“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre got it right in an improvisational satire of a coffee disaster spill in the BP boardroom. “Don’t worry,” the CEO says to his fellow corporateers as more coffee cups tip over in the chaos. “It’s a small spill on a very large table.” And then the prescient remark from an underling: “Sir, I think we’re underestimating just how much coffee got spilled.”
It’s hard to take in the scale of the oil hemorrhage of Deep Horizon. An estimated 60,000 barrels a day translates into 2.5 million gallons of oil gushing from the depths of the sea every twenty-four hours since April 20, 2010.
But at this point in the ongoing tragedy, the blame game is not productive. We are all complicit in the black, fetid ooze seeping into the wetlands of Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida—killing pelicans, drowning turtles, and destroying the oyster beds and family businesses of fishermen and women.
How much suffering around the world will have to take place, how many wars must we start, before we begin to see this chain of addictive behavior for what it is—madness?
How many people killed, how many communities destroyed, how many ecosystems ravaged, how many species lost, before we will begin to see this dark open wound gushing from the depths of the sea as our own?
Carl Jung maintains the ocean is a symbol for the unconscious. May our unconscious death grip on the planet be brought to the surface and released as we seek individual and collective help for the trauma we are inflicting on ourselves and all life on this beautiful, breathing Earth from our self-destructive behavior and dangerous dance with oil.
Burr Heneman, a scientist and architect of the most sweeping reform of California ocean policies in fifty years, is also a world-class expert on oil spills. He said to me recently, “This is going on all the time somewhere in the world. We have a short memory, but it is important to remember oil spills are not just an American phenomenon, but a global one.”
How well do we remember past petroleum accidents from the Persian Gulf to the Exxon Valdez, from Shell’s fouling the Nigerian Delta (which led to the hanging of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa) to the Ecuadoran spill in 2009 that decimated forty-seven indigenous communities?
At this moment, can we find an action worthy of the suffering felt by the communities along the Gulf Coast, both human and wild?
In the midst of all this coverage, literally, of oil and news in the Gulf of Mexico, I keep asking myself what can I do, while simultaneously wanting to turn away. How do I take this out of the abstract and make it personal?
Alongside my vows to examine and reduce my own dependency on fossil fuels, I keep trying to look inward to see what else I personally can do to lessen the losses.
I keep coming back to the simple act of bearing witness.
To bear witness is not a passive act but an act of conscience and consequence. We can face this economic and ecological crisis straight ahead and not avert our gaze.
We can begin to face this crisis of our collective addiction to oil by agreeing to look the suffering we are creating in the eye.
We can become a witnessing community of purposeful expression and agree to be present, to listen, to engage first-hand. In these moments of direct experience, our consciousness shifts. We can choose to live differently.
I need to go to the Gulf of Mexico. I need to stand in those oiled marshes. And I want to hear the stories from the people who live there. My plan is to go to Mobile, Alabama, next month and work my way down to New Orleans. I am ready to wash pelicans. I’m willing to pick up oil balls, anything. I just need to go, to do something.
We can bear witness each in our own way, each in our own time, each with the gifts that are ours. The adage “all disasters are local” has never been more true.
On June 13, Salt Lake City was faced with its own oil spill. An electric arc traveled down a security fence pole located directly above the oil pipeline and drilled a hole the size of a quarter into it. By Saturday morning, citizens were reporting black crude swirling in Red Butte Creek. The source was quickly discovered, cleanup crews were dispatched, and 1,000 gallons of oil were diverted from the creek. This prevented what could have been a catastrophe on the wetlands of Great Salt Lake, sanctuary for tens of thousands of migrating and nesting birds: ducks such as redheads and canvasbacks; shorebirds such as long-billed curlews, American avocets, glossy ibis, and black-necked stilts. Because Red Butte is not part of Salt Lake City’s water supply, municipal water has not been affected. But the path of Red Butte Creek, now black with oil, has filled the pond at Liberty Park and affected hundreds of homes, hospitalizing eighty individuals. What has also been affected is the community’s awareness that none of us is immune from oil spills and the accidents that can occur whether through human error or acts of nature.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker praised Chevron for its response and hailed the citizenry, who immediately took action. “We’re benefiting from that volunteerism,” he says. “It will take weeks of hand-washing the stream, collecting oil effectively, and then recovery work that may take many more months before we can say that this incident has been addressed, but everyone has exhibited their best qualities of thought, compassion, and action thus far.”
What struck me in my conversation with the mayor of my hometown is how serious this oil spill has been, the damage that was thankfully averted, and what has been required for the clean up and investigation of a leak of 40,000 gallons total. I try to compare the Salt Lake City spill to the 2.5 million gallons a day bleeding into the Gulf, but the scale is incomprehensible.
Consider this sequence of numbers:
400: Number of wildlife species threatened by the spill, including whales, tuna, and shrimp; dozens of species of birds; land animals such as the gray fox and white-tailed deer; and amphibians such as the alligator and the snapping turtle. (Source: Times-Picayune of New Orleans)
400: Number of oil projects illegally approved for operation in the Gulf of Mexico under Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. (Source: Center for Biological Diversity)
Less than 4: The number of hours the millions of barrels of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico would have powered the U.S. economy. (Source: The Daily Green)
I return to my mayor, who notes that the evidence of our environmental destruction tends to pile up slowly and the crises appear short lived. As a result, he says, “Our democratic attention span has a tendency to fail us. Meanwhile, the real conditions worsen.” He asks a crucial question: “Can the Gulf oil spill (or our relatively little Red Butte oil leak) awaken a sense of crisis that catalyzes major policy changes nationally and locally?” For him, the answer is obvious. “I’ve lived through enough of these opportunities lost,” he tells me. “There needs to be a growing consensus among our population and elected officials that action, and the risks associated with action, must be taken.”
I am haunted by Mayor Becker’s term of what is needed to restore Red Butte Creek: “a hand-washing of the stream,” stone by stone by stone. Imagine after bearing witness to the heartbreak of an oiled creek, an oiled bird, an oiled coast, we all agreed, thousands of us, to participate in a personal hand-washing, not hand-wringing, but a hand-washing of these damaged landscapes and inhabitants in the Gulf—from pelicans to dolphins to the wetlands, as we offer our condolences to the families of those whose loved ones were killed in the Deep Horizon explosion. Would we then be willing to look our oil addiction in the eye and say what terminally ill patients learn to say to those they love: “I am sorry. Forgive me. Thank you. I love you”?
We are most often transformed not by the facts of the situation, but by the emotion of the situation, what we see and feel when truth is revealed.
We hear of sea turtles being burned alive as surface oil is set on fire in BP’s cleanup efforts.
And we learn that a sea captain, who recently enrolled in BP’s “vessel of opportunity” program and offered his boat to aid in oil recovery activities, grew increasingly despondent over the spill and died of a gunshot to his head. Shall we call it suicide or murder?
The spell that has kept us complacent and numb shatters. We wake up to the horror of our own oiled hands.
We are brought to our knees as we face our own spiritual imperative to change.
We can mark this moment not with our despair but with our creativity, not by our sense of helplessness, but by our engagement.
May we stand in the center of our humanity and power as a species and say as the poet Kenneth Patchen has:
I hear the beating of a heart. It drowns out every other sound.
And in so doing, may we prevent the next oil spill from happening.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of “ The Open Space of Democracy” and, most recently, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.” She is the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah.