An Oily, Slimy, Putrid Epiphany

Joanna Weiss asks the right question in a recent Boston Globe editorial:

The Exxon Valdez spill, 21 years ago, reminded us how much oil can hurt the environment. The gas price spike, two summers ago, made us pity anybody with an SUV. Neither of them stuck. Will pictures of birds and anger at Tony Hayward do the trick now? Or will we wait until — sooner or much, much later — the wells really do run dry?

In his important book Ecological Intelligence, Daniel Goleman points out how anger at Tony Hayward and BP can actually subvert the kind of change we really need.

Finding other people to blame has always been a favored ploy of the human psyche. Psychoanalysts call this “projection,” the casting out of our own failings and pasting them on someone – or something – other than ourselves.
… By imagining some disembodied power that has victimized us – “those greedy corporations” say – we avoid having to examine our own impacts. It’s a convenient arrangement, one that lets us deflect our discomfort at facing the ways in which we add to the onsloaught against the natural world. (38-39)

The sad likelihood is that many of us will squander the teachable moment provided by the Gulf Oil Catastrophe. We will do so either by letting it fade away as the news cycle spins on to other “breaking news,” or by projecting our anger on BP or the government or whatever rather than turning our attention to the whole carbon-based economy of which we are part, and which needs to be left behind much the way the slave-based economy of our past was left behind.
How can we let this ecological catastrophe become a personal and social epiphany? How can we let this disgusting mess affect us in ways that will lead to the deep and lasting change we need? Here are four suggestions.
1. Feel the pain … and feel the love.
Pain is part of every substantial change process, and if we too quickly project it into anger against someone else, we will subvert our own conversion. So look at those photos of dead sea turtles and dying pelicans and dolphins. Listen to the stories of fishermen and hotel owners and restaurant workers whose lives and communities will be shattered by this catastrophe. Realize that they are casualties – not just of a greedy, careless, rapacious corporation, but of a greedy, careless, rapacious economic system of which both BP and you and me are part. Let your empathy arise until you feel sickened, disgusted, and determined to become part of the solution. Anger against injustice can be an important initial motivator, but in the long run, it’s love that makes the difference … saving love is the emotion that puts us into lifelong motion. We’ll squander this moment if we don’t feel the pain of love – saving love – love for sea turtles, pelicans and dolphins … love for our neighbors in Louisiana and the whole Gulf Coast … love for the whole web of life.
2. Learn more.
Maybe your summer reading should include a book that will deepen your understanding of the ecological crisis, like Ecological Intelligence. Or maybe David Quammen’s masterful Song of the Dodo. Or how about one of David Carroll’s humane and beautifully-written books – Following the Water or Swampwalker’s Journal. Or maybe even my own Everything Must Change or excellent books by David Korten, Matthew Sleeth, Bill McKibbin, Scott Sabin, Jonathan Merritt, and others.
3. Get spiritual.
To really address the larger systemic issues of our unsustainable, dirty-energy economy, yes, we’re going to need to change our light bulbs … but we’re going to need something far deeper too: to change our values. And changes in values are matters not just of the pocketbook, but of the heart. They tap into the faith traditions and personal and societal narratives by which we organize not just our lives but our civilizations. So yes, we need to improve our understanding of science, economics, and ecology … but ultimately, without a spiritual shift – conversion is not too strong a word – we won’t have the sustained and sustaining power we need to create a sustainable and regenerative economy. So if you’re not part of a faith community that integrates a vibrant faith with a vital concern for creation, finding and getting involved with such a group could be one of the most important steps you take – not just this year, but in your whole life. There’s a new kind of spirituality brewing out there, and it’s going to be a catalyst for powerful social change.
4. Speak up.
The kind of profound societal conversion we need will require literally millions of small, interpersonal conversations – conversations where people like you and me take things a level deeper. So when you hear someone complaining about BP, agree with them: BP screwed up. But then add that it’s people like us who keep corporations like BP in business because of our demand for their products. And when someone asks, “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” – assume they really care, and tell them how much pain you feel about this catastrophe, and how you hope it will lead to a real change in our long-term values and behavior. And when you read something online that strikes you as helpful and worthwhile, forward it to a friend with a question, like, “What do you think about this?” And when you’re sitting at a table eating a meal with family or friends, ask a provocative question, like, “How do you think we can really learn what needs to be learned from this catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico?” And if they brush off your question, come back, gently but persistently, “But what will be the consequences for our kids and grandkids if we brush off questions like these?”
For you, for me, will this catastrophe be another missed opportunity – or a life-changing epiphany?