The Great Shame: America's Pathetic Response to the Gulf Catastrophe

A calamity is unfolding before our eyes -- the greatest oil spill in history -- and America's response is little more than a big yawn.
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Shame on us.

A calamity is unfolding before our eyes - the greatest oil spill in history - and America's response is little more than a big yawn.

Bob Herbert writes:

The vast, sprawling coastal marshes of Louisiana, where the Mississippi River drains into the gulf, are among the finest natural resources to be found anywhere in the world. And they are a positively crucial resource for America. The response of the Obama administration and the general public to this latest outrage at the hands of a giant, politically connected corporation has been embarrassingly tepid. ... This is the bitter reality of the American present, a period in which big business has cemented an unholy alliance with big government against the interests of ordinary Americans, who, of course, are the great majority of Americans. The great majority of Americans no longer matter. America is selling its soul for oil.

Where is the outrage? Where are the millions marching in the streets, where is the round-the-clock roadblock coverage tracking every moment of the crisis, every effort to plug the leak, every desperate attempt to mitigate the damage?

Where is the White House? Where are Republicans? Where are Democrats? Where is the left? Where is the right? Where is the "fierce urgency of now?"

Prominent oceanographers [are] accusing the government of failing to conduct an adequate scientific analysis of the damage and of allowing BP to obscure the spill's true scope. The scientists assert that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies have been slow to investigate the magnitude of the spill and the damage it is causing in the deep ocean.

In the movies, pretend heroes like Bruce Willis and Will Smith save the planet while the whole world watches with breath and belief suspended. In real life, a global catastrophe is treated like a mere annoyance, mismanaged by a rapacious oil company, while drill-baby-drillers double down on their folly and the White House puts out defensive fact sheets about how they were on it from "day one."

Is this really the best we can do?

America is capable of greatness -- but our reaction to this unprecedented event is anything but great.

In some parts of the country, the sight of oil drifting toward the Louisiana coast, oozing into the fragile marshlands and bringing large parts of the state's economy to a halt, has prompted calls to stop offshore drilling indefinitely, if not altogether. Here, in the middle of things, those calls are few. Here, in fact, the unfolding disaster is not even prompting a reconsideration of the 75th annual Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. "All systems are go," said Lee Delaune, the festival's director, sitting in his cluttered office in a historic house known as Cypress Manor. "We will honor the two industries as we always do," Mr. Delaune said. "More so probably in grand style, because it's our diamond jubilee."

Granted, some scientists are telling us the truth, some reporters are digging up unpleasant facts, some citizens are rising in anger, some federal agencies are doing what they are tasked to do. People are working to fix this. But by and large, America's collective response to this crisis is disproportionately anemic.

Leadership is virtually non-existent. Blaming BP for being greedy and destructive is the least we should do, not the only thing we do. We need to turn the tide once and for all against those whose ideological rigidity is ravaging the planet.

A month before the spill, I wrote about green-bashing:

Of all the wrongheaded ideas proudly trumpeted by America's right, anti-environmentalism occupies a unique position: it is at once the most devoid of a rational or moral foundation and the most dangerous. It is selfish, crass, illogical, willfully blind, a denial of the undeniable reality that humans are pillaging irreplaceable natural resources and spewing filth into the air and water and soil at unsustainable rates. Green-bashers stubbornly negate what is directly before them. There is no moral imperative underlying their belief (or lack thereof). It's about unbridled hostility at the suggestion that we must all make shared sacrifices. It's about refusing to acknowledge that the environmental movement has been right to sound the alarm. It's about laziness. And greed. And irresponsibility. And colossal shortsightedness. Green-bashing exposes the rot at the core of modern conservatism.

The Gulf disaster is a singular moment - an opportunity to bring the human race together to save itself, to protect its only home. This should be a rocket-boost for the environmental movement, a time to finally put to rest the notion that environmentalists are misguided alarmists, a chance to finally marginalize green-bashers and put an end to their fatal obstructionism. Instead, this grand debacle will gradually fade into the background once some political gaffe or sports game or celebrity scandal occupies us.

Lawmakers can say that the law mandates BP take responsibility for clean-up and costs; federal officials can list all the things they're doing to fix the problem; President Obama can launch as many fact-finding commissions as he sees fit. But we shouldn't be impressed that they are doing what we elected them to do - it's their job to deal with emergencies promptly and effectively. Far more is called for in this uniquely cataclysmic circumstance: a level of outrage, alarm, intensity and focus worthy of the size and scope of the spill.

We need, and must demand, boldness and resoluteness worthy of a planetary emergency - true leadership, rallying the nation and the world to action. Offense, not defense. We're not getting anything close to that from Democratic leaders. And from Republicans, far less.

The administration seems miffed and mystified that it is being criticized. After all, it can reel off dozens of swift actions taken in the aftermath of the spill. The White House's defenders want the spotlight aimed exclusively at BP. But this is a situation where body language and words are just as important as actions. Scheduling an 'angry' presidential news conference weeks after oil started gushing into the Gulf waters is exactly the wrong thing to do. Authentic anger isn't something you turn on for the cameras and leak to the press the previous day. Indignation and defensiveness are precisely the wrong message...

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs faced a barrage of questions at his daily briefing about why the federal government is not intervening to take over responsibility for the cleanup from BP. "Again, we are overseeing the response, OK?" Gibbs said just hours before the news about the commission broke. "I don't know what you think - we're - we're working each and every day. That's why Secretary (Steven) Chu - the Department of Energy - it sounds technical. The Department of Energy doesn't have purview over oil, oil drilling. That's not in their governmental sphere."

That this lame response from various quarters of the administration, Congress, the media and the public comes on the heels of a banner year of climate denialism is no coincidence. We are at an inflection point, one that will likely determine the fate of our species. Green-haters have been winning the message war, the all-important battle of public opinion. If those of us who want to salvage and protect our earth don't rise in righteous anger and use this moment to cement our case, then we have failed ourselves and future generations.

America is perfectly capable of extended, intense, undivided attention. Michael Jackson's death is a good example. But for some reason, the Gulf disaster can be sidelined by an offensive remark from Rand Paul or a meaningless debate over Elena Kagan's sexual orientation. And BP is taking its cues - America's apathy is their cover:

BP has told the Environmental Protection Agency that it cannot find a safe, effective and available dispersant to use instead of Corexit, and will continue to use that chemical application to help break up the growing spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP was responding to an EPA directive Thursday that gave BP 24 hours to identify a less toxic alternative to Corexit -- and 72 hours to start using it -- or provide the Coast Guard and EPA with a "detailed description of the alternative dispersants investigated, and the reason they believe those products did not meet the required standards."

Why has this unfolded so badly?

  • Democratic leaders have been blindsided by this spill, having just come out in favor of offshore drilling to appease Republicans.

  • The right, for the most part, is stuck in the 19th century, consumed by a manic hatred for anything green.
  • Oil companies are after one thing: money.
  • The press and punditry are busy chasing the story du jour.
  • Defenders of the administration are loathe to critique it, out of a sense of loyalty.
  • Consequently, we're left with a halfhearted and halting, shameful response to a profound tragedy.

    This isn't Katrina II, it's worse. As the oil keeps gushing and the damage keeps growing, we are squandering a rare chance to turn the tide against those whose laziness and greed and ignorance is imperiling every living thing on our wonderful and beautiful - and wounded - planet.

    Words are a necessary precursor to deeds, anger is an essential ingredient for social change. Speaking up and speaking out is the difference between apathy and action. 30 years of conservative message dominance is a function of the right's ability to master outrage. Now is the time for Democrats and progressives to muster (and master) the kind of outrage worthy of this calamity.

    UPDATE: Over at The Seminal, Rayne lists 11 steps the White House can take to deal with the spill and asks readers for more suggestions.

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