Monday, May 17, 2010

Who Shall We Blame?

It's anybody's guess at this point, what damage the on-going Deepwater Horizon oil spill will cause. Even long after the flow has stopped and the oil has dissipated and settled, much of the damage will be deep underwater, and much of the damage will be blended in with the side effects of so many other industrial processes, that we will never be able to assess the impact with much precision. But it's clear that the damage will be severe. Surely, someone must pay the price. Surely we have the right and duty to insure justice is served.

I don't know much about the theory or practice of law. It certainly seems valuable to have some social mechanisms to discourage harmful behavior, along with those to encourage helpful behavior. But any such mechanisms will inevitably be very crude. The realities of harmful and helpful behaviors get exquisitely subtle, while the political and bureaucratic mechanisms of the law are dreadfully gross. The situation is the same with charity. It's good that we have charitable institutions, but a cornerstone of society is built of the charitable actions of individuals at the personal level. Another cornerstone is formed by our personal actions of encouragement and discouragement, and our personal evaluation of the helpful and harmful character of actions.

There will surely be plenty of blame passed around for this oil spill. Any operation of this scale and complexity will include many mistakes and oversights. Usually there isn't such a catastrophe to provoke their being brought to light. Now we have a catastrophe. We will hear about the mistakes. However the legal system decides to assign the blame, though, we would be wise to look carefully at the deeper patterns underlying the situation.

The real situation is not properly characterized as a single blown-out well spewing thousands of barrels of oil each day into the Gulf of Mexico. The real situation is that such catastrophes have become a daily routine in our world. Do the tar sand operations in Alberta, operating as planned, do much less damage than this accidentally blown out well? Or look at the damage from the strip mining of coal, or... anyone with their eyes open can extend this list indefinitely.

We can blame corporations, or the financiers, or the government. But Pogo really hit the point: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." It's not just how each of us damages the planet through our individual actions of driving a car, etc. It's not even just how our demand for goods and services drives others to meet our demands through damaging actions. We are all members of the global community, participants in a grand shared imagination of the facts and values that constitute our world, our reality. We are all responsible for bringing into reality the kind of world we have, of daily ecological catastrophe. We all have the responsibility to change, to cultivate a new vision.

It might be that, in a world where risking such catastrophes is unacceptable, the price of gasoline is more like ten dollars per gallon rather than three, and due to that we all experience many constraints on our travels and on the availability of goods and services. Perhaps we can see that by paying such a price we will have purchased a planet that can provide our great grandchildren with an environment in which they can thrive. We might think that we have stumbled upon a remarkable bargain, and celebrate.

Just as the tone and character of our individual life is built up of moments of experience and response that flow from one to the next, so our society and culture are constituted by nothing other than our momentary celebrations and condemnations flowing from individual to individual and recycling through the networks of our communities. We each have the power and responsibility to steer not only our individual responses but those at every scale in the world in which we live.

This is our catastrophe. It is up to each of us to create a world where such catastrophes are vanishingly rare, instead of the daily routine.