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For Our Sins

As if stopping the oil leak would somehow absolve us

By Ted Bucklin

Today is day n of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, where n equals the number of sins committed in service of our bottomless appetite for fossil-based energy; n equals the number of organisms killed by the careless spewing of petroleum toxins across the globe and through every biome on the planet; n equals the number of organisms killed by the heedless construction of entire civilizations based on and powered by petroleum; n equals the number of acres of living earth ripped asunder and covered with asphalt for roads, parking lots, megalopoli; n equals the number of mountaintops blasted out across the landscape in the search for fuel, of tailings piled up in toxic mounds, and rainbow lakes of waste left to leech into our lives, into all life.

Today we look with horror at the ever-growing plume of rust-brown poison covering square miles of ocean, a floating, migrating promise of death for an unimaginably large area, with consequences so grave we will never fully appreciate the toll, the horror, the abject sin of this human-wrought catastrophe. We look with wide eyes and mouths agape at this visually compelling nightmare as an exceptional event that will someday, soon we hope, be resolved so we can turn our gazes back to a more benign view of the world where our choices and actions do not wipe out entire networks of living systems over thousands of square miles of ocean and coastline, as this oil spill is doing.

But of course, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon was not an isolated event, and the spill was not unexpected. With politicians rallying their troops with cries of "Drill, baby, drill!" how could such cavalier disregard for the risks not lead to this very eventuality someday? The fact is, this spill is hardly different from the innumerable n disasters ongoing around the world due to—but not limited to—our appetite for oil and its derivatives.

What captures our attention are the dramatic values of this disaster: the explosion and fire and deaths of workers; the graphic plumes of toxic sludge spreading on maps across the Gulf; the backstory of New Orleans and the Gulf region recovering from Katrina only to suffer this new blow; and the waiting, as the disaster slowly unfolds before our eyes.

Now BP, desperate to soften the public outrage, is spreading thousands of tons of toxic chemical dispersant to prevent the public from seeing the oily demise of all those pure sandy beaches. As if that were the worst outcome possible. On TV it may well be the worst outcome, public-opinion-wise. But the toxic dispersants multiply the harm of the spill, broadening and deepening the swath of death from deep ocean to inland shallows, mostly in places and ways that are not captured on film, that are not seen on TV and are thus not to be judged in the courts of public opinion. It is a hideous sin that we allow video values to outstrip life values.

So as usual, the true costs of doing our petroleum business remain murky, lost in the depths of the Gulf, obscured in the tangle of wetlands grasses, out of sight and out of mind. And while this amazing made-for-TV disaster unfolds, with its potential to destroy the entire living edifice of marine and coastal life systems in the Gulf, we remain blithely inured to the depressing truth that this is business as usual.

For not just the Gulf of Mexico, but the entire expanse of oceans around our planet is currently on the brink of collapse of its living systems, from fish populations to marine mammals; in fact, all marine life is threatened. Some scientists expect huge swaths of ocean to become dead zones, devoid of life in less than 100 years. But without attention-grabbing videos, we can hardly grasp the disaster, much less act to ameliorate it. Truth is, even videos won't nudge us into action. And what are we going to do to save the oceans, stop eating sushi? When the oceans run out of fish, humans will stop eating sushi.

We are paralyzed, there is nothing we can do because it has become the very fact of our petroleum-based living that destroys oceans. We are as helpless as our president, who with all his power to command remains utterly helpless to seal the leak in the ocean floor. As if stopping the leak would somehow absolve us of our sins of toxic carelessness.

Ted Bucklin managed Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen for seven years, then got married and ran away to New Mexico.

Open Mic is a weekly feature in the Bohemian. We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 700 words considered for publication, write [email protected]

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