The Deepwater Horizon oil blowout is so upsetting that I have not been able to write about it. I can barely absorb the enormity of it. Which aspect of this mess does one focus on? The human lives lost? The oil itself? The risk of drilling deep wells (4 – 7 miles deep) in deep water? The impact on deep sea marine life, on corals, on turtles, on tuna, on dolphins? The impact on shore life, on pelicans, on marshes, on shellfish, on oysters? The impact on people who fish for their livelihood? The impact on people who love the marshes and used to go to them for solace, to connect with unspoiled nature? Does one focus on BP, Transocean, Haliburton, and the layers upon layers of lies and deceptions that continue to this day, but that one realizes are part and parcel of corporate life in the modern world? Does one focus on the political grandstanding and government incompetence and complicity? Does one talk about the way in which mega-corporations now influence every aspect of our lives, for who can resist a corporation that earns a couple billion dollars in profit every month? Does one talk about how our democracy appears to be in tatters? Does one talk about the shallow reporting and blatant propaganda and the way the government-corporate-security machine blocks real reporting? Does one talk about our own complicity, about our utter dependence on fossil fuels? Does one look for the droplets of hope in this sea of despair? This “spill,” this catastrophic blowout, touches everything, just as oil now touches everything. Can one write sensibly about everything, and the collapse of everything? The only meaningful response must also touch everything.
In 2003 I played a minor role in a much smaller oil spill on the southern shores of Massachusetts. I was a shorebird monitor working for Massachusetts Audubon when several hundred thousand gallons of fuel oil spilled out of a barge making its way through Buzzards Bay. Much of that oil came ashore on the sanctuary where I was working. I learned three things on the day when the representatives of the Federal and State governments and the “responsible party” showed up to “manage” the crisis.
First, we have no effective contingency plans for dealing with oil spills, so the response is “make it up as you go along.” Oil spills are chaotic and unpredictable. We could at least TRY to prepare, which we don’t seem to do at all. Having plans in place, and then following those plans would surely help a lot. BP and the Federal government both appear to have failed catastrophically on this score. But still, I did see first hand that oil spills have a life of their own, and the response has to be both highly coordinated and profoundly flexible, features not apparently built into either corporate or government bureaucracies. Features that are perhaps not fully achievable, which should give us extreme pause about allowing drilling to take place in deep water in the first place.
Second, ego rules the day. Everyone wants a piece of the action, wants to be in charge, wants to be the top dog, wants to stick it to everyone else. It’s hard to find anyone who really gives a damn about what’s happening. It’s hard to be in the middle of an oil spill and not become cynical.
Except, in the case of the Buzzards Bay spill, the people who were hired to do the actual cleaning up. Mostly ethnic minorities, probably not paid very well, many bussed in from all over the country, roaming the beaches in yellow hazmat suits in the hot sun, picking and raking and shoveling the oil into garbage bags. They were, for the most part, disgusted by the whole thing, and genuinely interested in the welfare of the plovers and terns who were nesting on the beach at that time (it was exactly this time of year – seven years ago on this day I was patrolling the beach, educating the cleanup workers about the birds, and updating my sketches of every nesting bird and the oil patterns on their feathers. We couldn’t capture the birds to clean them because that would mean abandoning active nests). Lesson number three: if you want to know what’s going on, don’t listen to the big shots. Listen to the men and women doing the dirty work (unless the Corporation has put a gag order on them).
I had taken the bird patrol job originally because I had been sick for a couple of years with something akin to chronic fatigue syndrome, along with debilitating heart palpitations, and I needed a quiet, healthy, outdoor job. I wanted, more than anything, to become deeply acquainted with the land and the sea, to open wide all my senses and become intimately familiar with one little stretch of coastline and all its inhabitants. I wanted to atune my life to the rhythms of the land and the sea, to orient my life to a Life deeper than myself, and deeper than the stressful human world as well.
Instead, an oil spill on my very first day on the beach, egos galore, chaos, stupidity and many, many sad oily birds, most of whom could not be saved, most of whom were probably never even seen. I left that job sick at heart, even more exhausted than when I went.
And now I see the same thing playing out on a much larger scale in the Gulf. We seem to be incurably shortsighted and negligent, even willfully destructive of the only home we have. We seem to have physical power — fossil fuel augmented power — well beyond the capabilities of our brains, certainly way beyond our level of wisdom and respect. I really don’t understand how short-term profit has managed to eclipse all good sense, but it has. The impression I have of the BP execs is that, in the words of Bruce Cockburn, “they’ve been lying so long they don’t know what’s real.” They are living in a delusional world. But in a sense they are just magnified versions of the rest of us. We have all been living in a delusional world. One in which we believed we could heap any amount of abuse on our planet home, could live for our self-gratification alone, and there would be no consequences. The Earth would just take it and take it and keep on taking it, indefinitely, infinitely, without complaint.
Well, the abused Earth had one too many holes punched in her and now she is pouring out her life blood.
It seems terribly clear to me that we do not know how to think about being part of a living world. We are pretty good at thinking mechanically. We’re great at inventing gadgets. We are amazingly good at spinning theories. We are lousy bad at understanding complex systems. There’s a reason for that. Complex systems — bodies, ecosystems, planets — can’t be understood. They aren’t linear. They aren’t predictable. Small changes create big changes. They adapt. They invent. One cannot control them or master them. If one wants to survive, one can only work with them, attentively. One must learn their rhythms and their ways more deeply than mechanical thinking can encompass. It’s like riding a wave. You can’t predict what it will do. You can only go with it and keep your balance. You need to “think” with your whole body, not just from the narrow confines of your left brain. You have to respect the wave you are riding. Try to dominate it, and it will teach you who the Master is.
Are we learning? Are we learning that we are not the master here? Are we learning that our planet home is beyond our control and comprehension? Are we learning that our planet is alive and dynamic and inventive and ever-changing? Are we learning that we have limited brains that can only see from a limited perspective? More knowledge is not going to save us. Only more humility. Only coming to a full understanding of how little we know — how little we can know — and learning to live sensitively in not knowing.
We are adapted to function at a small scale, at a community scale, where no individual is expected to know everything, and no individual has much power over anyone else. Maybe our institutions have become too big for any human being to manage. Maybe it is not humanly possible to behave decently within such monstrosities. Maybe we have created financial and corporate and government systems too big and powerful for our limited brains to handle, and we need to scale down, rapidly, back to the community scale that we can comprehend. At the very least, we need to figure out how to break the death grip that mega-corporations and financial institutions have on our lives, on our government, on our democracy. We must end the cycle in which the giant corporations get all the reward for unmanageably risky behavior, and the rest of us, and the planet, get all the pain. There is much more being revealed here than negligence on the part of an oil drilling operation.
“Not knowing” used to be the language of mystics. Now it is the language of survival. We need to accept how little we can know, and change our behavior so it is in harmony with our profound ignorance. We could use a healthy dose of caution. From a full appreciation of our limits, knowing how little we can know, comes greater attention to the life that is right at hand, and greater sensitivity to the possible consequences of acting out of ignorance. With “not knowing” comes attention, humility and compassion.
There is so much we can never know. We can never know the living truth that is the planet’s life. Our only hope for survival is the recognition that we are a part of that planet, and if we reach deep enough into ourselves and discover our essential ignorance, we can also find our essential inseparability from the home that is so much more than just a place we occupy. It is our body. We are part of it as much as blood cells are part of the human body. We are currently behaving like blood cells in rebellion against their host, a condition that cannot turn out well. That behavior will end. It will either end before the body collapses, or it will end with the collapse of the whole body. But end it will, because the part cannot attack the whole and survive.
We need to recover our rightful place within the natural order of Earth’s body and the deeper order of being in which even it is embedded. We need to recognize that our intellectual understanding of that larger body is, and always will be, partial, limited and distorted in most of its essentials. We must live with a deep appreciation of our ignorance. The way of “not knowing” is the way of listening deeply. It is the way of learning. It is the way of being fully present to life as it is unfolding. It is the way of respecting Life over self. It is the way of being open to the whole truth. It is the way of creative improvisation. It is the way of love. It is the way of Life itself.