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Oil On The Water: a lament

Last summer when I was settling on our monthly worship themes, I chose “Creation” for June. It seemed the ideal focus, since in the summer months many of us have a little more time to enjoy the Creation—the beautiful life of earth around us—and a little more time to dabble with our own creative juices. My original title for today was “Creating Joy”, meant to be a kind of segue into summer. But I really didn’t feel capable of preaching a sermon with that title for today. My heart has been too heavy with the knowledge of what’s unfolding each day in the Gulf of Mexico, and too burdened with my own sense of helplessness.

Like you, I’m haunted by the images of that geyser of gushing oil, for which the word “spill” seems horribly inadequate. In any given twenty-four hour period my emotions cover the whole range, from hope and relief at what might be a fix, to despair, anger, grief, outrage and disgust, not just with BP but with the extraordinary lack of oversight and control from the government. And of course there is guilt. It’s impossible for any person of conscience to not see the glaring linkages directly from BP’s greed and malfeasance straight to the consumer society in which we are fully active, card-carrying members.

Here are some things we know now, which very few of us knew six short weeks ago. First, BP has a history of ignoring safety and environmental laws. In the last ten years it’s been convicted four times of felony violations. In 2000, the company dumped hazardous waste down a well hole to save costs. In 2005, an explosion in Texas City killed fifteen workers and spewed out toxins; BP was convicted in the blast for restarting a fuel tower without warning systems in place. In 2006 BP was responsible for the largest oil spill ever to occur on Alaska’s North Slope, and was convicted of felony negligence for ignoring warnings about corrosion in the pipes in order to cut costs. In 2009 BP was found to have manipulated the gas market, and prosecution is pending.

Despite all of this, BP is the largest operator of drilling operations in the Gulf. Its many violations have not led to anything more significant than fines, because the company is one of the largest suppliers of oil to the U.S., and particularly to the U.S. military. So this is the company given license to drill more than a mile below the surface of the ocean, with no capacity at all to deal with a catastrophe should it occur.

Second, as though it were not enough to learn the depth and breadth of corporate hubris, we now also know about the complete failure of the Mineral Management Service. The branch of government that was supposed to make sure that BP and other oil companies were in compliance with labor, safety and environmental laws instead played the role of lackey. One newspaper report even documented a practice by which inspection forms were given to corporate executives, who filled them out in pencil. The government inspectors then traced over the words in ink. No inspection actually happened.

Third, if we’ve been willing to read about it, we also know now that the Gulf oil spill is not, in fact, an anomaly. Far away from our well-developed coastlines, far away from the cameras and media that might otherwise enlighten us, oil companies have been spilling oil into fragile river deltas and ocean waters for decades. In Nigeria in particular, more oil has been spilled into the Niger delta every year than has been spilled so far into the Gulf of Mexico. In an article about it in The Guardian, the number “40” comes up in three chilling figures. Many of the pipes that criss-cross the Niger River delta are now over forty years old. The region supplies 40% of all the crude oil the United States imports. And due to the massive oil pollution of the region, human life expectancy has fallen to just over 40 years. If we are willing to know the true price of our dependence on oil, we should be studying Nigeria.

Fourth, and finally, we know how ignorant we really are about the unfolding catastrophe in the Gulf. No one knows for sure how much oil has spilled there, or how much more will leak until the relief wells are finally finished in August. No one knows what the impact will ultimately be, or where it will go. No one knows how to fix it quickly, or how to clean it up. No one knows how long it will take before the waters and shores recover, though we know we should be counting in decades, not in years.

What we have always known, though we forget with frightening regularity, is that nothing happens in isolation. Though Nigeria is on the other side of the planet, all the ocean waters on the earth are one thing, one gigantic flow of life. The Niger River Delta and the Gulf of Mexico are just as connected as one edge of a puddle to the opposite edge, just on a larger scale. Sooner or later what affects one part of this small earth will touch all the other parts, and we are delusional if we believe otherwise.

So when I circle back around to Creation as the theme for this month, what I mostly find myself thinking about is whether or not there is any hope for the Creation itself, hope for this fragile, beautiful, damaged world that created us in the first place, that brought us to life and consciousness. Is there any way at all that we might create something good and life-giving in the wake of this catastrophe? Is there any possibility that we might finally have arrived at a change, a turn-around, a tipping point, some kind of awakening?

Joanna Macy, who calls herself an Eco-philosopher, is someone who has devoted her life to these kinds of questions. She writes and speaks and delivers workshops on how we flawed and troubled human beings might re-awaken our hearts and make the changes we dream of making. In a recent interview, she said: “We have to not be afraid of feeling pain for our world. The anguish we feel for what is happening is inevitable and normal. If we’re afraid to feel our anguish, we won't feel where it comes from, and where it comes from is love—our love for this world. That's what is going to pull us through. If you try to anesthetize yourself, then you numb your whole psyche. This is the time for us to expand into our full humanity, and in that humanity will be our anger and outrage, our imagination, our creativity, our laughter. We are going to come alive now... I call that The Great Turning.”

I want with all my heart and soul to believe in the “Great Turning”. Some days I do believe in it—that a huge change, the only kind of change that will be enough, is already underway, that it’s growing in the cracks and corners, out of the media limelight, wherever thoughtful and determined people gather. Other days it’s very hard to believe, and a cynical edge takes hold, especially when I contemplate the distance between President Obama’s soaring rhetoric as a candidate and the follow-through, or lack of it, now that he is President.

What I’ve decided lately is that it doesn’t really matter so much whether or not we believe that Joanna Macy’s Great Turning is possible. We have to live as though it’s possible, or we’ll continue to be part of what is destroying the earth. Our despair will be part of what is destroying the earth: our despair and cynicism, our helplessness, all the things that tip us toward throwing up our hands and turning away. Whether or not we feel hope, we have to act out hope.

This has been the calling of men and women of faith in every era, and people acted on this moral imperative to act out hope even if they didn’t feel it, even when they knew it would mean the loss of their own lives. They acted because it was the right thing to do, even if there was no visible outcome, even if the fruit of their action would not ripen for a generation or more. Like them, we need to find the way forward toward earth-shaking change even when we are confused or downhearted, even when there is no immediate result to what we do.

For something as large as Macy’s notion of the Great Turning, there are three dimensions, and all of them are interconnected, each one essential. First, there is activism and resistance. This is composed of every action we take that slows down the destruction around us, every way we figure out to say “no” to corporate greed and to government passivity. In the case of the disaster in the Gulf, activism includes ratcheting up the pressure we put on our government to start doing its job when it comes to monitoring corporate action and holding businesses like BP accountable. It includes a demand for new levels of environmental protection and a new transparency about the connections between corporations and the government departments that are meant to protect us.

The second dimension of the Great Turning is to creatively build and live from new systems, new ways of doing things that are sustainable and life-affirming. Joanna Macy writes, “This is the creation of new ways of holding the land, new ways of growing food, new ways of building green buildings, new ways of computing prosperity and wealth, new ways of generating energy.” It’s in this arena that we push forward the possible. The appalling visual of the undersea oil geyser should be the catalyst our government uses to show once and for all why our dependence on oil must end, why subsidies for oil must end, why we have to pour our resources into conservation and clean energy.

It’s here that our own responsibility for change arises. We have to challenge ourselves to imagine things differently, to be brave enough, creative enough, to birth a way of life that does not bring so much death in its wake. We have to do this. We live still in the illusion that we have a choice, but we have no choice. It’s like believing that in the ten seconds between now and the moment your car crashes into the wall, it’s optional whether or not you turn the wheel. It’s not optional. We either turn the wheel or we crash. Turning that wheel means focusing intently on how we can live differently, how we can reduce, and reduce again, the enormous amounts of everything that we use—but especially the amounts of oil.

The third dimension of the Great Turning is a shift in consciousness, a new way not just of living but of thinking and feeling. It requires us to understand all the way down to our core that we are the Earth: we don’t live “on” it, we are it, a conscious, thinking, choice-making manifestation of Earth. This change of consciousness is what Christian ethicist Larry Rasmussen calls “living by a different faith and ethic”. He writes, “It must be an Earth-honoring faith and ethic that holds the Creation at the center: earth, air, fire, water, life. It must reframe our lives, at a time when both beauty and necessity ask that of us.”

I don’t know whether or not the Great Turning is possible, or underway. But I am absolutely convinced that nothing short of it will be enough. And I am absolutely convinced that the only ethical option available to us is to live as though it is possible, to live as though it depends on us. The beauty of the Earth, the necessity of the Earth, call us. We have to answer. AMEN.

About the Author

  • The Rev. Kathleen McTigue is the former minister of the Unitarian Society of New Haven, in Hamden, Conn. She and her husband, political organizer Nicholas Nyhart, have three children. She is a contributor to Bless This Child: A Treasury of Poems, Quotations and ...

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