We dreamed we were living in a fabulous mansion but we wake up in a greasy gutter. The ecological and economic catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico makes our most infamous oil spill, the Exxon Valdez, look minuscule by comparison. This time we have fouled our nest on an epic scale.
The busted BP pipeline is a watershed event like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the Ponzi economy. It is not as dramatic as exploding towers, as poignant as those survivors huddled on rooftops awaiting rescue, or as personal for most of us as the loss of a job or home or even a 401K. The devastation to Earth’s life-support system, the killing of a whole ocean ecosystem across the Gulf, will resonate slowly — this disaster will be a marathon, not a dash. But make no mistake, we will mark these days as the time we started to learn about ecocide, as a turning point in our realization that our industrial, carbon-dependent way of life is ruinous and cannot last. How many more of these wrenching experiences must we endure before we finally get it and change?
Lesson one: We do not stand above and beyond the boundaries of a finite natural realm that runs through our veins as surely as rivers run down canyons to the sea. The “environment” is not something out there — we breathe it, we drink it, we eat it. We embody it. Kill it and you sentence your children and grandchildren to the toil and suffering of living and dying on a scorched, contaminated planet of slums.
Lesson two: The term unsustainable tells you the end of the story. What cannot be sustained fails, collapses in on itself. The real apocalypse, not the one imagined by religious zealots but the one happening all around us right now, will be a global phenomenon that plays out locally, especially for those in the direct path of monster storms, ecocidal accidents, war, famine, pandemics, droughts, and all the other nasty surprises yet to come as we keep crossing one environmental threshold after another. Collapse ain’t pretty. It is sickening.
The catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico will generate passionate debate. We will critique BP’s profit-saving shortcuts and poor safety record, the Bush-era regulators who were literally in bed with oil corporations, and we’ll debate any number of other issues, laws, policies and practices related to the catastrophe. But at the heart of the matter is something much deeper. If we want to stop our culture’s self-destructive habits and learn sustainable behaviors, if we want to survive our mistakes and thrive tomorrow, then we must shed our hubris and learn to be humble and wise.
The age of hubris, a time when all things are knowable, all problems can be fixed, and all limits surpassed is crashing all around us. We granted ourselves an exemption from the limits of a natural realm where there is only so much fertile soil, so much fresh water, so many fish in the ocean. The atmosphere can only absorb so much CO2 and stay benign. You can shred just so much biodiversity and expect nature to be resilient and recover from the wounds we recklessly inflict.