May 03 2010

The (Eco)Psychology of the Gulf Oil Spill

Published by Margaret Emerson at 11:08 am under Ecopsychology

oil on handsI’ve been monitoring the heartbreaking developments of the Gulf of Mexico BP oil leak all weekend long on the internet. Other than learning about the possible cause and the plans for containment, I’ve also learned something about the (eco)psychology of this disaster from the perspective of the public who is reading these same articles. I’ve noticed that public sentiment, via the comment board postings below each article I read on CNN, Huffingtonpost, FoxNews and Mike Ruppert’s blog, has been swaying between blame and anger and a stronger demand for a wake-up call regarding safer, renewable energy sources. What’s missing, for the most part, from the public commentary is a shrug and dismissal of the catastrophe as a “necessary evil”. Everyone seems to feel this is a wake-up call, whether it’s a wake-up call to the way some corporations put profit over ecological concerns and safety, or a wake-up call that we have to begin stepping up our national efforts to diversify our energy needs to more renewable and less potentially deadly sources.

The latest headline, for example, suggests that the Gulf Coast oil spill has appeared to lessen the administration’s enthusiasm for future offshore oil drilling. What was previously deemed as “safe” by the oil industry is now in question. Is it really safe? If it was an accident of nature, then it’s unpredictable and not safe. If it was sabotage, then the very idea this sort of event can be manufactured to make a political statement makes deep water drilling unsafe. The only way it can be made safe is to put in redundant and over-the-top safeguards that can prevent any sort of foreseen and unforeseen incidents in the future, or eliminate off-shore oil drilling completely (yeah, that’s not going to happen anytime soon).

In an interview with a survivor of the oil rig explosion, it is apparent that this was an act of nature. The rig employees were conducting routine testing of the well, and everything was checking out o.k. when suddenly there was a blowback of natural gas that came up so fast and forcefully up the pipe from the well, it blew out the valve and spilled heavier-than-oxygen natural gas all over the platform in a matter of minutes. Something—perhaps even static electricity—ignited the dense gas (odorless and colorless) and set off the first of a series of explosions. Simply put, they hit a pocket of extremely high-pressure gas that their equipment couldn’t safely contain.

The survivor said that the balance of pressure from the rig and well at those depths are tenuous and a very delicate balance. It seems that the balance tipped, and now the entire Gulf region is facing an ecological disaster of unprecedented proportions.

As Mike Ruppert wrote on his blog, “…maybe Mother Earth will have poisoned us with the substance we have so greedily raped her — and killed each other — for… “You want oil?… I’ll give you oil.”

The Blame Game

It’s difficult to fathom such a destructive situation and not want to blame somebody. It’s human nature and it’s a way to direct the anger and despair away from ourselves. Some are blaming the government for not having enough regulation of the oil industry. Some are blaming BP for not putting enough safeguards in place and spending the extra money for additional back-up systems. Some are already blaming the Obama administration for not acting quickly enough, even though the containment of the well has been likened to an Apollo 13 mission a mile underwater. Translation: a near impossible task, given the depth and the fact that the tangled metallic mess of the destroyed rig is laying on top of the well.

There are even those who are forming conspiracy theories. The North Koreans sent a secret torpedo from Cuba. Environmentalists rigged this disaster so that no new oil drilling platforms would be allowed. The government planned this so that they could control us better through more regulation and a nationalization of the oil industry. This sort of thinking is just one more way to deflect the anger and despair we’re feeling inside, but it isn’t productive or helpful.

Why do we want to deflect our anger? Because blaming someone and feeling angry feels much better than feeling despair and bone-deep sadness deep in our heart and soul. Blaming others means we don’t need to change what we’re doing because we feel above blame. Anger is invigorating and allows us to not have to feel responsible or face the truth.

So what is the truth? The truth is that we are all a party to this mess, because we live in a world that is utterly and completely dependent on oil for survival. The oil companies keep drilling wherever they viably can because the public demands cheap energy to run the economy. Unless we face that simple fact, we are doomed to keep repeating these sorts of ecological and economic disasters in the future.

Go Ahead, Feel Your Despair

Unfortunately, blaming others, corporations and political parties for this disaster won’t solve anything or keep this from destroying the lives and livelihoods of millions of animals and humans dependent on the Gulf of Mexico. Unless we all realize our own culpability in this, we won’t make any lasting or significant changes that will prevent this from ever happening again.

We have to embrace the fact that each time we get into a car or gas-powered public transportation, we are contributing to the oil industry. Each time we type on a keyboard, put on a piece of polyester or nylon clothing, eat non-local food, use plastic or any product that was transported by planes, trains, trucks or boats, we are using oil. As long as we continue to subsidize the oil industry with our oil-rich way of life, our environment will always take a back seat to Our Way of Life.

As helpless as you may feel about stopping the oil from infiltrating the ecology of the Gulf and possibly the Atlantic, you probably feel just as helpless about staying away from the very thing that is poisoning our environment. Our very survival is so intricately tied to oil. The helplessness I feel is so deep and profound. When I calm the anger and fear and resentment long enough and listen to what’s really in my heart, what I hear is utter despair for the world and all its inhabitants.

Therefore go ahead, feel your despair. It’s not easy to see something that’s so devastating unfold and know that in your small way, you too had a part in this drama. Denying your feelings or trying to stuff them down or deflect them away through blame and shame isn’t going to solve anything. It’ll just create more fodder for the mainstream media, more bickering and debate and then endless gridlock over details that are meaningless and counter-productive in the long run.

Now Do Something

Once you can admit to all your feelings and actually feel them, there is something you can do to actually make a difference for the future.

Besides directly participating in the efforts of the clean up through such organizations as the Nature Conservancy, or donating money to similar organizations, there are things you can do to lessen how much oil you use in your life:

• Bike or walk instead of driving if at all possible, to work, the grocery, to visit friends, to run errands.

• Buy local, organic produce instead of produce shipped from another state or country.

• Join a CSA or participate in a community garden to grow some of your own food. Locally grown, organic food takes a fraction of the oil to produce and transport conventionally-grown, imported food.

• Grow your own garden.

• Choose natural fibers like cotton, linen and wool instead of polyester or nylon, or better yet, buy your clothing from a thrift store whenever possible.

• Consider used before new, consider if you really need something before you buy it, especially if it’s not local and made from plastic.

• Be an advocate for more public transportation, especially the kind that runs more on an electricity grid fueled by renewable resources like wind.

• Write a letter to your government officials demanding more creative ideas, funding and projects related to renewable, safer energy sources.

• Invest in your local community by banking local, supporting your local community garden, shopping at independently-owned stores instead of big box retailers, and, if it’s in your means, be a venture capitalist to companies that have innovative solutions for sustainability.

The public sentiment I’ve observed online in the last few days tells me that people want to be less dependent on oil for energy, but they realize that it’s not an easy transition to make. Making small changes, combined with a mindful awareness of the paradigm that’s contributing to the pollution of our planet is the minimum we should all be doing. It all starts with examining our hearts and allowing ourselves to feel whatever we’re feeling, so that we can make thoughtful, intelligent choices about the future of our planet.

12 responses so far

12 Responses to “The (Eco)Psychology of the Gulf Oil Spill”

  1. Davidon 03 May 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Beautifully said, and true. I try to imagine myself pouring a bucket of crude oil into a pristine waterway and what that feels like. I try to see my hand in it all.

    By the way, an excellent series of photos of this unfolding crisis can be found here:

  2. Michelle Francison 04 May 2010 at 10:08 am

    I second Dave’s reply and appreciate the link to the powerful photos. My heart goes out to the fisherman, too. Thanks for posting this Margaret! You not only echoed our sentiments for lamenting what happened, but gave practical ideas for how we can all easily do our part.

  3. Carolyn Tayloron 04 May 2010 at 1:27 pm

    I remember as a child, watching my parents save jars of fat drippings and old pots and pans for The War Effort. When Americans went out in an attempt to solve the world’s problems, the whole country was behind them. Why can’t we conspire to do the things necessary to make our families, neighbors, and the world less dependent on toxic sources of energy that befoul the Earth? “Conspire” is a word that literally means, “breathe together.” We need to work together, love one another again, and not fear others who look different, or think differently from us. The world gets smaller everyday, and what affects one affects all.

    Politicians have manipulated us by dividing us, encouraging us to hate those with different politics, dissimilar appearance, or different views of God’s nature. If we can’t recognize our common need of a clean place to live, clean water to drink, and clean skies to admit the sunlight, then we all could die! That will be the ultimate “coming together”.

  4. Katrinaon 07 May 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Really enjoyed reading this post and I hope to check back in for a deeper look at your site.

  5. Weaseldogon 12 May 2010 at 6:13 am

    In industry articles, it seems that some experts are saying that they were going too fast. They didn’t give the cement time to harden. This job was rushed and it had the outcome you would expect.

    On the internet, anyone can be an expert.

    But even the MSM reports that BP as part of their license to drill, was required to have 24 hour response teams, and enough booms on hand to contain the spill.

    They didn’t have the response team, and they didn’t have any booms.

    It sounds like an act of nature, caused by cost cutting and a cascade of human errors.

  6. Bill Reiswigon 13 May 2010 at 9:44 am

    Well written. I’ve been trying to weave our complicity and the “deal with the devil” that we have all made (to an extent) in with coversations that I have with people on this topic.

    Peak Oil and depeleting resources are driving humans to more and more bizzare and complicated technologies that have potentially massive negative fallouts if something goes wrong. Consider the narrowing of diversity, corporate consolidation, and genetic manipulation of the seed stock on which we all depend for food. It seems great while every thing is going to plan… incredible yeilds! But if something unantipated happens? Can you fix it? Do you really understand the variables you are dealing with?

    Can we imagine if we continue the path we are on with oil the exposure we will face in the future and how utterly insane that dependence will be? Oil companies are now planning and plotting what drilling might look like off of Greenland and in the Artic Ocean… if we remain dependent long enough they know we will eventually have to relent and and let them make profits drilling offshore there.

    What would an accident drilling deep there look like? Well… there’s not much circulation in and out of the artic ocean for one thing. Getting people there to “clean up” will be impossible, and getting materials there to cap the flow will be impossible so far from any city.

    I disagree with Weaseldog above on one detail… there were some human errors here, sure. But thats not what caused this. Its the belief that we as humans can manage such incredibly complex technologies such as genetic engineering, deepwater drilling, fission, nanotechnologies etc. without major blowback and errors that is the root of the problem… Its our hubris that we can use progress to divorce ourself from the limits of nature that is at fault here. Such technologies put us on a path that ensures that even greater feats and even more intricate systems will be necessary to continue the civilization we have created… until we are so far out on the limb of what we have created and so dependent on it that we have no choices anymore.

  7. Bill Reiswigon 13 May 2010 at 9:50 am

    I don’t think I understood exactly what Weaseldog was saying in his last sentence… now that I reread it I think he is saying that it is in our nature to make errors and to cut corners and that we should expect accidents as a result. I agree with that.

  8. Margaret Emersonon 13 May 2010 at 10:33 am

    Bill, the reason we continue (as a species) to believe we can apply more and more “bizarre and complicated” technologies to control and manipulate nature to our advantage stems from the paradigm that started long ago, via certain religions and via agriculture, that we can (and should) control nature. That nature is here for our use and development. That nature has no intrinsic value other than what it can provide for our own wellbeing. Unless we can change this paradigm that we are above and apart from nature, this sort of thinking will persist. The way to change the paradigm is to show people how everything is so intricately connected, how there are consequences to all our actions on the land, both positive and negative, and to inspire people to see nature as an extension of their own body, and therefore, not something to be harmed.

    Thank you for your comment. Did you come from Mike Ruppert’s blog? He’s awesome. I can’t wait to see what CollapseNet will be like.

  9. Bill Reiswigon 16 May 2010 at 9:30 am

    I think I came from a Transition Seattle Facebook link. Mike Ruppert, although accurate about many things is a little too much of a conspiracy theorist/doomer for me to handle often. I’m trying to be more permaculturist in my mental approach.

    Your comment resonates with me and reminds me quite a bit of the “Ascent of Humanity” by Charles Eisenstein. I am reading this book now and absolutely LOVE IT, and recommend it highly.

    Best of luck….

  10. Maranda Marvinon 16 May 2010 at 1:49 pm

    I will keep this short (which is not always easy for me to do!). LOL That was the most detailed and concise and most personal & sensitive article I have ever read. (That could be because I am just beside myself with fear, despair, and anger for the future my child is walking into.)

    Thank you for this! Very encouraging, the article truly causes a person to STOP & LISTEN…there is a better way and we can get to it.!

    Thank you again,

  11. Margaret Emersonon 16 May 2010 at 2:03 pm

    Thank you, Maranda, for your heart-felt response and comment. It can all feel so overwhelming and depressing sometimes, I know. I’m feeling encouraged with how many people are actually expressing a love of this Earth and its beauty in the face of this catastrophe. Maybe this will be a turning point. We’ll see.

  12. Andrea Watsonon 23 May 2010 at 9:47 pm

    Psychology is one of the most interesting branches of science because there are so many unknowns.”‘~