We have seen unbelievable pictures 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 coastline, of dead birds and animals, of helpless and hopeless Gulf Coast residents sadly witnessing their livelihoods and their way of life slipping away.
With the explosion and sinking of the BP oil rig this spring, 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 multiple attempts to stop the spill, and with both BP and the federal government admitting they really don’t know how much oil has spilled, 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.
This could be one of those moments when the nation’s attention focuses on one thing, as was the case with 9/11 and the days after Katrina. To use an overused 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 and hundreds of miles of coastline, contamination that threatens to expand to an ocean and more coastlines. It has the potential to bring the destruction of critical wetlands, endanger countless species, end human ways of life dependent upon the sea, and even increase the danger of a hurricane season that could dump not just water but waves of oil miles inland.
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 executives have 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 creation.
BP has not only lied, but it has likely behaved in a criminal way, and it is now being investigated for it. The keys to government regulation had long since been turned over to the oil companies themselves, and the cozy oil/government relationship led to this disaster.
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 rewiring of the energy grid (which many hope BP will have no part in). But it will also require a rewiring 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 50 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 have heard that the smell of oil is 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.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine.