It Is My Gulf of Mexico, Not BP’s

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. ((And we buried the fish heads and guts in the garden or in the ground under the orange trees; nothing went to waste.)) 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; ((See “Taking without Compensation” for an explanation of why fees paid to lease exploration areas and other fees are not really compensation.)) 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.” ((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.))

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.

James Keye is the nom de plume of a retired academic and small businessman living with an Ecological Footprint of 1.6 earths. He can be reached at Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.

16 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on June 21st, 2010 at 9:28am #

    James this article was different I must say you opened a few can’s of worms so to speak. First yes you are a psychologist and second a charmed life comes to mind. I don’t happen to be one of those that lived a charmed life and anybody that say’s they did is probably lying. In a mad world only the mad are sane oh really well as we all gain knowledge I guess we embrace the system or just live with it you know as the one’s who did live a charmed life keep us in slavery so to speak oh how charming. I’d better stop before I get myself in trouble but here’s a story a women told me when I was much younger. Don yes I’ve been married six times and I think I found my seventh and life sometimes is not what it seems. Some of my best advice is never go see a psychologist. Why I asked. Well I had a boy friend who was a psychologist and I would sit in his outside office until the last patent would leave and then I would go in and after a few minutes he would chase me around the desk saying among other things why doesn’t anybody love me. What do you think James maybe Thorazine or would Lithium be a better choice. Embrace the system I think not.

  2. bozh said on June 21st, 2010 at 9:35am #

    Corporations comprise of people: shareholders and management. Are these the people who spread lobbies among pols and also donate money to them?
    If they do, then, i do not see all that much difference bwtn a congressperson, judge, collumnist, prez, or an ‘educator’.
    In short, all of them appear to me as one skein of wool. Does one really think that judiciary, congress, and WH are not one entity, but for the purposes of deception portrayed as separate branches of one whole.

    And one can include in that one entity also ?all shareholders; of the MSM media also. Socalled checks and balances of the three branches of one tree= all three think exactly the same.
    What balances out is cheques! tnx

  3. Don Hawkins said on June 21st, 2010 at 10:55am #

    In an institution of higher learning when studying psychology is there a course on grand illusion pros, cons maybe it’s effects in society, civilization in general. Of course it just might start from a norm like if you do all the right things maybe you can grow up to be a CEO of a company or the leader of the free World.

  4. xpek8r said on June 21st, 2010 at 5:09pm #

    well not all psychologists are shrinks. Jas K does not strike me as the shrink type. But my experience jibes with that woman’s, shrinks in general tend to make psychological problems worse. Similar to calling the cops about disorderly conduct in the neighborhood:)

  5. Deadbeat said on June 21st, 2010 at 6:38pm #

    James Keye writes …

    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?

    Should the oil company (BP) be the “enemy” or is the system that gives rise to oil companies and keep them in power the enemy? BP can be replaced by other companies and industries that harm the Gulf — like chemical companies, big pharma, the military, or even over-fishing. So what? Isn’t the main problem capitalist production? Why not address the root of the problem rather than the same old “bad apple”?

  6. James Keye said on June 21st, 2010 at 6:42pm #

    There are a couple of curiousities in these comments. One is the directions that they take compared to the content of the essay; the other is the relevence of psychology — physiological psychology and statistics was my area. Now is there anything about the essay that interested anyone?

  7. James Keye said on June 21st, 2010 at 6:46pm #

    Deadbeat, I agree with you generally. Naming BP is a shortcut of language.

  8. Deadbeat said on June 21st, 2010 at 9:06pm #

    Here is another “shortcut”

    ’ Both are certifiable mental states of illness: [the wife beater] breaks bones and the other now has the power to break the earth.

    Does that really describe a “mental state of illness” (of the system) or is it really an extremely bad apples vs oranges comparison? Why is it so difficult for Liberals to HONESTLY articulate what the root cause is? In a Capitalist system is someone who is reward money (access to the means of survival and comforts) for gaming the system and profits, etc, mentally illness for acting in their personal self-interest or are they rational individuals?

    I would argue that they are rational for how the system is constructed as that is how the system of rewards are established and maintained. To label them “mentally ill” is merely name calling and once again tends to say that we just have a barrel of “bad apples” rather than a system of propaganda, indoctrination and repression.

    This is why I’m being critical because the better part of the past 40 years, especially the WELL-PAID Liberal-Left have been for using this kind of “physiological” rhetoric in order to obscure how the Capitalist system functions. Liberals have constantly deployed this “bad apple” rhetoric — either “corporate”, “industrial”, “big business”, etc. Damn with all of the bad apples reported by Liberals over the decades perhaps it is the Liberals who are mentally ill as they seem to miss the most obvious.

    Hey I’m not against “creative writing” but for some reason there seem to be this real avoidance to bring up the “old man” (Marx).

  9. Maien said on June 21st, 2010 at 10:25pm #

    Thank-you for sharing your personal story of loss amidst the terrible destruction in the Gulf of Mexico. I cannot imagine how overwhelming this will become for those who live in the affected area. I know that this is just the beginning.

    I truly hope that this disaster will finally wake up North America. Aside from the word ‘karma’ being bandied about the media, this may wake up America’s understanding of the rest of the world…earth. America is now joined with Nigeria, India and countless other countries where corporations have devastated the land and ended bountiful, healthy life. Hmmm. I guess everybody is pretty much a “useless eater” now, not just those third worlders.

  10. mary said on June 22nd, 2010 at 2:13am #

    Read another perspective. Layla Anwar is a displaced Iraqi refugee and writes angrily and sometime savagely which is quite understandable in view of what Amerika did to her country.

  11. James Keye said on June 22nd, 2010 at 1:32pm #

    Mr. Deadbeat, While I broadly agree with your angst, and do see capitalism as destructive, simply improving the incentive system and not finding the deeper forces driving our out-of-control relationship with biophysical reality is a ship already missed. The magnitude of the dilemma is given by the, admittedly preliminary, ecological footprint work: if the US were to reduce consumption by half and equal consumption levels of the other developed countries we would still be using more of the earth’s productive capacity per year than is replenished in a year. And looking at what is possible without draconian force, well, there is no way that humanity will, or even a reasonably sized contingent, make such changes. In light of this, the replacement of capitalism, though worthy, would not address the major issues.
    Our environmental assaults have escalated consistently. This one is on track to exceed the 11 million barrels of the Gulf war spill (sic). What will the next be? Part of what I was trying to illuminate in the essay is the disconnect between what we can comprehend directly and the magnitude of these planet-wide events. Ordinary people for ordinary reasons use powers that they do not understand to create incomprehensible catastrophes whether in war, human dislocations or environmental damage.

  12. Max Shields said on June 22nd, 2010 at 1:51pm #

    Mr. Keyes: “simply improving the incentive system and not finding the deeper forces driving our out-of-control relationship with biophysical reality is a ship already missed.”


    (Highly recommend Confronting Consumption edited by Thomas Princen, et al. It turns the economy of growth on its head away from production to consumption and follow the supply chains.)

  13. bozh said on June 22nd, 2010 at 2:42pm #

    I say that “our-out-of control relationship with nature is not as much ours as it is THEIRS.
    It is THEM which controls media, and thus all important info. THEY control all education, entertainment, advertising, etc.
    It is THEY who teach kids to use too much and to be ashamed for not having things.

    I still cling to notion that as tabula rasa all children are OK. But some become killers for money; others make more or much more money than others.
    I know of no justifable cause for a child to have skates, golf clubs, dental care, private tutoring, musical instruments, etc., and another having none of that.

    I am surprised that so many contributors dwell solely on symptoms, while eschewing the root cause: division into THEM and us!tnx

  14. lichen said on June 22nd, 2010 at 2:57pm #

    BP are the ones responsible, are the target; the oil corporations should be targeted. People whose ideologies conveniently seek to excuse the rich and powerful and allow their criminal behavior (including ecocide and murder) to continue are clearly hiding something about their own views; as if, further, protecting BP and the like from prosecution wouldn’t leave them fully capable of using their vast resources to prevent systemic change from happening.

  15. Don Hawkins said on June 22nd, 2010 at 4:28pm #

    It’s a tuff one alright. The amazing part to me sometimes is because of media we get to watch all of this happen right before our eye’s sort of. I guess what I remember always’ is what am seeing is not real yes it’s real because it’s happening but filtered yes the big giant filter and when it come out the other side the foolishness of it all is mind boggling. The Gulf is already toxic soup and yet these silly human’s talk about drilling sorry not an oz of sense do I see. It does appear some are willing to try but must fight the ones that don’t. The money from the ones that don’t is the driving force of course and talk about spread the wealth. A real try is simple at least what must be done and miles and miles from home skates, golf clubs, dental care, private tutoring, musical instruments, vacations, and many of course will say what’s the sense of going on without all of our stuff. It’s the rate we use the stuff and I guess if it doesn’t shine don’t want it. The waste just in the States is nut’s. The best hope so far is tax carbon forget the trade part nonsense and no more golf until we get the CO 2 level back to 340 part’s per million to make a long story short. Oh how could we go on well to try and save what we can of the human race is a Noble effort at least in my mind, four.

  16. lichen said on June 22nd, 2010 at 10:00pm #

    Yes I agree Don, we should tax the carbon, and not in a casino capitalist way–tax the carbon and use the revenues to shut down fossil fuels and replace with renewables and low-energy lifestyles.