By Robert C. Koehler
“Salt remnants of ancient oceans flow through our veins . . .”
Now, along with endangered species, the Gulf spill has given us a new category: endangered oceans.
The challenges presented by the disaster lay before us in their incomprehensible enormity. To what extent have the hundreds of thousands of gallons of the highly toxic dispersant Corexit 9500 that BP has poured into the Gulf aggravated the ecological horror? How will hurricane season complicate the cleanup? Will the flow of crude continue till Christmas? How many cleanup workers have gotten sick, and why? Might the “relief well” also blow?
We can’t solve our problems, as Einstein said, with the same kind of thinking we used to create them. This sums up the situation for me as well as anything — and pushes my despair up against the door of possibility. We’re at the far edge of the industrial age: the age of fossil fuels. How do we proceed beyond it?
I opened this column with the words of Theodore Roszak, who coined the term “ecopsychology” in his 1992 book, The Voice of the Earth. The concept puts human beings back into context. We are children of the earth — literally. “Making a personality, the task that Jung called ‘individuation,’ may be the adventure of a lifetime,” Roszak writes. “But the person is anchored within a greater, universal identity.”
This is my meditation for the day: the trans-human context in which we freely create ourselves. This context binds us to the Gulf of Mexico and its fragile ecosystems, which may be in a danger we can scarcely imagine. We have not reacted to this with indifference — with a cold shrug. Our well-being is profoundly at stake. The ancient ocean within us stirs.
Maybe what we’re seeing in the Gulf is the mirror of something internal. Maybe the deep alienation we feel from nature, from our trans-human parentage, contributes to the psychosis and dysfunctionality of our species.
Roszak writes: “The ecological ego matures toward a sense of ethical responsibility with the planet that is as vividly experienced as our ethical responsibility to other people. It seeks to weave that responsibility into the fabric of social relations and political decisions.”
I read this and think about the wars and violence that circle the globe. Maybe this insanity begins with our decision to dominate Mother Nature — and once that sense of fundamental respect is broken, moral relativism is all we have left.
“Forgive me, all life forms of the Gulf, and all exquisitely unique and diverse sentient beings,” writes James O’Dea, author and former director of Amnesty International, in what he calls his prayer for the Gulf. “I have colluded in your poisoning.”
Perhaps this begins to get at it — the state of mind we need to cultivate simply to come to grips with the complexity of what we’ve done in the Gulf. A sense of alienation permeates modern society and drives its markets. It spawns a value system that permits pollution and war in service to these markets, and feeds the hatred and mistrust that fragment the planet.
“Help me now to return to deep community. Help me to commune with Nature, not as a tourist but as a co-inhabitant . . .”
The prayer is a bridge across the chasm of our alienation. It embraces the idea that all of us participate in the fossil-fuel culture; it is a cry for awareness: “May consciousness witness the travesties and crimes that humans have committed against Nature; and may this consciousness not seek guilt and punishment as its new distraction.”
I understand what he’s saying. Public fury directed at British Petroleum, the government or the president can simply be a convenient diversion of consciousness, leading to a futile, feel-good quest for revenge that results in no fundamental social changes — and no advancement of human thought beyond the level that created the disaster.
However, a prayer for personal awareness simply isn’t sufficient. There is another form of alienation that permeates society, as we devolve ever more deeply into spectators of life. This is alienation from our own power.
Public fury at BP’s cost-cutting decisions, secrecy, limited liability, choice to use a highly toxic dispersant in staggering quantities, lack of public remorse and whatever else it has done in violation of its unwritten contract with humanity, has a legitimate basis, and demonstrates the extent to which corporations do what they want. They consume the planet’s limited resources primarily in service of themselves. We go along with it because we get our oil.
A prayer for forgiveness, a vow to buy locally, bike more and live with greater eco-awareness goes only halfway into the problem. As long as BP chooses not to pray for forgiveness as well, little will change. The planet’s plunder will continue in the name of progress.
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at email@example.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)
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