There’s a short, biting poem in Mary Oliver’s collection, Red Bird.  It’s titled “Watching a Documentary about Polar Bears Trying to Survive on the Melting Ice Floes.”

That God had a plan, I do not doubt.

But what if His plan was, that we would do better?

It came to mind as I read the closing lines of Greg Garrett’s Science & Religion Today column, “Energy, Theology, and the Gulf” – a column that echoed some of my own soul-searching and reflecting in these weeks of helpless oil “spill”-watching.  Because right smack in the middle of all this, we bought a car.

I was going to say we “had to” buy a car, but that’s not entirely true.  With careful travel planning and lots of patience, we probably could have gone awhile longer without one.  The Better Half was game to try.  Her commute to work and back goes pretty smoothly on public transportation, and rarely takes more than an hour or so each way.  And she recently used those bus and train trips to read John Francis‘ memoir, Planetwalker, describing a life journey that began when the author decided to renounce motor vehicles after witnessing the effects of an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay in 1971. So she was primed. My work, study, and church life is spread a bit more sprawlingly, and I can’t read or write on the bus without getting sick.  One of the locations I need to get to fairly often entails 5 hours round-trip, sitting on or waiting for buses.  That’s a lot of dissertation time.

Several cars have passed through our lives in recent years. Three years ago we bought an ancient diesel Volvo and ran it on biodiesel… when it ran at all. Over the course of a year it spent more time in the mechanic’s garage than ours, and cost over $3500 in repairs (which we’re still paying off). We gave up and bought a very fuel efficient used Hyundai. It was totaled in a low-speed 3-car pile-up. We replaced it with a friend’s 1994 Saturn – a car that got decent mileage, but guzzled oil like I guzzle Diet Coke. When it died of old age (and unquenchable thirst) just a couple weeks after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe began, we found ourselves at this crossroads. A hybrid or electric car is not in the budget. We ended up with a used Focus – 28 mpg city/34 highway. And as often as possible, it ferries more than one person at a time.

In the early days of the spill disaster, BP CEO Tony Hayward whined, “what the hell did we do to deserve this?”  As Climate Progress noted, let’s start here.  Add to that list the news that BP’s emergency response plan for the Gulf region was laughably incomplete and error-ridden:

Professor Peter Lutz is listed in BP’s 2009 response plan for a Gulf of Mexico oil spill as a national wildlife expert. He died in 2005.

Under the heading “sensitive biological resources,” the plan lists marine mammals including walruses, sea otters, sea lions and seals. None lives anywhere near the Gulf.

The names and phone numbers of several Texas A&M University marine life specialists are wrong. So are the numbers for marine mammal stranding network offices in Louisiana and Florida, which are no longer in service.

Except that it’s not so laughable, is it?  11 human beings are dead, the Gulf of Mexico is being poisoned, the largest wetland region in the United States is threatened, estimates of the volume of oil “leaking” keep going up, and there’s no end in sight.  Yes, BP has behaved with criminal negligence, leading directly to this tragedy – and has worsened the crisis by being secretive and misleading about its extent. But we consumers of fossil fuels have a role in this, too. As Greg Garrett notes in his column, “there was profit in drilling deep wells in the Gulf for oil, and BP was pursuing it. And that profit is where our responsibility enters in.” We make the market. We keep buying and burning fossil fuels. Our government doesn’t make meaningful strides toward alternative and clean energies because our representatives have no meaningful evidence that we want it. When gasoline prices skyrocketed a few years ago, consumers began buying more fuel-efficient cars. Evidence of enlightenment? A rejection of the carbon-based economy? Hardly. As soon as the price of gasoline started dropping again, SUV sales increased.  We vote with our dollars and our politicians follow the money.  A headline in the UK’s Telegraph today reads, “The US falls outta love with Big Oil.” I clicked, ever hopeful, but the article turns out to be about the Administration’s anger at BP, not about a Great Consumer Awakening to the high cost of cheap oil. What would it take to really shake our oil addiction? Here’s Brian McLaren, in Sojourner’s today:

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.

“…a spiritual shift – conversion is not too strong a word…”  Maybe that “Great Awakening” analogy I invoked above is not so outlandish.  I happened to catch Newshour this afternoon, and heard Jim Lehrer cite a poll reporting that “70 percent of the American people are following the BP oil spill story and care about it deeply.”  I hope that means something.  I hope that is the start of a shift.


3 thoughts on “Enabling

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  1. very thoughtful piece! In preparing for our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of SNCC last night, I worked on editing together a bunch of eyes on the prize and a film on the Orangeburg Massacre of 1968. One of the things that struck me when reviewing this history was importance that faith played in sustaining the southern freedom movement, especially during the Freedom Rides. Last night, Phil Hutchings, the last chair of SNCC, talked about how the southern freedom movement’s methods and tactics didn’t translate to the north and western urban centers. Watts in 1965 challenged the tactic of Nonviolent direct action. SNCC failed to figure out how to shift tactics to adapt to different cultural settings of the urban scene. southern rural was religious and their churches were key in creating community. and community is the key here. without it you can’t build a social movement. so, how to build community and faith in cities? because violence doesn’t work…you can’t attack the system’s strength, ie their monopoly of violence…..

    We also don’t spend the time sitting and talking and developing the kinds of face to face relationships that was a key to SNCC’s success. I actually came away from last night’s event a bit less optimistic about our ability to pull us back from the brink of ecological disaster (if, that is, we haven’t already fallen off the cliff). The Gulf of mexico was already pretty dead BEFORE this latest spill.

  2. The thing I struggle with is that if a previously unthinkable terrorist attack and two horrible, long (and ongoing) wars weren’t enough to jolt us out of our oil addiction, how will the Deep Water Horizon disaster do any more?

    I hope, but hope is not a method.

    Cars are not themselves the problem; they are a useful tool for particular jobs. The same could be said for SUVs. Our overuse of cars is a major part of the problem, but it runs much deeper than that. We need a major effort to divorce ourselves from our reliance on fossil fuels.

    But … is there any hope that we could convince even a democratic congress to spend the money we’ve spent on Iraq and Afghanistan on freeing ourselves? I fear not.

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