The Morality Of Oil


National Review is still for drilling, but even they refuse to repeat the Palin mantra:

“Drill, baby, drill,” has lost whatever usefulness it may have had as a slogan.

I can perfectly well understand the cost-benefit analyses of off-shore drilling and in purely economic terms, I'm inclined to believe that National Review is broadly correct. But I have to say that watching this ghastly slick spread over the Gulf makes me pause. Even if it makes economic sense to keep drilling for the time being, even if a growing economy will require carbon fuels for decades, even if we have yet to find a way to develop non-carbon energy that can easily replace carbon at a reasonable price ... does not the sight of this wound in the deep sea prompt us to look again at the models we simply assume about life on this planet?

I'm not talking here about the logic once one has conceded the modern world's attempt to master the earth as a resource so as to create the fantastic wealth and technology and health many human beings now have access to. I'm talking about a humbler view toward the moral and ethical cost of such an achievement. In the words of T.S. Eliot,

A wrong attitude toward nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God . . . . It would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live on this planet.

This planet is clearly resilient. But we know now in ways we didn't know at the beginning of this era of mastery of our global domain (a split second in the entire history of humanity) that it is not invulnerable to humankind's ambition and selfishness. We can debate the costs and benefits of a carbon tax or a cap and trade regime, we can hope for a medium term arrest in the global population, we can hope for a technological miracle, we can reassure ourselves by examining far greater ecological and environmental shifts and ruptures in the ancient past, we can see how economic growth may be the only way to mitigate the damage of economic growth ... and yet unease persists.

These wounds, these temperatures, these destructive weather patterns are symptoms of a planet in distress. At some point, those of us who see our relationship to the natural world as something more than mere economics - as something sacred - need to face up to the fact that our civilization is not taking this sacredness seriously enough. When do we ask ourselves: by what right do humans believe we can despoil the earth for every other species with impunity? By what self-love have we granted ourselves not just dominion over the earth but wanton exploitation of its every treasure?

Is there no point at which we can say: this is enough?

(Photo: A dead turtle lies in the surf as concern continues that the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico may harm animals in its path on May 3, 2010 in Bay St Louis, Mississippi. It is unknown if the turtle died due to the oil spill. Oil is still leaking out of the Deepwater Horizon wellhead at an estimated rate of 1,000-5,000 barrels a day. By Joe Raedle/Getty Images.)