It doesn’t take the media to let us know that the entire nation, perhaps the entire world, is mesmerized by BP’s oil drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. We all feel it in our gut—something horrible looming, not quite fully formed, but sliding unstoppable towards the full-on environmental catastrophe we’ve been expecting for years. We in the United States, that is. Russia had its Chernobyl meltdown, but all we felt of it, in truth, was a new caution about not buying jams and jellies made in eastern Europe. India, via our beloved Union Carbide (now owned by Dow Chemical), had its Bhopal eruption of poison gases (methyl isocyanate), but we in the United States have still not digested the facts: more than 8,000 people killed instantly, with 12,000 others dying slowly, while countless others into the second generation endure retardation, birth defects, and reproductive problems. In the Bhopal case, indeed, those responsible have still not been brought to justice, and even refuse to release information on the health impact of their chemical, calling it a “trade secret.” And still what we have in the United States is a Congress that refuses to pass stringent regulations to control the energy industry (wasn’t there a coal mine disaster recently? haven’t these bastards continued to blow the tops off mountains so as to more economically access the coal beneath?), and CEOs who spout the usual mantra when it comes to oil: accidents are bound to happen, they’re the inevitable tradeoff to forging “energy independence,” so take your pick—your car or your environment.
And, docile as cattle led to slaughter, we all know this. We may deny it, we may keep hoping that the next Prius or the next electric car or the next fusion reaction will solve our energy problems, but the truth is, we understand what’s happening. Oil is running out, which means that we have to fatten oil companies with obscene profits in order to encourage them to drill in ever more risky places for the stuff without which our civilization would simply crash and burn. And so we remain glued to our TV sets, watching that monstrous (reminds one of the black smoke monster in “Lost”) black, white and brown cloud spewing from the pipe day and night, night and day for 40 days and still counting, and gauging in the backs of our minds the anguished questions: where is all that toxic goup going? What is it going to do to not just birds, not just endangered pelicans, but the entire marine chain starting with plankton? Will they ingest the toxic globules and pass it on up the food chain to shrimp and fish and birds and us? It seems likely. And we know it. We know this isn’t just about a few fishermen put out of business, though that’s grim enough. It isn’t just about a few miles of beaches getting soiled, though that’s horrible as well. It isn’t even about the marshes that could be inundated when the first hurricane lifts those miles-long oil plumes and sweeps them over and through the wetlands to create of them the toxic oil dump of our nightmares.
No. This is about the whole megillah. Because we know that ever since we started using this fiendish substance called petroleum, and all its by-products like plastic and pesticides and frankensteinian chemicals poisoning our farms and factories and rivers, and the obscene explosion in population it makes possible, we’ve been on a short path to a major comeuppance. A major realization. We’re poisoning the planet; destroying its fertility; clearcutting its forests; turning its once-fecund oceans into dead zones. And then, of course, there’s global warming—again, due to the hellfire of precisely those fossil fuels that are spewing out of that accursed drill pipe. Which is why that horror show at 5,000 feet holds us so transfixed. It represents now, for us all, the unvarnished truth we’ve been holding at bay for so long: we, the out-of-control human race that really can’t control anything especially a damn well 5,000 feet below the ocean, are the problem. And the problem has come home to the Gulf of Mexico to roost.
How it will end is anyone’s guess. At this point, all we can do is weep for what we have done—all of us. Because that’s why, in my view, we’re sitting here mesmerized, depressed, terrified and grieving for the innocent life we know is being oiled and soiled, tormented and tortured by what we do daily. It is us. Which makes me think of Walt Kelly’s great character, Pogo, who in one episode says: “We have met the enemy and it is us.” Amen. It is. We are doing it to ourselves. Because this is not just some crime against Nature—where Nature is something outside ourselves to observe in our laboratories and admire through our binoculars, and control and exploit and explode from above. Nature is us. We are that food chain. We are those wetlands. Like it or not, we derive from that mud, owe it our existence to this day. And the real question is, what can be said about a species that slowly but surely destroys that upon which it depends—the soil, the water, the trees, the creatures, the air—destroys that which it ineluctably is?
(May 29 update: BP has just admitted that its “top kill” maneuver—the language speaks volumes about the attitudes noted above—has failed. So the death watch goes on.)