The Common Good

Oil Spill: We've Exchanged Beauty, Hope, and Wonder for Profit

A heart has been pierced, four miles of seabed violated, and the aorta is gushing unabated. There are no tourniquets, finger pressures, or shamanic spells to staunch the wound because none were planned for. "Top Kill," "Top Hat," "Junk Shot," and the "Lower Marine Riser Package" have all failed, and the Macondo Prospect, the whimsically named reservoir of oil that is flowing freely into the Gulf of Mexico -- its meager 100 million barrels that would have provided only five days of oil by American standards -- is now adrift with no fixed destination, causing ecosystem failure wherever it goes.

The nature of the wound is vast. While surface oil is being mopped up, an underwater storm of emulsified oil is on the move: 40 miles a day, and when the Gulf Stream picks it up, it will shoot north averaging 3,000 miles per month. Vast areas of the Gulf and the Atlantic will see the end of vital food chains.

Oil is water. Ocean is time. Under the plume is a shadow that moves wildly, unseen. We have no practice of making natural resource decisions that put the biological health of the planet first. We have no ecological justice systems in place; there are few legal advocates for the natural world. Humans are corruptible; communities of plants, animals, and undersea beings are not. A year ago I proposed a tribunal court for crimes against the planet when injury done to whole ecosystems is irreparable.

We've forgotten that when we step down on the earth we are walking on a living membrane. Now we are wounded people recklessly pimping a wounded planet. We've turned away from a sacred view of the world, a deep openness in which we accept that all living things have value. We've drilled recklessly under the ocean floor for economic gain, and in the process exchanged a sense of well-being, beauty, hope, and wonder for the myopia of profit.

2010 was declared the year of biodiversity. One would never know it. Instead, our rolling waves of destruction continue on in feigned innocence while species risk extinction -- and our own is in danger as well. We have failed to develop a panoramic awareness, the spawning-ground for compassion. We refuse to cut through the ambition of ego. The corpus, the so-called "body" of a corporation, feels little pain. Blame is laid as ecological boundaries are erased. The much sought-after oil in its emulsified form, no longer quantifiable, loses its dollar-worth and becomes, instead, an unwieldy agent of harm, an unscrolling undersea shadow-hand whose touch means death.

Gretel Ehrlich is an award-winning nature writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Best Spiritual Writing, and The New York Times Magazine. Her most recent book is In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape. This article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of Sojourners magazine.

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