This Is Your Society on Oil

I know why BP is lying to us. But why are we lying to ourselves?

This oil spill has become a blot -- not just a slick, deadly blot in our ocean, but a black spot on our vision so that we can no longer see the future, or the past, or even the present clearly. And it isn't just the spill we can't see, but oil itself.

BP, of course, is counting on this blindness. We can watch the oil blasting out of the broken pipe. But if we don't measure it, if we drop dispersants on it so it hides out of sight, they know we will forget it, even as it is happening. We will question whether the dead dolphins and turtles that washed up on shore might be entirely unrelated, since they were not (yet!) obviously suffocated by oil. We will forget that the oil is already in the water, as the Governor of Florida did when, on May 12th, three weeks after the rig exploded, he called for a marketing campaign to tout Florida's clean beaches. BP knows that it doesn't matter that the chemicals they are dumping into the oil are full of cancer-causing compounds and neurotoxins that might kill 25% of all organisms in their path, not to mention move up the food chain, because we will forget, or not make the connection, even if we are all growing two heads 20 years from now. They have seen from the Exxon Valdez spill that they can spend nearly two decades fighting against paying the tab and win.

The future is on their side, because the future is too overwhelming for us to think about.

Then there is the past. Who cares? Looking back is merely whining and Sunday morning quarterbacking. Plus, it's boring. We don't really want to have to sift through and assign blame to all the deregulation and grossly mismanaged oversight by previous administrations that allowed this to happen in the first place. Even that sentence is exhausting to read. The problem is now. The Obama administration is now. We want the spill stopped, and they are the people who are responsible, even if this just dropped in their laps and they don't have a clue how to do it. We want it to go away. We want it to have no effect, to never have happened; we want the oil that is continuing to impregnate our ocean after more than 50 days to never touch our white beaches, and if Barack "Whose ass do I kick?" Obama can't do that, we will blame him for everything he has done, and everything he hasn't done, both at the same time.

The problem with being blind to the past and the future is that the present is also too overwhelming, and too confusing, for us to see.

Consider Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour who blames the national press for scaring away the tourists who should understand, like he does, that the tar balls on the beaches "are no big deal." What about Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's protest against a moratorium on new permits and the suspension of already approved drilling projects because of a "potential" loss of up to 10,000 jobs? Just this morning, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu echoed that protest on the grounds that deepwater oil rigs "employ, directly, hundreds of people and indirectly thousands." These are the voices of local representatives for the people whose beaches are being covered in oil "like chocolate," "like pancake mix," where all the fisherman are beached, communities are suffering, an ecosystem that exists nowhere else on earth is effectively dead. Yes, lost jobs are terrible, especially in this economy, especially for these communities. But in what formulation of "now" does it make sense to blame Obama for hurting people (whose lives are now being ruined by an oil spill) by trying to ensure some protection against future spills?

It's like we are sitting in a car, driving down a road and we can see a brick wall in front of us. We are going to hit the wall. But this is the only car we have. This is the only road there is. We can't think about stopping the car, about walking, about making a new road. This is our car, this is our road, this is the wall. And so we crash.

Why can't we envision a life without oil? Why is oil such a given in our system, so much a part of our narrative, our identity, our way of understanding the world, that we can't imagine letting go of it?

Oil, as energy, is a newcomer to the history of man. We only drilled our first oil well about 150 years ago. Electricity, cars, followed. A juggernaut to be sure; a systematic change in our way of life. But not an essential part of our being.

In fact, in that last 150 years, we have welcomed many new technologies into our daily lives - airplanes, television, telephones, computers, faxes, and personal electronics of all kinds - and we have also seen many become obsolete. My 12 year old has never seen a rotary phone except in a museum; his is the generation for whom "phone" is the thing in your pocket that also plays music, locates you through a satellite, and shoots video. He has never played a record, watched an eight-track, used a floppy disk, or typed on a typewriter. Televisions must now be HD, or have a converter box to function; there is a lively argument about whether, and for how long, printed books will continue to exist.

We live in an age where we are tumbling over ourselves in the quest for bigger and better and new. While there are many early adopters, many more of us have gotten so used to the breathtaking pace of technological advancement that we wait for the next generation, or the competition's answer, before deciding what to buy. Everything becomes obsolete so fast.

Why not oil?

Why do we think instead:
This is how we do it.
This is how the world is.
This is how we've always done it.
There are no other jobs. There is no other solution. This is the only way.

No, no, no, and no.

But still we are stuck in our black blot, seeing neither past, present or future, suffocating, as surely as the pelicans are, in oil.

Why do we believe this is how it must be?