Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Failure of Human Imagination and Thinking the Unthinkable

In my last blog I spoke of there being many layers of experiencing this trip. Last night I lay in bed awake much of the night dwelling at one of those layers, thinking the unthinkable. Yesterday, Ellen and I took a walk up one of our favorite trails nearby, the Long Point Trail. It is a walk up a canyon that opens into beautiful meadows and hillsides filled with wildflowers. We took this hike two years ago when we were here a little later in the summer, at a time when everything was in full bloom. It was spectacular. Yesterday was different, both because it was earlier in the summer, and on top of that, spring has been retarded this year because of consistently cool weather, so a lot of flowers were not yet in bloom. Nevertheless, Ellen identified 27 different species of blooming plants. It was very beautiful and quiet. We sat a long time on a log and just listened. We heard the songs of many different birds; we heard the wind in the pine trees; it was a time of calm.

But it was different this year for another reason. Something is happening far from here which has cast a pall for me over the full enjoyment of that moment of beauty. I’m thinking, of course, of the oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. I call it a gusher because that’s what it is, isn’t it? Everyone calls it an oil spill, but it isn’t really a spill. The weeks since that gusher first started spewing oil into the ocean have been a case study in the inability of the human mind to grasp certain realities. The recent Congressional hearings that put the CEO of BP on the hot seat were a particularly egregious example. Tony Hayward probably deserves all the calumny that was heaped upon him, but then, he is hardly alone, is he? When it comes right down to it, we all deserve to be in the hot seat, because we all use oil, and BP was just trying to slake our thirst for it, however incompetently.

I’ve been thinking – what if that gusher never stops? I haven’t heard anyone in the media ask that question. There is talk of eventually being able to drill another well that will take the pressure off the existing broken pipe and make it possible finally to cap it. But what if that doesn’t work? We’ve been given a lot of assurances that have proven false, so maybe we’re entitled now to doubt that assurance as well and to think the unthinkable – that it may never stop. Now of course, ”never” is a long time. I guess that eventually, the reservoir of oil that that broken pipe is tapped into will be exhausted. I wonder how many gallons of oil are in that reservoir? Someone probably has an estimate. It is revealing now, in light of the gusher, to realize that we humans had planned all along to empty the oil out of that reservoir and burn it. That’s just business as usual, and has been for a long time. But now that the oil is being pumped directly into the ocean, instead of being diverted through your and my gas tank first, it’s a catastrophe.

John Crockett has pointed out that what is happening in the Gulf right now in a very visible way has actually been going on for a long time, but in a more invisible and insidious way. It is called the acidification of the ocean. Extracting oil from the earth and burning it has gradually increased the acidity of the ocean. This has already had a devastating affect on ocean life, and will continue to do so for centuries to come, even if we were to stop burning oil today, completely! Cf. the following quote from a blog (
Ocean acidity has increased by 30 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution. If current trends continue, it could rise another 100 percent by the end of this century, exceeding the highest acidity levels during the past 20 million years. Increased ocean acidity could devastate coral reefs, shellfish populations and countless marine animals that rely on them for food and protection.

So the oil gusher is actually just making more visible a process that our consumption of oil has been causing for a long time. I don’t remember seeing any headlines about this. No front-page, two-inch bold headlines, screaming, OIL CONSUMPTION BY HUMANS KILLING OCEAN LIFE! I guess when something happens very, very gradually, it isn’t news.

But now, it is news. All that oil that we had planned to burn is now just being pumped right into the ocean. And what if it never stops? I find it interesting to realize that to my knowledge, no novelist, no poet, no visionary, has imagined the end of the world being caused by an oil gusher. I’m remembering Nevil Shute’s novel (made into a powerful movie in 1959 and again in 2000) On the Beach – a title which, by the way, suddenly takes on a new, ironic resonance. It was about the end of the world, but by nuclear war, not by oil. A lot of novels have been written about a nuclear apocalypse (e.g., A Canticle for Leibowitz), or a viral pandemic apocalypse (e.g., Earth Abides and Emergence), and even an “end of oil” apocalypse (e.g., World Made by Hand and Sidewall) but none that I know of about an undersea oil gusher apocalypse. Maybe someone will write one now. We need to understand this failure in human imagination. I wonder if this fall, if the oil is still gushing, there will be college courses put together that will explore this phenomenon, this failure to imagine an apocalypse caused by oil, and at the same time explore a genre of literature that has suddenly taken on new significance: apocalyptic literature.

Human imagination may have failed to grasp the details, but there is certainly no lack of literature that has imagined the end of life on this planet, and it may be that now, suddenly, some of those words are going to jump off the page. I’m recalling, e.g., T.S. Elliot’s poem, The Hollow Men, in which the last lines are

This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang, but a whimper.

I’m recalling passages in the Book of Revelation like…

….and the third part of the sea became blood; and there died the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, even they that had life; and the third part of the ships was destroyed. And the third angel sounded, and there fell from heaven a great star, burning as a torch, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of the waters; 1and the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter….

I wonder, if the human imagination had imagined an oil apocalypse, fifty or a hundred years ago, would it have made a difference? Did novels like On the Beach actually help prevent nuclear war? Has our ability to imagine a nuclear holocaust, aided by novelists and poets, actually shaped our attitude toward nuclear weapons, and created a restraint? Did the famous “doomsday clock” which was created by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which was set at one point at “2 minutes before midnight” i.e., only a short time before a nuclear holocaust, actually shape the attitude of the public and even world leaders? (Today it is “six minutes before midnight”). And if there had been a similar “clock” for the likelihood of an oil holocaust, would that have changed our attitude toward oil? Would it have been enough to cause us to “kick the habit” of our addiction to oil? Unfortunately, we will never know. And the big question now is, is it too late?

By my estimate, sometime between December 15, 2010 and May 22, 2011 (depending on the estimate you use of how much oil is spewing out every day), a billion gallons of oil will have been pumped into the ocean. A billion gallons! Just later this year! Or at the latest, about this time next year! How ludicrous that we have been comparing the Deepwater Horizon gusher to the Exxon-Valdez spill. We should be comparing it to Chernobyl, at the very least. This is the oil industry’s Chernobyl. Perhaps eventually, if it just goes on and on, we will have to compare it to events like the eruption of the volcano millions of years ago, that created the Yellowstone caldera, that dumped 6 feet of debris over half of North America!

The media have highlighted the devastation to the oyster and shrimp industries. President Obama has urged BP to create a $20 billion fund to compensate Gulf Coast residents. Fair enough. But what if it never stops? How could the devastation caused by a billion gallons of oil in the ocean be compensated by a mere $20 billion? Or even $200 billion? Or $200 trillion? How much oil can the ocean absorb before all marine life is killed? And long before all ocean life is dead, how will financial markets react to that possibility? How long will it be before the effect will be a world-wide economic collapse? World-wide famine? How long before a lot of people feel that there is no hope for the future of this planet? How long before there will be mass suicides? The mind reels.

But maybe it will stop. I am praying that a way can be found. Maybe it will be capped by Labor Day of this year, and only ½ billion gallons will have been released, instead of 1 billion gallons. But will our attitude toward oil then be changed? Will a near-holocaust, just short of a full-scale holocaust, cause us to stop using oil? Many voices are already saying No! to that suggestion. They are saying we can’t give up oil. Oil, they say, is essential to the both the local and the world economy. We have to accept the risk of another Deepwater Horizon-like gusher deep under the ocean. It’s just the way it is. Just this morning I was reading the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which was lambasting President Obama for “not getting it” in his placing a 6-months moratorium on off-shore drilling. “Doesn’t he realize the impact this is having on the people in the oil industry and on this state?” they cried. Obviously, ending our oil addiction will cause great turmoil and upheaval, and cause immense suffering for people whose livelihoods have been dependent on oil – and that is a lot of people! But won’t that suffering be minor, compared to the suffering that will occur if that gusher just goes on and on and on? Or another like it?

There is another concept we need to understand more fully – the Greek concept of hybris, usually translated “pride,” but that translation doesn’t quite do it justice. In modern terms, it’s thinking we humans are superior to all other creatures. It’s thinking we can do anything, that we can solve any problem, that our technology can fix anything that goes wrong. The Greeks understood that when we are possessed by hybris, we are riding for a fall. Hybris inevitably leads to nemesis. It seems to me that drilling for oil deep under the ocean is a clear case of hybris.

Today (June 19th) is Ellen’s and my fifth wedding anniversary. I am so immensely grateful for our marriage. Every day I think “What a lucky man I am!” “I am so blessed.” It is sad to have that joy and gratitude marred by these dark thoughts. But there must be thousands of residents of the coast of Louisiana who have celebrated anniversaries and birthdays during these dark days, whose special day was utterly devoid of joy. But since it is our special day, let me end on a more positive note. This morning, Ellen, Jenny, Max and I went to Alpine Mountain Days, sort of a fair with events that celebrate western themes and culture. One event was a horse and buggy ride around town. I sat up on the buckboard next to the driver and I really picked his brain. A buggy from his company, Star Valley Buggy and Harness, in Afton, WY, costs about $5000, and a horse about $3000. It would be much cheaper, he said, in Goshen, IN, which is a center for the Amish and is where he buys horses and buggies, and then trailers them out here to Afton for re-sale. In Goshen, he thought, you could get a horse trained for pulling a buggy for about $1500. Not just any horse can pull a buggy, but one that is well-trained to do so is as reliable as can be. The horse pulling our buggy was 16 years old and had been pulling buggies all it’s life. “Your wife could drive it,” he said. (A little gender bias there, but we’ll overlook that. We get the point. He could just as well have said, “Even you could drive it!”). An ambulance went by, siren screaming, but our horse didn’t so much as flick its tail. Average speed is about 12 miles an hour. I asked him what it costs to feed the horse. He said in the summer, the horse pastures and lives on grass. In the winter, it consumes about 3 tons of hay. In WY, hay costs from about $60 a ton to maybe as high as $150 a ton. That’s a lot cheaper than gasoline for sure. We’re spending at least $2500 a year on gasoline. He thought in most states it is legal for a horse and buggy to be on the highway.

We enjoyed our ride. Max really seemed to like it. The sound of the horse clip-clopping along was very satisfying. And it really got me thinking!

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