The Common Good

Gulf Oil Spill: Watching a Disaster Unfold with a Log in My Eye

Watching a disaster unfold on the news is always heartbreaking, but when it occurs in your hometown and you are far away, it can be debilitating. I grew up minutes from the Gulf beaches in Florida, and reading about and watching the Gulf of Mexico oil spill from my current home in Washington, D.C., is like a living nightmare with no option to kick myself awake. With little hope of a happy ending, my soul gasps out prayers for the Lord to stop this horrible tragedy before it goes further.

1.6 million gallons of oil have leaked since April 20. Let me say that again. 1.6 million.

People in the surrounding states (I can't speak to Mexico's impact) are watching their livelihoods change forever and are virtually powerless to stop it. Eleven men already lost their lives, and millions of God's creatures, great and small, will be poisoned by this spill. Ecosystems, intricate and diverse, will be disrupted and changed, possibly forever.

What can be said? What shall we do? My God, how can we mourn?

I want to turn away, but my mind is too quick with the memories: tracking sea turtle nesting sites along the beach in the middle of the night with my girl scout troop; watching the return of the osprey population to our neighborhoods as the ban on DDT produced its fruit; the success as each previous attempt to open Florida's coasts to oil exploration were defeated.

We were doing so well! The environmental movement was making progress. Now, in a bitter spirit, I wonder why we even bothered.

Sea turtle nesting season is about to begin on the Gulf Coast and reports of dead turtles washing up on the shore -- partly a response of the oil spill -- turn my stomach. The birds are nesting as well. Have you ever seen a bird with oil on its water-proof feathers?

To all of God's creation we cry out: "We failed you!" We have failed all of God's creatures we were supposed to protect. Lord, forgive us, give us another chance! And Lord, comfort our children, as they, in their innocence, bear the brunt of sorrow for the plants and animals that will die.

Being angry is one option, but not one I find effective in the long run. Should I throw stones at BP, Transocean, Halliburton, or the political leaders who leased the ocean space? Or should I reserve the harshest judgment for myself and my addiction to oil? My AC, my car, my hot water, my laptop, my disposable plastics, the list is endless.

Because while we all can expect companies leasing rights to public land to practice the strictest safety standards, and it is easy and righteous to decry the power of the international corporations to work around national environmental laws -- those businesses would not exist without demand for their product.

My outrage is checked before I can even speak.

Am I the biggest hypocrite when I protest rigs in my backyard but don't mind when they end up in other parts of the world? When I change a stupid light bulb, but won't stop consuming products day in and day out that fuel our unsustainable lifestyles?

Lord hear, Lord forgive.

Don't get me wrong, I plan to fight back! To organize, and donate, and support my family as they clean oil off of birds and help pass state legislation to protect "our" beaches. But unless my lament leads to personal repentance, can I expect to find peace? Unless I acknowledge my own sinfulness, can I work to clean up the rest of world?

I must consider the log in my own eye.

A colleague reminded me of a worthy saying to help put our energy interconnectedness and my resulting guilt and anger in perspective. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible."

May we take this wisdom and its applicable lesson to heart, and begin now to create a new energy future together: one that consumes less, cares more, and expects the same from our industries and government.

Elizabeth Denlinger Reaves is the deputy director of policy and organizing for Sojourners.

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