind of abuse at all, let alone accepting it as par for the course that such terrible spills occur on a fairly regular basis.

      This is exactly my point – this should not even be a debate. There is no excuse for turning a blind eye to the terrible consequences of our dependence on oil, simply because it happens so often. The frequency of such spills is precisely why we need to wake up, and why those of us who do care deeply should not be afraid of expressing that care strongly and passionately. These things do matter, and it does not serve the Earth or ourselves to “play it cool” simply so others will not feel uncomfortable about our distress and frustration. We should be at least as disturbed by and passionately responsive to this oil leak as we were the earthquake in Haiti, if only because this is one tragedy that we certainly could have and should have avoided.

      You may see my response as “crying wolf,” but I believe it is vital – to our own psychological health as well as to the health of our living planet – to bear witness to our sorrow and grief and frustration, to voice our rage as well as our hopes, to allow ourselves to feel deeply about these events. Only if we care deeply, and support one another in that capacity to experience such care, will we have any reason at all to change the way we live. Statistics alone will not convince anyone. I appreciate your perspective, but I cannot agree that responses such as mine should be censored or silenced. If others would dismiss me merely for caring deeply and expressing myself honestly, that is a flaw on their part, not on mine.

      • What excuse does the previous generation have for having witnessed at least a handful of spills even worse than this one, and yet persisting in and even expanding on the wrong-headed thinking and consumerist lifestyle that are their cause?
        Perhaps because, in the great scheme of all human life on the planet, one such spill every 30 years is such a small blip as to be minimal at the macro level.
        Perhaps “wrong-headed thinking’ depends on the point of view of the person and is not an absolute.
        All courses have risk. Go investigate the negative consequences of all alternative power sources. Compare them versus what we have with oil.
        I do not see wrong-headed thinking here, just acknowledgment that all choices have their risks and their downsides. You choose to focus just on one negative local consequence of the decision to use oil and provide no reasonable alternatives for the world to move to.

        This is exactly my point – this should not even be a debate.
        Why not? Are you so sure that your way is the One True Way™?

        And there should be no debate? Well, if you hold this opinion and believe there should be no debate, then how are you any better than the people on the far opposite side? Why should their One True Way™ be automagically wrong and your One True Way™ be automagically right? Because there can be no debate on the subject.

        to allow ourselves to feel deeply about these events.
        You can feel as deeply as you would want. There is a difference, however, between feeling deeply and debating a subject.

        but I cannot agree that responses such as mine should be censored or silenced.
        Please reread my comments. I never said you should be either censored or silenced. Au contraire! Discussion and debate is the entire point of this blog.

        What I said was exaggerations and misstatements do not help you reinforce your point. Suggesting you not “Cry Wolf” but rather suggesting a more informed, less exaggerated debate is a far cry from silencing you. Please keep this distinction in mind next time before you accuse me of trying to either censor or silence you or anyone else.

        • Wooly, you are drastically mischaracterizing my view, and I’m not sure if it’s on purpose or because you honestly don’t understand.

          Firstly, have you read any of the articles that I or Jason have linked to? Almost every descriptive statement about the nature of this oil spill in my own post is backed up by numerous citations from outside sources, including an article from several years ago bringing the lack of oversight and government regulation to the attention of the general public and even predicting some of the consequences of such failures. I’m not sure how you can accuse me of uninformed or exaggerated statements in light of this bulky list of resources. It seems to me that what is really going on is that you do not like my conclusions, and so you insist that I must have misunderstood something somewhere.

          Furthermore, when I say that “this should not even be a debate,” I do not mean this as a statement about the general purpose of debate (that’s willfully misunderstanding my statement based, apparently, on some assumption that I am a One True Way-ian… which is, frankly, idiotic if you have bothered to read anything I’ve written here or elsewhere). What I mean is that this situation is a kind of false dilemma, in which we are given two alternatives: learn to live more responsibly and reverently as part of this Earth, or slowly kill the Earth and thus ourselves with our on-going abuses. Obviously, to choose between responsibility and death is about as easy a choice as Eddie Izzard’s “Cake or death” bit about the Anglican Church. This is not a choice, in the same way that human slavery is not a choice. There is no line of reasoning that can support the continuation of abuses and indifference. We absolutely must rise to this challenge, or we will literally forfeit our ability to live on this planet, along with the ability of not a few other species.

          This is a far cry from claiming that there is only One True Way to live responsibly and reverently, and again, to accuse me of having made such a statement is about as ridiculous as saying I have not presented alternatives (please go back and read again the last four paragraphs of my post, under the subtitle Loving the Earth for clarification on both of these points). The discussion about alternatives in priorities and practice is certainly crucial, but it has to begin with an acknowledgement that our current priorities are warped and leading us in a dangerous direction. To clarify my own perspective: yes, all forms of energy production have their risks, especially when pushed to the extreme to support a bloated addiction to energy consumption. Ethanol fuel pushed to the extreme results in huge swaths of farmland being devoted to the environmentally-unstable monocultures of genetically-engineered corn. Wind turbines can cause noise pollution and disrupt the migration of birds. And don’t get me started on so-called “clean coal” alternatives. This is why, as I stated in my original post, we need to acknowledge our energy addiction as one of the primary causes for our continued abuse of the Earth, and to find ways of living more simply and gently on this planet, instead of pretending that our problems will be solved simply by developing some sort of replacement source of energy that can allow us to continue consuming at an unchecked rate.

          But ways of living simply and gently on the Earth are about as diverse as you can get, with every single person capable of finding the ways that they are uniquely suited to their individuality, their community and their local landscape. What works for one person in one location might not work for everyone, but if everyone works towards the same end goal of reduced consumption, guided by a sense of love and reverence, then it is certain that large institutions that rely on large groups of people not caring and not paying attention would be some of the first to falter and collapse. And like in any ecosystem, when the monster of monopoly collapses, it suddenly opens up room for new diversity in myriad small ways. My insistence on learning to live reverently on the Earth is, in fact, the exact opposite of proclaiming there to be only One True Way to solve the energy problem. People hoping that merely by weighing the pros and cons of every possibility and then choosing “the best one” with the fewest risks are barking up the wrong tree. There is no single solution, and in this case, yes, debate can be a distraction that serves to delay us from taking practical, immediate action to change our lives. As long as there might be some new technology around the corner that can save us, we have an excuse to keep living the way we live.

          But if we give up this idea that there might be One True Way, we can use discussion as an exchange of ideas about real, concrete changes that we can make – both in practice and in attitude, which was the focus of my post – right now, this very moment. We can change the conversation from “how do we support our current lifestyles” to “how can we change our lifestyles so that they are more sustainable.” Debating the pros and cons of different energy sources can only ever be second priority to questions about how we as individuals and communities use that energy, and in the service of what goals.

          Debating pros and cons feels much safer and more comfortable, because it doesn’t ask us to change until we’re sure we’ve got it right. But we cannot afford to wait any longer.

    • Wooly, please note: over the weekend, the news developed that the scale of the disaster is far worse than had been previously thought. (It looks to me as though BP is attempting to disguise and withhold information on the real scale of the disaster, at least until the spill goes below the fold… but that’s just me. Don’t know how I got this cynical.)

      Ali: “the notion of nature as a luxury item, a religious accessory”–perhaps the most chilling and (to our community) damning comment in the entire piece. It seems to me that few Pagans are willing to give more than lip service to real environmentalism. As long as we have pretty backdrops for ritual, do we care if we lose a few more species every year? If large expanses of the globe are being reduced to deserts with minimal species diversity?

      If BP commits an ecocide, will any of us notice, beyond an increase in the price of shrimp?

  10. Though I haven’t kept up with advances in either oil spill cleanup technology, or in the water pollution laws (aside from being very irked with BushCo’s deliberate non-enforcement of existing laws) since I got out in ’82, I can tell you that for those of us Coasties in the field working spills it becomes very personal every time we encounter things we are not allowed to do against either the spill, or the spiller. Laws are written by politicians or their industry owners, not safety experts. I think these handicaps are still preventing the EPA from releasing one or more of the Toxic Materials Regulations under the laws which originally created it, which they were supposed to have finished within a couple of years.

    I worked spills out of the Captain of the Port office in Albany, New York during my first experience, a small crew at the time. It was rare even back then for an entire week to go by without some kind of spill happening, but usually it was one or more small spills daily. In those early days of the 1972 FWPCA, we often had to write-up fire departments for flushing the gas from car crashes and other roadside spills down the storm drain into the river.

    Later I worked other spills out of the Marine Safety Office of Portland, Oregon. The number of spills was greater and more often, the number of Coasties whose jobs were directly involved with water pollution was larger, and the size of the larger spills were in a far larger range. Our office even had the odd experience of writing up the Rainbow Warrior for a batch of federal violations on one occasion it arrived in port.

    One of my biggest job frustrations was when it came to the hearings to assess the civil penalties against the spillers. In every instance at which I was in attendance, the assessed penalty was little more than a slap on the wrist with a boiled noodle, no matter the size and devastation caused by the spill.

    As for the ineffectiveness of trying to boom off a spill AT SEA, that’s definitely true. A small area of boom around a specific spill point, like a ship with a hole in a tank is one thing — not 100% effective but useful if there are no storms; but when a point source 5,000 feet down has all that distance during which the rising oil gets to exhibit that “oil floats on water” it also spreads out over an immense cubic volume, resulting in an area which no amount off boom can encircle.

    That the sea-currents below the surface of the Gulf are containing some of the spread is only as marginally helpful as it is temporary; no one has the slightest idea where and when it will exchange to a current which will bring it to the surface. If it is in a contained area of coastline, it might be possible to deal with. If it’s anywhere out at sea, all bets are off.

    So, that fluid-mechanics professor has assessed two of the points the leak is coming from. One at approx. 70,000 gallons per day, the second at approx. 25,000 gallons per day.

    That ain’t chicken feed.

    • Or was that “barrels per day” ??? I don’t remember for some reason.

      And in the oil industry, a barrel means a volume of 42 gallons