I Want My Earth Back

The oil spill. "I am overwhelmed by the post-apocalyptic sensory experience of a man-made disaster irretrievably destroying part of our country."

(I am quoting Rachel Maddow above, from her show last night. Please read the full quotes from her at the end of this posting. I think her comments are brilliant and chilling.)

The BP oil spill is heart-breaking and overwhelming.

But it also feels of a piece with the negative effects of corporations and big business throughout our country. The economic meltdown -- after years of weakening regulations and the unacknowledged change from investing in stock to gambling with stock -- seems oddly parallel to the BP environmental disaster.

I used the "I want my earth back" phrase in the title, of course, because I'm referring to the Tea Party-connected phrase of "I want my country back!" that was said a lot last summer during those hellish town meetings where people yelled at all the speakers, making any communication impossible.

I remember in particular one woman at these meetings who looked sort of like Joni Mitchell... her hair and thinness -- and she was so upset, weeping that she wanted her country back. It was early in the Summer of Shouting, and I wanted a reporter to ask her what she meant, what she was referring to, but they never did.

I have guessed and assumed that she believed the lies about supposed "death panels" in the health care bill, and thus was scared. And she probably was terrified of the word "socialism" the way my elderly aunt is.

My aunt is on Medicare (and is wildly grateful for it), and she lives in a federally subsidized senior citizens apartment building. She has no savings of any kind, and needs this help; and she is grateful for it.

But she doesn't think of it as "socialism"; and she listens to Fox News and believes that this "bad thing" socialism is about to happen if the country chooses to organize itself so our ad hoc, chaotic, no-size-fits-all insurance system can be simplified and made to work. (With luck.) My aunt isn't strong on analyzing things. And like many in our country, she is easily driven to upset emotion. Indeed, she accuses me of being logical, as if it's a bad thing.

Of course, that unhappy Joni Mitchell look-alike on the news may have had some other reason she felt she'd "lost" her country. But I'm forced to assume it's similar to those others who later did explain their feelings on television. People who seemed to actually think comparing Obama to Hitler made sense. Gosh, have they ever read anything about Hitler? And, gosh did they not mind when Bush took us to war under false pretenses? I guess they haven't heard that part of the story. Fox News didn't report it.

But we may have lost our earth. Or this is a moment where we can see we are clearly moving toward losing it. I do believe in Climate Change (the better term than "global warming"). But I have lots of Republican relatives who just say the earth has always changed climate over centuries and it has nothing to do with anything man is doing.

I'm reminded of the 1950s when my father, a smoker, would take me on the New Jersey Lackawanna train and bring me to the "smokers car." Everyone in that special train car smoked, and there were no windows that opened -- at rush hour it was like being bathed in smoke. Both of my parents smoked, so I as a child was fairly used to smelling smoke; though the train car experience was intense.

I sometimes think of our world like that train car.

All the oil and coal and so on that we Americans and the rest of the world keep burning is turning our big world into that small train car. Over time.

I have to drive through the Lincoln Tunnel a lot for my teaching and theatre work (usually by bus, sometimes by car). But the amount of cars going through that tunnel as opposed to how it was in the 50s and 60s is enormously changed. We are clogged. The streets of New York City are clogged. (It's one reason I moved to Pennsylvania. Though somewhat near Three Mile Island, laugh laugh. For those who don't recall or are too young to know, it was the location of a famous 1979 nuclear power plant partial meltdown and radiation leak.)

But the Oil Spill isn't only about climate change. It's about greed, it's about assuming the worst won't happen, it's about refusing to discuss how to wean ourselves from oil, which we're running out of and that is sold to us in large part by people who want to kill us.

Bob Herbert wrote an opening line in his New York Times op ed today that is inescapably true:

If a bank is too big to fail, it's way too big to exist. If an oil well is too far beneath the sea to be plugged when something goes wrong, it's too deep to be drilled in the first place.

Do you remember in the Gospels Jesus knocking over the tables of the money lenders in the temple? There is a moral equivalency between the financial meltdown and the BP oil spill, and the Jesus I believed in when I was younger would be angry at both disasters.

I'm no longer a traditional Christian believer, but many in the Tea Party are. I have never been a conservative, and so many of my liberal views in life are based on how Christianity seemed to me when I was a young man. Has any Republican read the Beatitudes lately? They're pretty significant, but you kind of have to be a saint to follow them. Republicans seem to have merged Christianity with ... well, laissez-fair capitalism. I don't think Jesus would approve.

I want to end this with a very full statement that Rachel Maddow made at the end of her program last night. She has been in the Gulf, seeing the results of the spill for herself. I think what she says is extremely articulate and extremely important. Please read it:

...The oil now coating wildlife and the beaches of this beautiful coast stinks. It stinks, it smells bad, it is filthy, it is slimy, it is sticky, it is toxic - even if Mississippi governor Haley Barbour wants to say that it's not... it is irredeemably foul, and it is everywhere.

And when you come upon it in person having only seen it on televsion, at least if you're me, you are overwhelmed by the post-apocalyptic sensory experience of a man-made disaster irretrievably destroying part of our country.

You are disgusted that BP put this ocean and this coast and the communities inland in jeopardy. Disgusted at the billions of dollars in quarterly profits that lined the oil industry's pockets and deepened their wells, and didn't do a thing to prevent this.

You are disgusted that the government let BP and the rest of the oil industry do that. Disgusted that American leaders screamed "drill, baby, drill!" without considering the consequences, all in the name of whoring themselves for a few votes during the few months that gasoline prices were rising.

Disgusted that the booms off this coast meant to protect it mostly aren't doing anything. Disgusted that those booms remain largely unmanned. Disgusted that there isn't much more to do, except maybe put more people here to try to make this totally inadequate technology try to work less horribly than it does.

This is not Hurricane Katrina. This isn't another Katrina, This isn't another anything. This is a whole new thing, happening to us. This is America's Deepwater Horizon disaster, we all own it forever.

And right now, right here in Grand Isle and all along the Gulf Coast, there are really only 3 things that matter: stopping the oil from flowing, protecting the coast and the ocean from the millions of gallons of oil that are already spilled, and making sure that this never, ever happens again.

You can diagnose whether we have a functioning media in this country by whether or not the country understands that this is a vile environmental mega-disaster. You can diagnose whether we have a functioning political system in this country by whether or not the results of this mega-disaster is change.

Big oil has been too rich to care about what it was putting us all at risk for. And we've been too cowardly to change direction and break free from them. If that changes because of our national disgust at this disaster, then America's political system in 2010 works. If it doesn't change, then it doesn't work.