There’s no fixing this – the Gulf and its lessons

Posted May 24th, 2010 in Blog, Featured 9 Comments »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

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Like any death, or fatal diagnosis, there comes the time of acceptance, the moment when it really sinks in. It is often accompanied by deep sorrow and depression.

You can feel that coming in regard to the Deepwater Horizon BP/Transocean/Halliburton oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s making grown men cry, tough men, guys who have made their living off the coasts and in the waters, the kind who work hard for a living, manual labor, proud work – for example, providing shrimp and fish to our grocery stores.

Biologists, environmentalists, birders, artists and writers, who love the coastal waters, the wildlife, the cultures along the Gulf – grief is descending life a rock in a well, the well that is one’s heart.

Nearshore surface oil forecast May 24 - NOAA

Worst part about this now is that it is more than coming to terms with the extent of the damage already done – it’s that we don’t even know when this will end, how bad it is really going to be.  But I have heard scientists say this oil could make it all the way to Europe. And, like you, I have seen the oily pelicans stumbling around the oil-soaked marshes.

Then there’s what we cannot see – yet. What we will come to know soon (because researchers are looking at this now) is that vast amounts of oil are spreading through the depths of the gulf waters impacting fish and phytoplankton, oil that will get into the food chain, oil that will settle on the sea floor and kill everything.

Here’s another stunner – the extent of the oil now over the Gulf  surface could actually impact the severity of hurricanes this season. Because of the dark brown goo, the water will absorb more heat, and it is the heat of the gulf waters that provide so much energy to these storms.  Imagine if the region is unlucky enough to have a direct hurricane hit on these fragile wetlands already being bathed in oil and toxic dispersants.

Before all this happened, erosion from years of the oil industry’s presence in the delta, from the over-engineering of the Mississippi River that disrupted the flow of sediment to replace what is naturally lost each year (the delta is ever-sinking), these forces had already brought a situation in which marshes and wetlands were/are literally falling apart, losing about a football size chunk every half hour.

Not only a magnificent ecosystem, but entire ways of life and cultures built around it are being lost.

Of course, these wetlands are also the principal barrier between hurricanes and the City of New Orleans, buffers that tend to weaken the storms before they hit. New Orleans – not yet recovered from Katrina in 2005.

In my book, Living Beyond the ‘End of the World,’ A Spirituality of Hope, I wrote (and I have written here) that we will need to get used to disaster after disaster, shock after shock, because they will come steadily now and in greater number.  That is because we are reaching tipping points of many kinds, fed by the worst one, the tipping point of human hubris, of our belief that we can control the forces of nature with our greater and greater technological mastery.

NASA image May 22

We see the result – pouring out of the depths of the Earth into the Gulf of Mexico. We don’t want to acknowledge the limits of technology, that the forces of the planet will always be greater than our ingenuity, and that, in addition, there is human pride and greed and willfulness, and these will always be at work in whatever technology we create (think about that when you consider geoengineering, synthetic DNA, or genetically modified organisms).

One of the key questions I pose is how bad things will get before we reach the tipping point in consciousness, that point at which we say, “Oh my God, we have to stop this!” Already that tipping point is too late to salvage the planet we once knew, the one into which I was born 60 years ago.

We continue to stall and debate around global warming, and now all the indications are that this will be the hottest year every recorded. It would take the planet a century or more to respond to the severe cutting back of human greenhouse gas emissions and restore something resembling the atmosphere of my youth,  but we aren’t cutting back, we are, indeed, increasing emissions steadily.

What lessons have we learned? Since the wreck of the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 21, and despite Obama’s supposed moratorium on drilling projects, the Interior Department has granted 17 new drilling permits and 19 environmental waivers for the deep drillers in the Gulf.

We are being lied to, manipulated, fooled. Even this disaster will not stop the drilling or get this administration to back off from its commitment to drill more oil from deep under our seas. From John Broder in Saturday’s NY Times:

Put more starkly: the road Mr. Obama is sending us on to his dreamed-of carbon-free future will be slick with oil for many years to come.

They are doing this because they are trying to save our industrial-oil-based economy. They are doing this because they see the demise of US economic power if they do not. They are doing this to keep unemployment from rising exponentially if all our oil-based industries face a period for which they are not prepared – peak oil, the end of oil, the end of many industries based on oil. They are doing this to save investors, stockholders, and very powerful oil companies who are very big spenders in political campaigns.  They are doing this because there is a big loud individual rights movement, fed by a steady stream of right-wing talk radio hosts and shrill Fox News pundits, people who would have us believe that our most basic rights are about our right to consume what oil brings us, not what gives our lives dignity, justice or peace.

Harsh lessons.

What about us? What about those of us who love this planet, see what is coming, want to stop the horror, are willing to disrupt our lives and change how we live in order to salvage an Earth that can still recover from this, regenerate living systems, and still hold the human within them?

Wounded Earth - Mary Southard, CSJ

Well, the lesson we learn is how urgent our engagement is – and this in two directions: one is to work as we can to educate and advocate for the planet. When I see these folks along the Gulf getting choked up over what they are witnessing, I see advocates for the Earth. They have a relationship with that ecosystem and they feel that loss like the loss of life and loved ones that it truly is. With what eco-community are we in relationship? Do we know it? Are we familiar with the interlocking relationships that hold it in place and make it vibrant and alive? It is our job to stand up for it, to become its defenders and witnesses.  It is our home in which we are embedded.

Second, beyond our activism is the urgent need for active engagement in creating a new way of life that moves towards putting down our fossil fueled economies as gently as possible, with as much compassion and justice as we can muster, a way of life that can become ecologically, psychologically, and spiritually healing after a long period of abuse.


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9 Responses

  1. Marta V. Lyle

    Did anyone else see the front page article in the LAT Extra session (May 26) titled “Oil cleanup workers cite illness”. “The fishermen report severe headaches, dizziness, nausea and difficulty breathing”. The headline on the second part of the article reads “Workers lack protective equipment”. ” To Rikki Ott, a marine toxicologist who studied the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska, it’s “deja’vu.” “What we saw with Exxon Valdez was a parallel track — sick animals and sick people. Harbor seals were looking like they were drunk and dying…and autopsies showed brain lesions. What are we exposing these poor fishserman to?” Ott said.

  2. Margaret

    We are exposing them to some of the most toxic stuff in the planet, stuff that should never have been tapped and allowed to gush into the Gulf. You do wonder, don’t you, as these fisherpeople and others are signed up for clean-up jobs now as they lose their livelihoods. Is anyone telling them what’s in the goo, what they are breathing, what they are coming into contact with? How ’bout the BP CEO getting out alongside them? How ’bout the CEO getting his body in contact with this stuff?

  3. Steve Salmony

    Another lesson, I suppose.

    By their behavior many too many experts, thought leaders and opinion makers of all “stripes” have made it painfully clear that The Golden Rule is a churlish platitude only regarded positively by patsies, losers, n’er-do-wells and people trying to do the right thing. Everywhere arrogance, avarice and gold rule the world.

    Since the dawn of Century XXI we have witnessed the triumph, however much a Pyrrhic victory, of self-serving ideological idiocy and wanton greed as well as the defeat of the best available science by selfish Masters of the Universe who willfully choose to examine what could be real only when their patently unsustainable interests are served by doing so. And they call their utterly misguided wrongdoing God’s work.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

  4. Jason Crow

    I am really surprised that there is no mention of the Ixtoc oil spill of 1980. The parallels between today’s spill and that one are amazing. I have found very little about the spill except that the gulf recovered after a couple of years and that approximately 2 supertankers of oil bubble up naturally. I don’t know if its true, but it really doesn’t matter. The world is not going to change any time soon, and we are in for some rough times ahead. I’m still doing my part by making a smaller impact and I’m trying to raise my kids with an awareness of the connectedness of nature.

  5. Steve Salmony

    How long will the human community continue to ignore The Golden Rule and follow the greedmongers and their many minions among us who are relentlessly pursuing the easy “primrose path” of endless wealth accumulation and reckless environmental degradation while willfully ignoring the hard truths of our patently unsustainable and scandalously immoral behavior? The day has to come when the arrogant and most greedy no longer rule the world, I suppose. But I wonder what the world will look like when that day comes.

  6. hombredelatierra

    I have been doing some online research on the psychology of Global Warming (GW) denial. My rationale: “knowledge is power”, that is, control. Today, I was surprised by the utter amorality of the worldview of those dealing with social psychology and attitudinal change. The following quote is from a “good guy’s” site, someone attempting to shift public attitudes in a positive direction on environmental issues:

    “For example, people often do something new for reasons that don’t make much sense even to them – in response to advertising appeals they don’t actually believe, for instance. (Ads implying that using a particular product will give you sex appeal rarely convince people that the product will improve their sex lives – but they increase sales anyway.)”

    comment: this is standard adman psychology. Irrational (“Freudian”) motives – sex in this case – are stimulated / manipulated to produce desired behavior. You are essentially jerking people around by their Id..

    “New behaviors without intellectual support give rise to cognitive dissonance – so we seek out information to validate the behavior and reduce the dissonance. Thus, while information is a weak motivator to do something we haven’t done yet, it is a strong rationalizer and reinforcer to support something we just started doing.”

    comment: thus “reason” is replaced by “rationalization”. Can’t be more blatant than that..

    “In other words, it’s hard to get people do X for sound reason Y. If people aren’t doing X already, learning Y would create some dissonance, so they’d rather not learn it. But suppose you get them to do X for unsound reason Z – for example, by triggering an irrelevant motivator like sexuality. Now they’re actively looking for information to justify X. So telling them Y now won’t add to their dissonance, it will actually reduce the dissonance that doing X for reason Z has aroused.”

    comment: Boy! This would make Machieveli blush. And don’t forget, the author is one of the “good guys”, he wants to get people to mend their ways..

    “This gives rise to a very effective two-step persuasion strategy, grounded in cognitive dissonance. For example:
    Step 1: Switch to long-life fluorescent light bulbs (X) because your kid gets all bent out of shape whenever you use a traditional bulb (Z).
    Step 2: Learn about global warming (Y) and congratulate yourself on having reduced your carbon footprint to help save the planet.
    Between Step 1 and Step 2, of course, comes the cognitive dissonance: “Why am I letting my child harass me into changing what kind of light bulb I buy?”
    And then there’s a Step 3: Generalize your new understanding of climate change issues to a whole range of additional behaviors (ones your kid has nothing to do with), from what car you drive to what politicians you vote for.”

    comment: In other words he is arguing for playing a kind of ethical, intellectual, psychological “shell game” to get people to do what they ought to be doing out of self-respect, pride, concern for their children: you first get them to do something for the wrong (or “irrelevant”) reason and then deftly switch in the right reason to rationalize the behavior that was initiated for the wrong reason (and which is now causing them a guilty conscience). That’s twisted! – even if for a good cause..

    “Starting in the 1970s, I have developed many campaigns for environmental activist groups that followed exactly this structure:

    an irrelevant and intellectually unconvincing motivator to trigger a new behavior;

    cognitive dissonance aroused by not knowing any good reasons for the behavior;

    information to rationalize and generalize the behavior.”

    The fact that this is coming from a “white knight” suggest just how corrupt our system of values really is! That’s my take..

    The changes that need to be made will have to very deep, very profound indeed!

    I’d be interested in getting any feedback on this issue since I feel that the psychological, ethical, spiritual dimensions of our current ennironmental challenges are even more fundamental and critical than the technological and economic ones.

    Q: Can we use corrupt tools to fight corruption without ourselves becoming hopelessly corrupted in the process?

    Q: Does the end indeed justify the means? (if so, under what conditions..)

  7. Steven Earl Salmony

    Wonderful discussion. Let me add to the discussion of corruption.

    Whatever happened to intellectual honesty, individual responsibility and personal accountability? Such attributes are nowhere to be found in a corrupted culture in which gamblers and thieves of the highest order have their way.

    “Corruption is a tree, whose branches are
    of an immeasurable length: they spread
    Everywhere; and the dew that drops from thence
    Hath infected some chairs and stools of authority.”

    Beaumont and Fletcher,
    The Honest Man’s Fortune

    Perhaps the “tree of corruption” perniciously rooted in the global political economy and so much in evidence in our time casts a giant “shadow of greed” over the world we inhabit just the way oil darkens the Gulf of Mexico and infects Everything it touches.

  8. Steven Earl Salmony

    Another aspect of corruption…..

    Somehow I would like to clearly distinguish greed and selfishness on one hand from self-love on the other. There is no one I know better than the late Dr. Erich Fromm at making the case that real self love and love of others cannot be likened either to selfishness or greediness, but is something categorically different. Without such a distinction it becomes possible for deceitful thought leaders and opinion makers to ‘logically’ contrive that venal traits like avarice and selfishness are virtues. For example, they can extol greed as good.

  9. hombredelatierra

    Hi Steven,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments – good reading!

    I guess you agree with my gut level feeling when I read the text I quoted: if we stoop to the atrocities of an enemy, we are no better than he. Guantanamo Bay proved this.

    Stooping to the tactics of the adman and the GW denier does our cause no good in the long run, no matter how much we think we can gain in the short run. That’s how I see it. We must find a new Prophetic voice.