Monday, June 21, 2010

What Are We To Learn From Oil Spill?

Like a lot of people, I have been greatly troubled by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The first morning that I woke up to the news about the accident and the spill, I took notice, but on the second or third morning I woke up distinctly alarmed upon hearing that they had still not stopped the spill. "That's bad," I thought, sitting up in bed. "It already was bad, but this is really bad." I had the uneasy feeling that if they had not stopped it yet, maybe they really didn't know how.

Little did I know that we would still be watching with horror a full two months later.

There are lots of obvious lessons we already can learn from this, and I will not re-hash those. Instead, I thought I would share some thoughts I have not heard widely articulated (although it might just be that I have missed them).

1. Have we finally encountered a technical problem we simply cannot solve?

Ok, I have heard this view articulated a little, but I would like to reflect a bit on this anyway. To some extent, it is true in the present. We haven't solved it. Obviously, a lot of people greatly want this problem solved -- and some of those people have great power and resources available to them. Yet, the spill goes on. So, it is true that we cannot solve it -- yet.

But what are the reasons? It might be that the solution is out there -- perhaps submitted by someone or some group, but not yet considered by those who are processing the suggestions that people have sent in. Perhaps they even did consider it, but rejected it.

Or, perhaps the solution is out there and is even in the queue for future implementation -- after other suggestions are tried first.

Or, perhaps the solution (something that we humans could implement that would really work) has not been thought of by anyone yet. Will someone finally think it? Will that be a person who can get the idea heard by those who have the power to implement it? Will those in power be perceptive enough to see that it would work, and will they choose to try it?

Or could it even be that this just is impossible for humans to fix?

Mixed into my comments above are really two questions: (1) can humans technically solve this problem? (2) are our social systems organized effectively enough that if someone does find a technical solution, it can be identified and implemented?

2. Money and power are not enough.

I think this is a striking example of how money and power alone are not enough to solve all problems. We also need good ideas. These cannot simply be commanded.

3. Money is strange.

Something else that has really struck me is how calm BP seems to be about the money issue. All along, they've calmly said, "We'll pay," and tried to assure everyone that the company itself is in no grave danger from this setback.

I don't know what to make of this.

First I consider the possibility that they mean it. But if they do, if their fortunes are so vast that they can afford (a) the wasteage of their resource, (b) the money to try to stop the spill, (c) the money to clean up, and (d) the money to help out everyone who has economically suffered from this -- if all of this is truly no problem, then maybe they are not as worried about it all as the rest of us wish they were! Maybe that's why the problem is not being solved faster. Maybe it's par for the course for them. "These things happen; we'll figure it out eventually and will be able to afford it..."

But then my next thought is to be absolutely amazed at the thought of their having so much money. Why do they have so much money? All around me, I see financial worries. I see jobs being cut, programs being cut. For mysterious reasons that no one seems to understand, money seems to be evaporating. And, yet, a company like BP claims to be able to cover the huge expense of this oil spill no problem.

Is that where all the money has gone? It got sucked up by huge, profitable companies?

What would have happened to all of that money if the explosion and oil spill had not happened? Would it have stayed locked away wherever it was it had been hiding?

Why have we let our economic system evolve to this? Why do some individuals and some companies have huge amounts of money while others struggle to survive -- and some do not make it?

Of course, we have to consider the other possibility too: maybe BP is lying (or is self-deceived) about how much it really can afford. Maybe it's talking the talk but when it comes down to it will show itself unable to walk the walk. Then what?

4. It's not just about money, anyway...

Yet, the problem is not just an economic one. The health and well-being of many living organisms and ecological systems is at stake. This includes, but is not limited to, humans. The long-term environmental consequences remain unknown.

5. Theological perspective

As I ponder this situation and pray about it, I find myself explaining to God, "Look, we humans can be greedy, prideful, and misguided, but even in this we didn't really mean the harm that we have caused. We're just trying to tap into energy sources to fuel all of our activity, creativity, productivity. Is the earth so fragile that we puny creatures can really puncture a hole that turns into a mortal wound for the entire planet? Or, even if so, can it really be true that we have the power to create a problem that we lack the power to solve? Why should we have the power to create a fatal problem, and lack the power to solve this? Would You really have made us this way?"

And so I find my worry about this situation to potentially be a kind of faith crisis. What do I believe about the planet -- is it that fragile? What do I believe about human nature -- are we flawed in that way (able to create fatal problems we cannot solve)? And, deeper than all of this, what do I believe about God -- the kind of Creator and Sustainer that God is, the kind of Love God has for us?

And so when I arrive to these questions in my prayers, I find myself reassured. Yes, the problem is serious, but we must not give up. I've looked at video images and diagrams myself, wondering if I could learn enough to offer helpful suggestions. I've hoped that, even if not, my putting some thought in that direction may somehow summon the powers of our collective consciousness and help someone better trained than I in such matters to find a solution. I find myself believing in the power of prayer, for how it might aid the flow of ideas and insights within this shared mental space of collective consciousness. I try as well to summon the healing powers of the earth itself.

There is much that we can and urgently need to learn from a situation like this. I do wish that we could figure out how to live with better environmental sensitivity and care. I do think our exploitative attitude towards the natural world is problematic. I worry a lot that we have created a system in which we are becoming subservient to the care and feeding of monstrous systems that do not in fact take care of us and support our worthy goals, but serve only to benefit those who are already wealthy and powerful. For the collective spiritual well-being of all of us, as well as for the physical well-being of all life on the planet, we do desperately need to make changes.

And so I look for signs that this event might be a wake-up call. Maybe we can survive it and learn from it. Maybe it will inspire the kinds of changes that will help us to live more harmoniously with the natural world and with each other.

This is my prayer -- a prayer for a solution, and for redemption.


  1. Very thoughtful response. Thank you. I appreciate someone who took the time to think about things rather than give the knee-jerk reactions that are so much of the response to this tragedy.

  2. Interesting post. I do wonder if BP does have vast amounts of money locked, and if so, why we can't ask how it is that they have so much and others so little?

    I too have to trust in a creator God who fashioned an earth that will heal. I know that when I was in junior high school, we were told it would take 1,000 years for Lake Erie to be restored and later, when Mt. St. Helena blew up, that the area nearby would be a devastated wasteland. In both case, nature (God) restored, but I do wonder how many times we can jump from the tower and expect angels to save us.

  3. Thanks for your comments!

    My two big wishes: that as a global community, we give high priority to taking care of the natural world, and that we come to re-think our relationship to money -- using it to serve the goal of equitable distribution of resources (instead of thinking of money as a goal in itself).