Dangers of unknown size and character send you ricocheting between complacency and alarmist panic. If attempts succeed to shut the leaking oil well’s valve, or if the magical dome manages to contain the spew on the seafloor, then the life of the waters and the shores will be largely spared, and the greatest tragedy of the BP blowout will be the eleven lives lost on the burned, sunken rig. But if the crude geyser continues erupting for months—apparently a genuine possibility—then consequences could follow that are literally beyond comprehension.
We stand near the mouth of Mobile Bay. Its shores are fringed with marshes, and from its head spreads the Mobile River delta, in the USA second only to the Mississippi delta in extent and in vitality as an incubator of marine life. What happens to that life if the oil gushes for months and if winds and currents drive it into the bay and up into the delta? Perhaps a wall of multiple booms across the mouth of the bay could stop this. But wouldn’t those booms also stop the ships that are the life of the waterfront in Mobile, one of America’s top ten ports by cargo volume?
If circumstances force a choice, what is the rational and fair principle by which to decide whether to save the marine life and the livelihoods that depend on it or to save the commerce of the port and the livelihoods that depend on it? No such principle is apparent. The decision would likely come from an unruly and bitter contention among interest groups, all of which foresee ruin for themselves if they lose this showdown.
Short of such an environmental and social calamity, it’s much easier to decide who should do whatever cleanup and recovery proves possible whenever the oil arrives here in whatever amounts. All in attendance today could not have gotten here without using in some form the petroleum products whose production mishap now threatens us all. But we are not all equally complicit in this mishap. For most of us these products are an inescapable daily feature of the society we inhabit. For a few of us they are the source of a paycheck that supports a family, with little leftover at the end of the month. And for even fewer, these products are a source of great wealth, luxury, and power from owning and controlling the global petrochemical companies. These same folks, or their families and associates, also tend to own and control the companies that rush in to seize the recovery contracts when calamities occur. Disaster capitalism it has been called. Such buzzards seeking road kill to scavenge are not needed or welcome here.
Instead, some people will volunteer to help. Others should be hired. Many in this vicinity lost jobs and homes to hurricane Katrina that have still not been restored. They have skills and equipment suitable for recovery work offshore and on. On the streets of Mobile and other nearby cities are thousands of the unemployed who should be hired. And they should all be paid by the reckless operators and owners who caused this crisis but who mostly live in safely distant places.
And after the runaway well is plugged and the restorative work is underway, the lessons learned must be implemented. During the Cold War, when mutual nuclear annihilation by the United States and the Soviet Union loomed as an instant menace, movies appeared expressing this anxiety. They had titles like The Thing That Ate the Bronx and The Blob.
But humanity looked at the rubble of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and realized that just because you’re capable of doing something does not mean you should or must do it. So no nuclear weapons have been used since then, and if this lesson holds, none ever will be used.
Technology has now spread our capacity for ruin to many other realms. The maps of the spreading oil slick in our news today look remarkably like that ravenous blob from the Cold War movies. But we don’t have to succumb to it, just as we don’t have to nuke ourselves if we decide not to.
The oil pouring from the well is like ink writing a lesson on the surface of the waters that we must learn. We must not do things simply because we’re technologically capable of them—at least until they go disastrously wrong. We must find other ways of providing the order and energy necessary for our lives. That’s what Mother Earth or Father God or Nature is trying to tell us by this approaching menace.
Use whatever name you prefer for this higher, incomprehensible power. But recognize and adopt the lesson it is trying to teach—before it gets fed up and issues us a final, flunking, terminal F.
DAVID UNDERHILL lives in Mobile, Alabama, where he is a Sierra Club member and occasional CounterPunch contributor. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org