The (Eco)Psychology of the Gulf Oil Spill

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.

Are You Experiencing Eco-Anxiety?

sad face

You’ve just finished reading a particularly disturbing article online about industrial agriculture and its unsustainable practices and you’re furious. You spend an evening watching the movie Collapse on Comcast On Demand and you feel slightly depressed about your future. You’ve been talking to your friends about the economy and now you’re worried about what’s going to happen when the recession ends and inflation kills the value of the money you’ve been conscientiously saving in the last few years.

It just seems like it’s always something that’s ruining your optimism and desire to feel that everything is right with the world.

You feel pretty good about your job, but someone just told you that there will be no use for your profession after Peak Oil. You have been living within your means but now you worry that you own no land and won’t be able to grow your own food when food shortages strike. You’ve been buying “green” and organic products for years but just read a headline that Whole Foods is destroying the planet.

Argh! You’re this close to giving up on everything you’ve come to believe and just going back to a life of blissful ignorance about the state of the Earth. What’s the point? You tell yourself. You are only one person and you can’t save the planet. And besides, all this is stressing you out.

Sound familiar? If so, you’re experiencing eco-anxiety. That’s what ecopsychologists call that underlying feeling of fear and anger over the injustices and destruction of the planet and its inhabitants. I suspect this is fairly common, but the problem is that there are no statistics to back that up, because quite simply, no one likes to talk about it.

So if you know you’re feeling eco-anxiety, what can you do about it?

The Problem With Doing Something About It

I read an article in Time Magazine online a couple years ago where ecopsychologists were treating people with eco-anxiety. The article advised that in order to feel better, you should choose to do something to help a cause you feel passionate about, or prepare some kind of personal action plan.

So let’s say you do that. Let’s say you prepare for collapse by paying off debt and learning how to grow food. Or, you donate money to the World Wildlife Fund or the Wilderness Society because the thought of hundreds of species of animals going extinct every year is too grim to even contemplate.

You join a group or an organization, even a movement like the Transition Town movement (that’s what I did). But sooner or later it will dawn on you while you’re boiling jars of home-grown pumpkin in the pressure cooker or learning how to fix a bicycle flat that it’s not enough. It can NEVER be enough.

You’ll be sitting in a seminar where you’re learning about how to circumvent the illegalities of rainwater catchment and you’ll suddenly be hit with how ridiculous it is in the face of what you know is coming down for all of us.

The scope and breadth of the problems we’re facing as a civilization won’t be solved if by magic suddenly everyone grew their own carrots and peas, stored rainwater in a barrel and occasionally rode a bike to work. That’s because when the sh** hits the fan, your job will cease to exist and there’s no way in heck you can grow all your own food on a suburban plot and hope to survive for more than a week. There are people in the modern, Western world right now who are burning furniture to heat their home because they can’t afford to eat and keep their thermostats set at a comfortable temperature.

You soon come to the realization that even if you were to do a little something every day (like reducing your trash or eating less meat), or even change your life completely (by moving away to a self-sustaining communal farm and totally disconnecting from everything and everyone you know), it still won’t stop the destruction of the rainforest or the fact that when the climate switch gets flipped (and it will) and starts a negative feedback loop, we will have been too late.

An A-Typical Bit of Advice

In our fast-paced, gotta-have-it, have-no-time culture, we love problem-solving with the quick fix. I know, because I have spent the last three years writing attention-getting marketing copy for internet-based companies that sell information and self-help products.

What I learned during that time is that people don’t want to hear about how to fix their deep-seated issues or spend long hours slogging through intense and painful therapy.  They want to know the “3 Easy Tips” for making the person of the opposite sex INSTANTLY attracted to them. They want to know the 1-step plan or the 5 mistakes to avoid and by doing so, change everything forever. If anything I was selling even smacked of sounding complicated, it had at least better be entertaining.

We want the quick fix, and we want it to be fun. AND effective.

There’s no quick fix for eco-anxiety. Sure, there are stop-gap solutions such as taking a walk in nature, volunteering at a nonprofit or learning a new skill for self-sufficiency. But unless you get out of the mode of doing and actually stop to confront your feelings and talk about them, you will become what I call an “angry activist.”

Angry activists are those blessed souls who have spent hundreds of hours in thankless service to a cause, only to feel utterly helpless against the onslaught of ignorance and continuing environmental destruction. Angry activists develop a contempt for those they see as being the “cause” of all their frustration: namely, people who drive SUVs or watch blue ray DVDs on their high-definition televisions. You know—“those people.” I have no such contempt because a) I’m one of those people and b) I am a product of our culture—we all are. I have compassion for all of us. We are all doing the best we can with what we know. There was a time not too long ago when I had no inkling of such terms as global warming or Peak Oil. There was a time not too long ago when I thought recycling was a pain in the ass and a waste of time, and so did most of my neighbors. Times have changed, I have changed, and I see everyone I know (SUV-owning and not) professing some level of concern over what they know is wrong with our system.

Angry activists are no help to their cause. They can’t help but sound judgmental, even to those who agree with their ideas and feel an affinity with their philosophy.

Therefore, you can spend your time doing, doing, doing, but still feel like you’ve gotten nowhere. You’re still bitter and scared and furious and sick with worry.

The best chance you have to deal with eco-anxiety is to actually admit you feel it and talk about it. Talk about it to yourself, then with your spouse or partner, then with your community. If we ignore and repress our feelings, they will only come back stronger and in other ways.

A caveat: just be careful who you talk to. Not everyone is aware of all the issues facing our civilization. Sometimes trying to tell someone how worried you are about your future because of Peak Oil will backfire if the person dismisses you because they don’t know enough about it. “What are you talking about? We won’t run out of oil anytime soon. We’ll be using alternative energy before that happens, anyway. Chill-ax, dude.” They smirk at you and you kick yourself for even opening your mouth, because now on top of feeling eco-anxiety, you worry about being labeled an “alarmist” or a purveyor of “doom and gloom” by someone you like.

Find someone you trust, who shares your knowledge and viewpoint about that which most makes you feel despair. If there are workshops in your area on Awakening the Dreamer or The Work That Reconnects, participate in them. Get online and find websites that write about the issues you’re most concerned about and post comments and share ideas. Get a group of friends together with the expressed intention of “venting” your feelings on the state of the world.

By participating in such communal discourse, you’ll find you feel so much better, at least for a while. You’ll be amazed at what a relief it is to know there are others out there who share your concerns and frustrations. After being in the Transition community for the last year and a half and having sat through many lectures and discussions on various eco-topics, I know how energizing it is to be a part of a community that’s taking steps toward a positive direction, however small. It is heartening to listen to someone voice the feelings I myself have been hiding for months, maybe years, and finally be able to admit them to myself and to someone else in public and NOT be ridiculed.

It is only after we’re able to face our fears that we can be a force for change in the world. With denial and repression, there is only anger and despair.