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Naomi KleinBack to OpinionNaomi Klein

The Gulf oil spill: A hole in the world

Make the bleeding stop

Thankfully, many others are taking a different lesson from the disaster, standing not in wonder at humanity’s power to reshape nature but at our powerlessness to cope with the fierce natural forces we unleash. There is something else, too. It is the feeling that the hole at the bottom of the ocean is more than an engineering accident or a broken machine. It is a violent wound in a living organism; it is part of us. And thanks to BP’s live camera feed, we can all watch the Earth’s guts gush forth, in real time, 24 hours a day.

John Wathen, a conservationist with the Waterkeeper Alliance, was one of the few independent observers to fly over the spill in the early days of the disaster. After filming the thick red streaks of oil that the Coast Guard politely refers to as “rainbow sheen,” he observed what many had felt: “The gulf seems to be bleeding.” This imagery comes up again and again. Monique Harden, an environmental rights lawyer in New Orleans, refuses to call the disaster an “oil spill” and instead says, “We are hemorrhaging.” Others speak of the need to “make the bleeding stop.” And I was personally struck, flying with the Coast Guard over the stretch of ocean where the Deepwater Horizon sank, that the swirling shapes the oil made in the ocean waves looked remarkably like cave drawings: a feathery lung gasping for air, eyes staring upward, a prehistoric bird. Messages from the deep.

This is surely the most surprising twist in the Gulf Coast saga: it seems to be waking us up to the reality that the Earth never was a machine. After 400 years of being declared dead, and in the middle of so much death, the Earth is coming alive.

Following the oil’s progress through the ecosystem offers a kind of crash course in deep ecology. Every day we learn more about how what seems to be a terrible problem in one part of the world radiates out in ways most of us could never have imagined. One day we learn that the oil could reach Cuba — then Europe. Next we hear that fishermen all the way up the Atlantic in Prince Edward Island, Canada, are worried because the bluefin tuna they catch are born thousands of miles away in those oil-stained gulf waters. And we learn, too, that for birds, the Gulf Coast wetlands are the equivalent of a busy airport hub — everyone seems to have a stopover: 110 species of migratory songbirds and 75 percent of all migratory U.S. waterfowl.

Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

It’s one thing to be told by an incomprehensible chaos theorist that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. It’s another to watch chaos theory unfold before your eyes. Carolyn Merchant puts the lesson like this: “The problem as BP has tragically and belatedly discovered is that nature as an active force cannot be so confined.” Predictable outcomes are unusual within ecological systems, while “unpredictable, chaotic events [are] usual.” Just in case we still didn’t get it, a bolt of lightning recently struck a BP ship like an exclamation point, forcing it to temporarily suspend its containment efforts. And don’t even mention what a hurricane will do to BP’s toxic soup.

There is, it must be stressed, something perverse about this particular path to enlightenment. They say that Americans learn where foreign countries are by bombing them. Now it seems we are all learning about nature’s circulatory systems by poisoning them.

In the late ’90s an isolated indigenous group in Colombia captured world headlines with an almost “Avatar”-esque conflict. From their remote home in the Andean cloud forests, the U’wa let it be known that if Occidental Petroleum carried out plans to drill for oil on their territory, they would commit mass ritual suicide by jumping off a cliff. Their elders explained that oil is part of ruiria, “the blood of Mother Earth.” They believe that all life, including their own, flows from ruiria, so pulling out the oil would bring on their destruction. (Oxy eventually withdrew from the region, saying there wasn’t as much oil as it had previously thought.)

Virtually all indigenous cultures have myths about gods and spirits living in the natural world — in rocks, mountains, glaciers, forests — as did European culture before the Scientific Revolution. Katja Neves, an anthropologist at Concordia University, points out that the practice serves a practical purpose. Calling the Earth “sacred” is another way of expressing humility in the face of forces we do not fully comprehend. When something is sacred, it demands that we proceed with caution. Even awe.

If we are absorbing this lesson at long last, the implications could be profound. Public support for increased offshore drilling is down 22 percent from the peak of the “Drill Now” frenzy. The issue is not dead, however: it is only a matter of time before the Obama administration announces that, thanks to ingenious new technology and tough new regulations, it is perfectly safe to drill in the deep sea, even in the Arctic, where an under-ice cleanup would be infinitely more complex than the one under way in the gulf. But perhaps this time we won’t be so easily reassured, so quick to gamble with the few remaining protected havens.

The same goes for geo-engineering. As climate change negotiations wear on, we should be ready to hear more from Steven Koonin, Obama’s under secretary of energy for science. He is one of the leading proponents of the idea that climate change can be combated with techno tricks like releasing sulfate and aluminum particles into the atmosphere — and of course it’s all perfectly safe, just like Disneyland! He also happens to be BP’s former chief scientist, the man who just fifteen months ago was overseeing the technology behind BP’s supposedly safe charge into deepwater drilling. Maybe this time we will opt not to let the good doctor experiment with the physics and chemistry of the Earth and choose instead to reduce our consumption and shift to renewable energies, which have the virtue that, when they fail, they fail small. As comedian Bill Maher put it, “You know what happens when windmills collapse into the sea? A splash.”

The most positive possible outcome of this disaster would be not only an acceleration of renewable energy sources like wind but a full embrace of the precautionary principle of science. The mirror opposite of Hayward’s “If you knew you could not fail” credo, the precautionary principle holds that “when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health” we tread carefully, as if failure were possible, even likely. Perhaps we can even get Hayward a new desk plaque to contemplate as he signs compensation checks. “You act like you know, but you don’t know.”

Naomi Klein is the author of “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.”



  • Gabe

    This was a very good article. BP should go bankrupt for what they have done to this country.

  • A. F. da Rocha Coelho

    “Steven Koonin, Obama’s under secretary of energy for science ,BP’s former chief scientist, the man who just fifteen months ago was overseeing the technology behind BP’s supposedly safe charge into deepwater drilling. ” If THIS is the guy who’s advising our President about science, he needs to be kicked to the curb. NOW! What is it with our government hiring these guys, like the ones from Goldman Sachs, who are complicit in some of the worst financial and ecological disasters, the country and the planet have seen? Are there no scientists in all of the ecological groups, who actually care about the planet before profit? Are there no economists, who care about utting the health of our country’s and the world’s financial systems before the pursuit of outrageous profit? When is enough, enough. Is Gordon Gekko, our God?

  • Dianne George

    The hollow promises of these souless, consciousless, prevaricating (BP) officials is very obvious — the almost implacable smirk on the face of Tony what’s his name, CEO of BP, told me all I needed to know about the ‘why’ of the disaster; just another “business as usual”, matter-of-fact occurrence. Recently, I heard ‘ole Tony was on his way to Russia — to sell him their bill of goods, as they move out of the Gulf? Makes one ashamed to be human — or in the case of the above — Ashamed to be NON-human!

  • yobaba

    First off, Gabe – BP has done a lot more in the history of their company than this little thing called “destroying the Gulf of Mexico”. Please check this link:

    Secondly, you all got teed off when President Obama expressed his absolute confidence that his administration would “leave the Gulf Coast in better shape than it was before,” that he was “making sure” it “comes back even stronger than it was before this crisis.” I wonder – what would you want him to say? “We’re ()#%ed”? In all seriousness, we ARE fu**ed, and all of us know it, but we don’t want to hear that from the president. Hearing about it ad nauseum from Foxy News is bad enough. We KNOW there is nothing that anyone can do right now to “fix things” and no way of bringing anything back “stronger than it was before”. A way of life is gone. It’s gone. At least for the people, they can move on, they can relocate, hopefully with the financial assistance of BP [who owes it to these folks]. Unfortunately the brown pelican and the Ridley’s turtle and the shrimp and oysters and the delicate ecosystem they live in can’t do that. The Gulf can’t regenerate itself by next shrimp season. It simply can’t and won’t happen – even if Obama had immediately run from his secret superman phonebooth and leaped straight into the air and had flown faster than a speeding bullet for the Gulf. We were screwed from the moment BP decided to drill in that spot. Hell, we were screwed before that.

  • Jake

    excellent essay, this is such a disaster but what’s worse is the train wreck of policy and lax regulations that led us here.

  • Loves To Spooge

    Why is no body screaming about Transocean? You know, the AMERICAN company that owned and operated the rig.

  • Jackie Kersh

    Why is there no reporting being done on the concerted effort to hamstring or, at worst, destroy the President’s commission on the oil spill? Now the Senate is trying to set up its own study group and is refusing to grant the commission subpoena powers. I am getting very nervous about the overt political power of the oil companies and the people they control. Somebody needs to start telling this story before it is too late.

  • News stories the mainstream media missed : 07/03/10 | Royce Eddington

    [...] * The true horror of the Gulf Oil Spill: The gulf, as we knew it, is never coming back. Because BP was too damn cheap to do build their rig right the first time. [PBS] [...]

  • Catharine Tyler

    Thanks to Naomi Klein for her article! As the rest of the country watches with growing sadness and desperation, a cherished member of the family and the generous nature and gifted culture of a unique region are being slowly destroyed. Are we all to blame? No. Are we all responsible? Yes, in that, as Ms. Klein points out, we are but a part of the earth’s ecosystem, a reality that we ignore at our peril–and can embrace with empowerment. We know that the Gulf oil spill is not an isolated incident, and yet on a group level the full significance of this seems hard to grasp. Like the frog sitting in the slowing heating pot of water, we seem caught up in a system of exploitation that has become the norm. Back in the robber baron days, the LA subway system was squashed by the power surge in the auto industry. Do we now point fingers at all those commuters sitting in traffic jams? A lot of people would love to get a hybrid car, but until we can buy a Prius at the price of a used Corolla, we simply can’t afford it. We are barraged with “choices” and the message that we have the freedom to choose, but the reality is we are living in a Truman Show of corporate/media engineering. And when things go wrong, we are vaguely asked to sacrifice: once again, the American people are the problem. Based on the comments above by Jackie Kersh, the brooms of corporate deniability are very busy in the halls of Congress. Beyond the pain of it all, we can’t afford to watch anymore, which means that those of us who do not live in the Gulf area need to look at what is going on there as if it is going on in our own back yards. I believe that one of the powerful little rocks in our bag is this very connectedness Ms. Klein speaks about, whether it is with the past, with geography, with other cultures and spiritual concepts, with other events across the world. The more we can connect with, personally, outside the bubble we are in, the more we can see it for what it is, see our own lives and communities in a different light, and ultimately dethrone the “man behind the curtain” (and give him a job, too). This is real democracy, not the separatist brand of individualism we have been fed.

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  • Frank Monachello

    For decades now, particularly since the Ronald Reagan era, Americans have been fed a steady diet of political rhetoric that claims that all of our country’s real and imagined economic ills are due to our government’s OVERregulation of economic activity. The passive, self-serving acceptance of this mythology by those in the American public who simply want lower takes will very likely lead to more environmental disasters in the years to come until the national media takes the time to expose this myth and reveals how much of the environmentally sensitive economic activity taking place in the U.S. is actually NOT monitored closely by any federal agency.

  • Donald Willetts

    If something can go wrong, it will. – Murphy’s Law

    Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way. – Finagle’s Law

    Murphy and Finagle were optimists. – Flanagan’s Precept

  • Catharine Tyler

    I too wish the Reagan era were broadly understood for what it was: this out-sized hostility toward “government meddling”–a hostility that in reality pandered to the special interests and will to power of the other big brother, corporate America. Government is supposed to protect the interests of the little people, those who don’t have a public voice or the big bucks to entertain congresspeople. Reaganomics seems less “toughness” (read racism, for one) than naivete about the nature of capitalism, which is to grow itself and accumulate power and wealth. The natural conclusion of deregulation was to open a Pandora’s Box of greed, as we have all witnessed and been hurt by. “Trickle-down” economics: LOL. The reality is that oil billowing up from the ocean.

  • Poop

    The disaster MUST, take this long. If it did not, how would we keep the nations attention away from the flood of new legislation? Oh look, Dispursent sales are way up. What a country.

  • Mary

    The disaster in the Gulf I think is a perfect metaphor for all that is wrong with our government and way of life. Please do not say that we need more government regulation so that our elected politicians can appoint their friends to high salaried positions to do nothing. We have plenty of regulations, just a lack of will to enforce them. More government does not solve the problem and only gives politicians a way to legally buy votes. We need campaign reform NOW or we, the people, our ways of life and our environment will not be preserved. It will continue to be sold out to whoever has the most money or “influence”. So much for Obama, the leader of change.

  • Jack Haesly

    The BP Gulf oil spill disaster has turned the Gulf of Mexico into the new La Brea Tar Pit of Los Angeles fame. Tar and asphalt will be with us, as in Los Angeles, for the next ten thousand years. Need proof? Visit La Brea in LA to get an education as to just what the Gulf could be facing in the years to come. It isn’t pretty.