It’s been almost a month since the sirens of the Deep Water Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico lacerated the night with tortured warnings of impending doom. Chief electronic technician Mike Williams, who nearly perished in the catastrophe, recounted in excruciating detail on CBS’s 60 Minutes on May 16 the horror of that night and the appalling negligence that contributed to the worst human-made disaster in recorded history.
Essentially what Williams tells us is that the Deep Water drilling operation was under unparalleled pressure to drill faster and deeper, cutting corners and defying essential aspects of the industry’s well established drilling protocol. We can argue about whether BP and other oil giants are ramping up drilling due to the end of cheap and abundant oil on this planet or simply because of greed and a voracious obsession with profits. To engage in that kind of debate, however, is to ignore the most fundamental issue at the root of this disaster. Corporate culture, media, politicians, and the misguided American public are all failing to grasp the issue, and I suggest, are behaving like enablers responding to an addict’s fatal overdose, as well as failing to recognize the extent to which they themselves are addicts.
Let me clarify: The addict is the oblivious citizen of industrial civilization who delusionally demands that he/she must at all costs maintain a lifestyle made possible by cheap hydrocarbon energy. That citizen overdosed on April 20, 2010 and may have taken the planet to their grave with them.
Now let me count the ways in which this cataclysmic oil spill is very much like a fatal drug overdose. In order to fully understand the analogy, it’s necessary to grasp the extent to which the culture of industrial civilization is addictive. What makes it addictive?
Quite simply, an uncompromising-yes relentless insistence on maintaining the lifestyle to which it has become addicted, and like the addict, willing to do whatever it takes to do so, despite voluminous evidence to the contrary. This includes evidence that the addiction itself will ultimately and invariably prove fatal for the addict, for the addict has little interest in rational, scientific research. He is obsessed with only one thing: lifestyle. It doesn’t matter what it costs him or anyone else. Life is all about the next fix, period. The fix could be a possession, a person, or a position in life.
So when the addict, the culture of empire, overdoses and takes everyone and everything with him, he can use the defense mechanism of blame. It wasn’t my lifestyle that caused this, he says, but the corporation that pumped the oil. Furthermore, it was the administration’s fault for not adopting tougher regulation. While these factors may have entered into the equation, they are not the fundamental issue. Focus on blame works beautifully for awhile to distract attention from the devastation caused by the addict. But eventually, it wears thin.
Another favorite distracting tactic of the addict is “Look how I’m trying to fix it.” He mobilizes his enablers to convince the world that something is being done to reverse the repercussions of his latest shitstorm. First we’ll try a dome structure to cover the oil leak and capture the oil. Or if that doesn’t work, we’ll blast garbage into the leak. Or if that doesn’t work, we’ll use a siphoning tube. In fact, even as I write this article, BP is proclaiming that it has “turned a corner” in the oil spill. This should reassure all the oil addicts, facilitating their craving and assuaging any embarrassing traces of guilt. It’s all better now; this temporary nightmare is going to go away. Ya see, human ingenuity, especially of the corporate kind, will solve all problems and clean up all messes created by the addict.
Then there’s my favorite addict appeasement approach: alternative energy. Don’t worry, says the enabler. We’ll get wind or solar or something online for you as soon as we can so that your lifestyle won’t miss a beat. Yes, that may take fifty years, but meanwhile, we’ll think of something to keep it going for you because this is America, and the lights never permanently go out here.
Before the addict experiences a fatal overdose and ravages everyone and everything around him, there is always the choice to end the addiction and enter treatment. Treatment involves withdrawal from the substance, then taking a long, exhaustive, meticulous look inside oneself to confront the demon of the addiction. Much support is necessary; the addict cannot make the journey alone.
The Transition Handbook frames our dependence on hydrocarbon energy in terms of an addiction. We can blame, rationalize, project, deny-we can employ whatever defense mechanism we choose from humanity’s vast repertoire of them, but like the hard core addict, the human race is committing suicide. It is willing to kill every form of life in the oceans, cause the extinction of every species on earth, pollute every cubic inch of breathable air, poison every drop of water on the planet, and yes, enable an unfathomable cataclysm such as we are witnessing in the Gulf of Mexico at this moment, in order to perpetuate the lifestyle to which it feels entitled. Like all addictions, this one is both irrational and insane.
Every person who has chosen to research Peak Oil, climate change, global economic meltdown, species extinction, and population overshoot is not unlike an addict who has some moment of clarity in which he can actually choose to walk to the nearest rehab facility and fall on his face screaming for help. None of us can do that investigative work without the massive support of other “cheap energy addicts in recovery”. None of us can do it without a spiritual as well as a logistical recovery program which all authentic recovery absolutely requires.
Like the recovering addict there will be moments of terror about what the future holds, and the greater the devastation we have created, such as the largest oil spill in the history of the world, the more daunting the future will feel. Like the recovery of the addict, our recovery will require rigorous honesty and a commitment to finding meaning and purpose, not in the substance, which is killing us and the planet, but in a different kind of lifestyle. This will be a lifestyle of simplicity, cooperation, and deep connection with nature and our fellow humans. It may mean alterations in our behavior that feel like sacrifices until we realize that the joy, meaning, and contentment they bring us are what we wanted all along.
Therefore, as we witness the spread of the most devastating and widespread oil slick in history; as we see the photos of oil saturated wildlife and watch frantic fisherman in despair because they have lost their livelihood; as we watch enablers blaming and scrambling to fix the un-fixable, let us do as they say in Twelve Step programs, and take a searching and fearless moral (and energy) inventory of our lives and notice where we are in our recovery from addiction to cheap and abundant fossil fuels. Richard Heinberg’s book The Party’s Over documents how brief in the history of the human race the party was, how much fun it was, and of course, how lethal it was and is. So while the enablers are blaming and fixing, it behooves all of us to ask of ourselves the toughest question of all: What are we doing to recover?