Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Earth is bleeding (Sunday Reflections for June 27, 2010)

“The Earth is bleeding.” Such words have become common as people try to describe the unfolding BP Gulf oil disaster. The live underwater video and pictures of oil on the ocean surface and washed up on shore (and now possibly coming down in rain) make the analogy almost an automatic one. Plus, we all know what unstopped bleeding means.

It’s often hard to judge or evaluate our experiences today because we are so surrounded by hype. The media constantly promotes this product or that event as amazing, unprecedented, record shattering, or “unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.” The use in movies of computer generated special effects have also numbed us to visual imagery and made it hard to judge what we’re seeing. Whereas in the past you heard people say of a movie, “It was so realistic!” today you’re more likely to hear people react to a dramatic experience by saying, “It was just like being in a movie!”

What’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico is no movie. Perhaps one thing helping make its reality more obvious is that this is one disaster Hollywood never imagined: a runaway undersea oil well. On the other hand, we are also having trouble understanding a human caused problem that can’t be fixed. When something breaks, we call in the scientists and engineers and they make the repair. In this case, however, we have watched helplessly for over two months as hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil pour into the ocean day-after-day. We are told a hoped-for but not guaranteed fix is still another two months away.

In the case of this genuine disaster, use any superlative you want and it won’t be hype. This is the real deal. It is a catastrophe unlike anything we have seen before. Yet as with any real disaster, words ultimately fail us. The experience hits us at too many levels and so imagery and poetry become more accurate than literal descriptions. “The Earth is bleeding.”

As when we are with a person seriously ill or dying, it’s hard to watch or be present for something we want to change but can’t. Undoubtedly there is already annoyance with this story that won’t go away and channel changing when it comes on TV. But in addition to frustration the Gulf oil disaster is causing another response: guilt, which is often disguised as anger.

The explosion and rupture of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig was not an accident. It was not an “oops” but the result of human error, fueled by corporate greed. Yet beyond the specific negligence of shortcuts and ignored warnings, there is another level of responsibility—yours and mine. That’s another reason we want this story to go away.

We’re all aware of the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels. While we may debate the degree of their effect, we know that putting smoke and gas into the air is not a good thing and this is only getting worse as more of the world industrializes. We’ve been less aware, however, of the problems of getting those fossil fuels. Coal mining has been going on a long time but recent fatal accidents have reminded us that even here in the US it is still a dirty and dangerous operation.

In contrast, oil drilling has seemed relatively benign. Now we know differently but it has actually always had its problems. The necessarily corollary of delivering oil has always been risky. Enormous ships filled with oil inevitably have accidents. We’ve also been learning that oil spills and ruptures are a common occurrence in many Third World countries lacking government regulation and a watching media. The new factor now is that much of the “easy” oil is gone. Regardless of whether the world is running out of oil or not, increasingly the oil that remains is in places harder to get to and therefore more expensive and dangerous to extract. President Obama approved new offshore drilling this spring having been told that new technology made deepwater operations safe. We now know this information was tragically wrong.

“The Earth is bleeding.” Watching the live video of the ruptured well pipe, it looks like an artery has been cut and is hemorrhaging uncontrollably. I think this is an image we need to stay with, as discomforting as it is. We are being reminded yet again that the Earth is our home. We are part of an integrated eco-system. Like our own bodies, an injury or illness in one place inevitably impacts the whole.

The Gulf of Mexico is huge yet this massive pollution will drastically disrupt the delicate ecological balances and interrelationships it contains. Its impact on people of the Gulf region will be severe and it consequences could well spread out far beyond it. Whole species may well be wiped out, not to mention the heartbreak of seeing countless individual animals drowning in oil.

There have been many signs and warnings in recent years that our world is changing. As with inevitable changes in our own lives, we are usually faced with the choice of either being helpless victims of these changes or of planning for and adapting to them. When the changes seem unpleasant or too disruptive, we are always tempted to ignore them—usually with unfortunate consequences.

Perhaps the BP Gulf oil disaster will be the last warning which we finally respond to. Hopefully, the gushing oil will be stopped by the end of summer and the pollution consequences will be minimal and mostly reversible. Yet the costs of this catastrophe will be large and paradoxically that, in the long run, may be a good thing. Because watching this undersea hemorrhage, watching oil-soaked birds’ pathetic flopping, watching children on the beach crying to their mommies “Get this stuff off of me!”, watching fishermen breakdown in tears as their livelihoods disappear—perhaps watching all this and much more will finally convince us, it’s time to make a change. “The Earth is bleeding.”

No comments: