As communities along the Gulf Coast continue to regroup from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I think back to a snippet of conversation I overheard before the underwater well was capped. I got just enough of it to hear one person say “If this had happened on land, it wouldn’t even be a problem.” That got me to thinking. In the first place, I’m not entirely sure I agree – I think any oil spill, anywhere, anytime, is a problem. Oil spills should, undoubtedly, be dealt with legal action, including the use of an Admiralty expert witness to reach justice more accurately. But that comment did lead me to two further reflections.
On the one hand, it reminded me of the simple but inescapable truth that context matters. Nothing we do ever happens in a vacuum, but everything is connected, and every action has a context, and the context affects the action and the action affects the context. In this case the context is deep in the Gulf of Mexico, and that context makes a huge difference.
A blown-out oil pipe would be relatively easy to fix on land; there are tools and techniques and technology that oil riggers know well for such problems. But the fact that the BP pipe blew out under 5,000 feet of water made all those tools and techniques and technology nearly useless. In fact, there is no technology competent to handle this, and so the leak went on out of control for days and weeks and months, while BP and the Coast Guard tried to invent new ways to deal with it. The context magnifies the problem.
Oil and water do mix
But the problem is also damaging the context. Oil behaves differently in water than it does on land, and it behaves differently on the surface of the water than it does in underwater plumes, and it behaves differently when it comes ashore than it does when it’s afloat. As the oil spreads, it reveals that the real context of this disaster is wider and broader and deeper than we’d thought: the offshore drilling affects not just the drill site, but the surrounding ocean, and the surrounding shores, and the beaches and the marshes and the lands adjacent to the shores.
The context is not just the physical elements like water and sand and mud, but the context includes living things, plankton and fish and pelicans and dolphins and sea turtles, and as they are poisoned and damaged and killed by the oil, that sends ripple effects throughout the entire Gulf ecosystem, effects that may take decades to heal. And the context is not just the natural system, but includes all the human systems as well, the fishermen and shrimpers whose fishing grounds are curtailed and whose livelihoods are threatened, the families who have worked on the Gulf for generations and know no other way of life, even the tourists who stayed away from Gulf beaches in droves, thereby crippling the local economies. The threads of connection keep reaching out and out and out from that blown-out pipe, until uncounted numbers of places and creatures and people are caught up in its context of destruction.
Theologically speaking, the largest context of all is God, the one to whom belong the earth and all that is in it (Psalm 24:1), the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28), the one in whose Word, incarnate among us in Jesus, all things hold together (Colossians 1:17). The loss and sadness and tragedy streaming out through water and creatures and people comes at last even to God, whose Holy Spirit is grieved at our waste and pollution.
One thing this oil spill is teaching us, painfully but truthfully, is that context matters, that everything is connected, and that the context affects what we do and what we do affects the context.
But I hope this disaster teaches us something else, as well. And that is the second thought I had after hearing someone opine that this wouldn’t be so bad if it had happened on land: that this is such a mess because we took it to such an extreme. What we see now so clearly in hindsight is that we don’t know what we’re doing when we drill for oil at 5,000 feet.
In over our heads
Technically, to be sure, it is BP and Transocean and Halliburton – the companies who employed the engineers who designed and oversaw the work – who had the know-how to drill but didn’t have the know-how to stop when the drilling went wrong. There is a tremendous amount of anger out there, directed at those companies, and understandably so.
But it is important for us to remember that those companies would not be drilling at such extremes if we, the consumers, did not demand and crave and consume such vast quantities of oil. Our profligate habits of energy use and consumption of plastics and other petrochemicals have made it necessary to go looking for oil in more and more unlikely – and evidently more and more dangerous – places, places where even relatively simple incidents rapidly escalate into major problems, whether they be political problems in oil-producing countries or environmental problems in oil-producing waters.
Our thirst for oil – what some people have called our national addiction to oil – has driven us, acting through our corporations, to engage in risky, ill-prepared, not-well-understood oil extraction behaviors. And our extreme behaviors have led to extreme consequences.
Perhaps we can learn from this disaster that some extremes simply aren’t worth it, and that rather than risk more and worse conflicts and spills and poisonings we should look for another way. Perhaps we can learn a greater respect for the Creator who is made manifest in all the creatures and who dwells in all the contexts. Perhaps we can increase our efforts to develop alternative energies, to reduce and reuse and recycle, to promote a greener economy, to live materially simpler and spiritually richer lives. Perhaps even our horror at how we have fouled this particular context may lead us to care more about all the contexts in which we act, up to and including our ultimate context in God.
We can begin this caring with prayer, and particularly with prayer for the Gulf as the cleanup continues and families work to put their lives back together. We should thank God for Creation, repent our waste and pollution, and ask God to guide and strengthen us as we seek to clean up our mess and do better in the future. May God grant us the wisdom and the will to live within our context, with humility and service, for the flourishing of all creatures.