I did not intend to write about the oil spill (sic), but was asked recently, by a friend who knows my history, about my thoughts on the British Petroleum catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. I couldn’t imagine that there was a single word I could say that has not been said, but I do have a dog in this fight.
I grew up on the rural Gulf coast when the water was wild and free. There were no oil wells out in the water. Pollution from farming, industry and cities was minimal. Fishermen left in the early morning mists with nets stacked in the back of their flat-bottomed inboard boats, trailing usually two smaller boats to carry home the catch. The ‘fish house’ was just off the bay (Tampa Bay) a couple of miles up a flooded river mouth not far from my home; the boats would collect there in the afternoon and evening to sell the fish caught that day.
I swam off of our dock with alligators, manatees, dolphins and the occasional shark. Blue crabs would swim by in their sideways style in the clear brackish bayou water.
The barrier islands met the sea with narrow white sand beaches and sheltered shallow bays of mangrove marsh. I often left home in the early morning, tied my small boat in some hidden cove and walked and swam for miles along the bay and gulf front islands.
One of the most beautiful moments I have ever seen happened one evening when the water, for miles in all directions, was covered with a light chop, each tiny wave a few inches high and a couple of feet long; and each wave, billions of them, reflecting on its parabola the whole of the red sky: the ocean was a dancing, living flame from the gunwale to the horizon.
Half of our meat protein came from the gulf and the river; fish, shrimp, clams, oysters and the occasional sea turtle. Clean food from clean water.1 But more than that, my personal sense of value and purpose came from the sea and the land immediately touched by it. My identity as a person was intimately related to the tides, the islands, the animals and plants, the storms, waves and rain; my sense of self guided by the smells and sounds of the sea, by the foreknowledge delivered by the clouds.
How would I feel if the land of my youth were to be bombed and strafed? If the islands were destroyed, stripped of their vegetation, raccoons, snakes, pelicans, gulls, terns, land crabs, snails all driven away, would I be personally offended? If the grass flat shallows were killed off and the deep channels poisoned, the fish driven away or killed in their place, would I take it personally? Hell yes; the doer would be an enemy; removed, in my mind, from the protection of human kinship.
If the Gulf of Mexico is seriously harmed, that is, if the ecosystems are damaged by the carelessness and overreaching of an oil company, then that company must become an enemy. How could this be seen as anything other than an assault of an invading force?
These lands are not abstractions; they are living, breathing extensions of myself. If corners were cut and precautions not taken, then negligent homicide, negligent ecocide, is the minimum crime. What crime is greater than the destruction of the living surface of the only place in the universe where life is known to exist? How does destroying the possibility of life in a major ecosystem, millions of species affected, compare with murder committed in the commission of a robbery?
We are confused and dazzled by the enormity of the difference. We know how to feel about a young mother of two shot dead by a booze-addled loser-thief holding up a convenience store, but we don’t know how to feel when a giant corporate entity, taking oil from the ground (everyone’s ground, our ground, the earth’s biophysical ground) without compensation kills off an ecosystem;2 don’t think because we don’t know how to feel that there is nothing to feel! The horror and the anger by any reasonable calculus must be millions of times greater than the single terrible murder, but it is too big to feel, the power of the murderer too great to challenge.
That corporate criminals can hide the details of their actions, that they can use their power of wealth to draw political whores to help them, that the public can be confused by the misdirection of ‘public relations’ efforts, does not change the facts of their crimes – shamefully, only their punishments.
We, especially rural Americans, used to excuse a drunk for public crimes, taking the view that it was not their fault since they were drunk. That view has changed over time to demanding that the irresponsibility of getting drunk in the first place, drunkenness itself, be the measure of judgment, not the lack of capacity once drunk. We need a similar shift of understanding with corporate criminals. We don’t see that a corporate culture of profit seeking is the equal of drunkenness, that the irresponsibility of creating that culture should be our measure. No, we say, “Oh, they were only trying to make a profit (they were drunk and didn’t think). That’s why they cut corners. No one person is to blame.”
I remember when a man could say in his defense for beating his wife and children, “I was drunk and didn’t mean it,” and then tearfully beg forgiveness claiming to have learned his lesson. It sounds the same to me today when a CEO says, “I was only doing my job protecting shareholder interests and am very sad that workers were killed and ecosystems destroyed.”3
It is time to see through the second as we are beginning to see through the first. The wife beater is getting drunk so that he can ‘gain the perverse pleasure of the beating’; the corporate executive exercises pure profit motive to ‘gain the perverse pleasures of power and greed.’ Both are certifiable mental states of illness: one breaks bones and the other now has the power to break the earth.
- And we buried the fish heads and guts in the garden or in the ground under the orange trees; nothing went to waste. [↩]
- See “Taking without Compensation” for an explanation of why fees paid to lease exploration areas and other fees are not really compensation. [↩]
- I leave it to the reader to rewrite the rest of the drunk’s list of excuses into the language of corporate intoxication. Just listen to the talking heads and BP’s leaders and ads for some help. [↩]