By Brian Volck
A recent Rolling Stone article, highly critical of the Obama administration’s handling of the ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil disaster concludes with a marine scientist’s assessment of Federal policy toward offshore oil drilling, "It was a bargain with the devil...and now the devil is gloating."
There’s been a lot of vaguely religious language in the two months since Deepwater Horizon’s complex technology failed so spectacularly, a failure that was less an accident than a predictable event largely anticipated by the Materials Management Service in a May, 2000 report.
As a physician, I’m familiar with Americans using God talk when technology doesn’t deliver on its promises, a fourth quarter Hail Mary pass in the championship game of health vs. disease. Few behaviors better illustrate the practical atheism of American life than domesticating God as the last resort for getting what we want.
Mr. Obama’s first Oval Office address ended with a barrage of inspirational language and religious references, a rhetorical turn conspicuously disconnected from his preceding promises that science and money would save and restore the Gulf.
The President, of course, is in a difficult bind requiring him to appear in charge of a situation beyond human control. As each technological fix (which so far include a containment dome, top kill, and a siphon) fails or under-delivers, he and the executives at British Petroleum increasingly resemble King Canute attempting to command the tide.
Yet control over the natural world is what Science (with a capital “S”) promises and often provides. Why else would governments fund so much scientific research? The Enlightenment’s braiding of science/technology, state power, and the ideology of progress in pursuit of Francis Bacon’s goal to “relieve the human condition” continues to yield astonishing benefits. I’m not about to divest myself of electricity, clean water, or medical care anytime soon and neither, I suspect, are many of you.
Sir Francis, it should be remembered, maintained that science’s control power should serve Christian charity, which would be an unwelcome sentiment in scientific bastions today. Furthermore, the four centuries since Bacon’s time have demonstrated how often science, while declaring itself a “self-correcting system,” ignores the immense costs of getting what we want, the externalities of human efforts to control nature, and the wisdom of limits.
Acknowledgement of natural limits on human desire, however, is one of American politics’ rare mortal sins. Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech and halfhearted attempts to restrict energy consumption may not have doomed his re-election campaign, but they didn’t help. Every President since has vowed to end the U.S. “addiction to oil” while pursuing policies that resemble the “War on Drugs,” focusing almost exclusively on supply rather than demand.
I’m ambivalent about using addiction language to describe American dependence on petroleum. On the one hand, it explains why so many happy motorists are furious at BP, since unrepentant junkies typically blame the pusher. On the other hand, the salutary reconfiguration of addiction from a moral problem to a disease unfortunately suggests to the contemporary mind that some technological fix—genetic, pharmacologic, or mechanical—is waiting to be discovered.
The wisdom of twelve step programs lies in the embrace of a moral dimension to addiction. If Deepwater Horizon is exclusively a failure of complex science, technology, and regulation, those of us who are not petroleum engineers are left without any hope to claim as our own. (See Wendell Berry’s recent comments on this matter.)
The vast, swirling, and toxic mess euphemistically named the Gulf oil “spill” calls to mind Dante’s infernal law of contrapasso, which punishes those who refuse God’s mercy by finally giving each sinner what he wants—albeit in unanticipated ways. We wanted lots of oil; now we have what we want, though not where we wanted it.
Corners cut by BP and Transocean (under the nodding gaze of Federal regulators from Republican and Democratic administrations) may be proximate causes of this disaster, but the there would have been no Deepwater Horizon if my desire—and yours—for oil had not made the enterprise so lucrative, had not presented “an occasion of sin.”
As you can see, we’re back in the realm of religious language, though this time, I think, appropriately so. To concede natural limits in the fulfillment of human desire inevitably means there are some things we can imagine doing—and are, perhaps, fully capable of doing—which we will, nonetheless, not do.
This requires a reconfiguration of the will, a change in desire and habits for which science has no intrinsic language. However useful its vocabulary when considering natural limits, ecology can’t hope to fathom the mysteries of the heart.
Metanoia is not a scientific category.