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Meditations Following the BP Oil Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico


Meditations Following 
the BP oil disaster
in the Gulf of Mexico

by Steve Serr

We sit here, reflecting on ourselves, on the sun that came up this morning, on the lilies in the meadow, on the words on the computer screen about an oil rig that exploded and fell apart, trying to wonder through the manner in which things like this come into being. Unlike mayflies, who live for a day, we humans have on the average around 29 thousand days in which to take in the world around us. Unlike mayflies, we have a brain with innumerable neurons connecting in innumerable ways to innumerable others, capable of absorbing, contemplating, and reflecting on this world. Yet unlike any other creature, great or small on this planet, we have laid waste without equal.

It takes a glaring event to capture the vision of the news media, to funnel it through all the routes of economics, logistics and technology to our door. It takes a gush of oil, pocked deep beneath the ocean floor, pierced by human capability, to wash up across our southern shores as it drapes a mantle of death and plants seeds of ongoing death in the decades ahead. It takes an enormous disaster of human creation to capture the interest of our media, which then is sent through the circuitous routes of information technology to land before us, giving us pause to reflect.

It is a false image that we are given, and as we try to solve the problem we see, we are not seeing the problem we need to solve. Though we attempt to plug the gushing of this oil from the ocean floor, the problem is not just in the oil, nor in the oil rig, or even in the men and women who worked the rig that day. Nor is the problem restricted to the huge company which owned it, nor a government that allowed the rig, or the cars that demand the oil for which the rig was pumping. The problem can not even be cited as just in the car manufactures, or the people who buy the cars, or the servicepersons who pour it into our waiting cars. The problem is not only my needing to drive to the store to purchase the food we eat, or to pick up or return the video we watched last night.

It is said that a spring meadow can be compared to a symphony, an eruption of material music that blends and thrives in wholehearted abundance, singing through stems and petals to the sun in utter abandon. However, beneath all of this runs a deep connection, a pulse that is rapid here, slow there, moving everything within it in balance and mutuality. Problems also have this deep connection, however the song that is produced is discordant, awkward, in this case polluting the shores with death-bringing sludge that is washed up onto our computer screens and televisions, and spills onto the pages of our newspapers.

We see a darkened shoreline, and we want to fix it, but it is not the shore that is broken. Not to be blamed is the oil rig, or the cars, the president, or the corporations: one might just as well blame a blind man for failing to see, or a deaf woman for failing to hear. Nor can we blame you or me alone for this, for the source of what we see gushing from beneath the ocean floor was from long before you or I was born. Do we blame the dinosaurs for dying, and the ancient plant life for decaying, and so creating a deep pustule of crude beneath the planet surface? Do we locate the problem just in the company for piercing that crust, and so letting it gush to the surface, or do we say it is the consequence of the cars that demand oil to lubricate their moving parts, or do we call the problem the husband and wife who drive separate cars to separate jobs miles away from home in order to bring in the income to keep the house and feed the family?

It is like an outbreak of disease. We might find a pustule forming on the skin, or a reddening, or a darkening. It captures our attention immediately, especially if there is pain or it hampers our movement. Yet the discoloration we see, and the pain we feel is not the problem. It is a symptom, one that may cause further problems, but not the source of the problem which brought it into being.

The discord we now see and feel that is breaking out across the earth in weather patterns, deaths of species, erosion of soil, melting of glaciers, toxifying the air, is a consequence of discord spread across the globe. Yet the problem cannot be focused, for it is like a symphony struggling with discordant sound, the source of which is not located in one instrument, or the mistake of a single player. The symphony itself is off key.

Even if it is a symphony without a single conductor. There are many attempting to lead, and the players were born into their roles, and culturally schooled, driven by their perceived role, their education in playing, and the logistics of trying to play with the others around them. They might have been given a vision, and among them could be many of these, that are like elusive songs they should try to play. Yet, they seem unable to be grasped. If we call the problem the ‘petroleum industry’ what we then will try to fix, will only patch a symptom, and further symptoms will only surface elsewhere. The petroleum industry is just one of the players, on one of the instruments created to bring this elusive song into being, this vision into what was hoped to be a pleasing sound.

If we blame, we miss the target. You cannot blame gun-makers for war. You cannot blame cocaine dealers for drug addiction. You cannot blame the petroleum industry, or cars, or even those who drive them, for the enormous dislocation of the earth’s natural balance and health. Stopping war or drug addiction is not possible by eliminating gun-making industries, or capturing all the drug lords, even if such things were possible. Nor can the earth’s ecological failures be corrected by shutting down the petroleum industry. Certainly, given an unreasonable amount of seemingly ludicrous degrees of human cooperation, such a feat is logically possible, but even in so doing, the ecology of the earth would be likely to be tilted askew by humans another way. Eliminate the Winchester and Remington companies, or the innumerable others who create firearms, and this will not stop war. The propensity of human beings to inflict such waste upon one another long preceded the firearm, just as addiction occurs without cocaine.

The waste to the planet we see thrown up across our computer and television screens gives us a false sense of ironically, security. To see an exploded oil rig, or a plume of oil fouling what otherwise would be a healthy sea lends us a peculiar sense of knowing where the problem is. This could not be further from the truth.

The problem seems to be deeper, and far more complex than any of us have imagined. It is naive to blame an oil industry for the mere outbreak of problem on a recognizable scale. In fact, we might thank them, for maybe they might be helping us to wake up. In our struggle to comprehend what we think we see, and as we begin to piece back through the many contributions throughout the world that resulted in this particular eruption, we may discover that the source of the problem is far more widespread, and immediate, than we could also have imagined.

The problem is likely to be found more deeply, in our goals, sense of reality, sense of meaning or ultimate human purpose that drive our civilizations into war, addiction, or in this case, ecological disaster. The problem is in how we see the world, or if we truly see it at all. If we begin to blame –which we cannot – anything at all for what is occurring, we might choose instead to lay responsibility on ourselves for having accepted a disastrous vision. Perhaps this disaster may open our eyes to looking at a symptom, but it is just that and no more.

Then again, perhaps we are like the mayfly. Though we have a life span much longer than a single day, we seem unable to truly learn from the past. The War to End All Wars did not end war, nor did the deep incision into particular drug cartels stop drug addiction. As we attempt to plug this gushing from the ocean depths, or further penalize the already plummeting finances of British Petroleum, we are not going to solve the ecological problems facing the world. In fact, we might be even further reduced by doing so, because we will think that the problem has been dealt with.

As we sit here, reflecting on the gushing oil, the sun outside, the lilies in a field and come back to reflecting on ourselves, we might start to fidget a little uncomfortably. The problem is certainly human, and it is certainly not restricted to this particular place or moment in history. In fact, we humans have brought such harm to the Earth and to ourselves for as long as we have been able to determine. It is somewhat discomforting to consider that maybe the source of these problems is in humanity itself.

In human lifespan development, it is said that the ability to own, reflect on, and feel regret for the negative consequences of one’s own actions is necessary to growth and maturation. If we blame British Petroleum for the environmental disaster, we are losing our opportunity to mature. Unless through reflection we are able own this disaster as our own, we will miss our chance to grow as a human being. As long as we envision the problem as outside of ourselves, so long as we disown our deep connection to every other human being across the planet, indeed to every other living and non-living thing throughout the globe, we will fail to step forward into our potential as human beings.

I am in many ways, responsible for the disaster in the gulf. Here, in my little office nestled within our little cabin upon this little ridge deep in the redwoods of the Santa Cruz mountains, I am responsible for the ecological disaster off the southern coast of the United States. I cannot step into the cab of my pickup to take back the video we rented the night before without a deep pang of conscience, nor can I return home to step from the cab without a sense of regret. As I begin to open my eyes to the countless ways I am integrated into the dysfunction of which the consequences are disasters of our earth’s ecology such as these, I am finally opening myself to the opportunity to change. And, as I change, so the world changes.

A small way, you might say. Yes, yet not insignificant, and profoundly so. The problem is not 'out there', but 'in here'. It is within each one of us. We must each accept the responsibility. Each leaf breathes for the tree, and all of them do so, and it is for this reason that the tree lives. What is true here, is true there as well. No one challenges that the leaf is not a part of the tree of leaves, or that all of them are connected. The problem is in our vision: one that sees these as separate and unrelated.

© copyright 2010, Steve Serr