A Time for Moral Reckoning
I am watching unbelievable pictures tonight of endless swaths of brown oil mixed with the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, of dying wetlands and marshes, of miles of contaminated coastlines, of dead birds and animals, of helpless and hopeless Gulf Coast residents sadly witnessing their livelihoods and their lives slipping away. With the explosion and sinking of the BP oil rig six weeks ago, the immediate talk was about environmental threats and technical fixes, economic losses and political blaming, and debates about responsibility for the costs. But with the failure of the latest attempt to stop the spill, and with both BP and the federal government admitting they still really don't know how much oil has already spilled or will spill, a national discussion is beginning about the fundamental moral issues at stake, and perhaps even a national reflection on our whole way of life based on oil dependence and addiction.
After the failure of "top kills" and "cut and cap" strategies, it now appears the gushing of oil into the sea could continue until at least August, or maybe even longer. This could be one of those moments when the nation's attention all turns to the same thing, as in 9/11 and the days after Katrina. To use an over-used phrase, this could be a "teachable moment," but as 9/11 and Katrina demonstrated, we don't necessarily learn the right lessons from teachable moments. This time we had better do so.
First, we have to change our language. This isn't a little "spill," it is an environmental catastrophe -- the potential contamination of a whole gulf (already a third is now off limits for fishing) and hundreds of miles of coastline, and it threatens to expand to an ocean and more coastlines. It will bring the destruction of critical wetlands, endanger countless species, end human ways of life dependent upon the sea, and now, it will increase the danger of a hurricane season that could dump not just water, but waves of oil just miles inland from the coasts.
Theologically, we are witnessing a massive despoiling of God's creation. We were meant to be stewards of the Gulf of Mexico, the wetlands that protect and spawn life, the islands and beaches, and all of God's creatures who inhabit the marine world. But instead, we are watching the destruction of all that. Why? Because of the greed for profits; because of deception and lies; because of both private and public irresponsibility. And at the root, because of an ethic of endless economic growth, fueled by carbon-based fossil fuels, that is ultimately unsustainable and unstable.
It's not just that BP has lied, even though they have -- over and over -- to cover up their behavior and avoid their obligations. It is that BP is a lie; what it stands for is a lie. It is a lie that we can continue to live this way, a lie that our style of life is stable and sustainable, a lie that these huge oil companies are really committed to a safe and renewable energy future. BP should indeed be made to pay for this crime against the creation -- likely with its very existence.
But I am also reminded of what G.K. Chesterton once said when asked what was most wrong with the world. He reportedly replied, "I am." Already, we are hearing some deeper reflection on the meaning of this daily disaster. Almost everyone now apparently agrees with the new direction of a "clean energy economy." And we know that will require a re-wiring of the energy grid (which many hope BP will have no part in). But it will also require a re-wiring of ourselves -- our demands, requirements, and insatiable desires. Our oil addiction has led us to environmental destruction, endless wars, and the sacrifice of young lives, and it has put our very souls in jeopardy. New York Times columnist Tom Freidman recently wondered about the deeper meaning of the Great Recession when he asked, "What if it's telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last fifty years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall -- when Mother Nature and the market both said, 'No More.'" The Great Spill makes the point even more.
There is not one answer to this calamity; there are many: corporate responsibility, for a change; serious government regulation, for a change; public accountability, for a change; and real civic mobilization to protect the endangered waters, coasts, species, and people's livelihoods. But at a deeper level, we literally need a conversion of our habits of the heart, our energy sources, and our lifestyle choices. And somebody will need to lead the way. Who will dare to say that an economy of endless growth must be confronted and converted to an economy of sustainability, to what the Bible calls stewardship. What about the community of faith?
I am told this morning that the smell of oil is already apparent in the parks and playgrounds near the Mississippi coast. Unless this crisis in the Gulf finally becomes the wake-up call that signals a new national commitment to end our dependence on oil, our children may now be smelling their future.
The first step forward is building awareness. Would you forward this blog to your friends?
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, CEO of Sojourners and blogs at www.godspolitics.com.