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.