As the crude drifted ashore, so did uncomfortable questions about the industry out there. All the greenwashing and public relations seemed to blow apart and confirmed that the industry lives in an alternate universe. Everything speaks of a dissociated world where things just don’t add up. Such as it is with oil.
We have this strange relationship with this carbon goo. We all use it. It’s in our cars, roads, asphalt, rubber, plastics, fertilizers and fuels. The world population increases incredibly with the usage of oil. If oil is an orange, we are its mold. But we don’t want to see oil. Too actually see oil is like seeing shit. We make it, it’s useful, but it’s final reality is somehow denied, flushed somewhere out of sight. We tuck it away, like all industrial unpleasantness, beyond a hedge row, on the other side of the tracks, in a landfill. With oil, as with lots of things, it really is out of sight, out of mind. Such as it is with many parts of this story – it’s about what has been hidden, what has been dug up, and what must be dissociated from. We aim to take the most advantage of this substance, yet in some carefree bubble deny that it has any ill effects. Out of sight, out of mind, and into an unconscious militantly guarded . This is perhaps the most significant thing about greenhouse gases and climate change. It’s not readily apparent to the senses. Fossil fuel fumes in the air can be plausibly denied if invisible. In a sense, when we had oil in our water, it just became harder to deny what has been occurring all the time. It’s somehow more empirically real, but this was only when we are alerted to these bizarre and precarious juxtaposition of images – of dolphins and pelicans covered in the black tide. This horror made the denial all the more surreal and absurd.
It’s hard to hide 5 million barrels of oil from the public, but both BP and the government tried to minimize its knowledge. Planes were denied charters and journalists were restricted by the coast guard. BP had learned from Exxon’s mistakes with Valdez. They understood that things got much worse once the public had seen the National Geographic pictures of birds soaked in crude. Some media got through, but it wasn’t because of lack of attempts to control the narrative of the spill. One example of this is when independent researchers found evidence of giant plumes of oil drifting beneath the surface. The NOAA and BP denied this, and once shown the evidence, backpedaled and relabeled the plumes “ephemeral clouds.”
BP was charged with taking responsibility for the spill, but it did just as much to contain the image of the company. BP spent $93 million in advertisement between April and July of 2010, three times as much as the same span of time the previous year. Compare this to the $29 million spent on “safer operations research” for the previous three years combined. And they spent nothing on research into spill cleanup technology for those previous three years. $0. (1)
In the 86 days that there was a hole in the bottom of the sea, BP managed to collect some of the oil with boom and relief wells, burn some off, and finally used dispersants on the rest. Something north of 2 million gallons of dispersant were used, much of it applied directly to the water. It had been widely discussed the dispersant, called Corexit 9500, (get it? corrects-it?) was toxic, and had been already banned in the U.K. The EPA urged BP to use another, less toxic substance, but they had nothing of the quantity available as Corexit 9500, which they had millions of gallons of and could not use. This dispersant is an industrial detergent, and does what it says it does – breaks apart the oil into microbial parts. Instead of the sludge on the surface, the dispersant spreads out the oil, much of it sinking in the form of tar balls to the bottom of the Gulf. Workers on the Gulf at the time were forbidden from talking to the press about their health when many suspected the toxicity of the Corexit. (This had precedent, after all, because Exxon used a similar substance called Corexit 9527A in the Valdez disaster. That substance contained a chemical called 2-BTE, or 2-butoxyethenol, and the affected workers developed what they call the “Valdez crud,” which they continue to suffer from in Cordova, Alaska.) The community’s fears were validated by EPA whistleblower Hugh Kaufman, who claimed the EPA knew that Corexit would increase the toxicity of the oil. But out of other comfortable options, the EPA let BP use the substance. They then sprayed it directly into the flowing wellhead. The question is why. The government claimed shortly thereafter that the oil had vanished. The public wasn’t convinced. Five million barrels don’t just disappear, even thought that bespeaks of the adolescent corporate fantasy. Local fishermen grew suspicious of the secrets that continued to lurk under the water. Some call it the “blue plague.” Their concern is real, as scientists take core samples of the ocean floor, finding an 30-mile radius of sunken oil around the wellhead, as well as oil particulates in the microfauna upon which the microfauna will eventually consume later on in the food chain (macrofauna including ourselves).(2) Locals all seem to know that the real effect of the dispersants was dispersing the media. The horror still lurks under the water.
The thing that is striking about this story is the continual denial of the landbase by these corporate interests. The corporate state response and management of the land continues to fail to understand it. The industry applies large scale measures; trying to fix technological mishaps with more technology, mismanagement with more mismanagement with the bumbling attempts to fix the hole. We remember their names – “top kill,” and “junk shot,” which became symbols of an industry clueless and out of control. The fisheries meanwhile were halted just at the start of shrimping season. The corporation’s rule was complete, yet incompetent, as they hired the fishermen to help them sop up the evidence of the industrial violence that put them out of business. The irony and pain is not lost on the locals, but they were in a bind of helplessness. The use of Corexit was not scientific, but primarily ideological, preserving the aura of power of industrial omnipotence. It is a magic trick, or like wiping the prints off the murder weapon. By dispersing the oil, claimants have a much more difficult case to make against the company.
But it does something much more fundamental to our perception of reality, warping around our perceived dependence on the dark teat of oil, and creating a gulf of denial, and a kind of battered wife syndrome that protects the perpetrating power. When the spill happened, I was working as a therapist in a psychiatric hospital performing group therapy with schizophrenic patients. One of them professed to know much about the oil industry, as many people in Houston generally do. He told me the virtues of having oil in the gulf, that oil is good for the “algae,” (a freshwater plant), and that these microbes will eat up all the oil and benefit the ecosystem. One could say that these were the mere rantings of a mad man. But they are the exact sentiments of “sane” people who minimize violence and act as though the perpetration were somehow beneficial.(3)
I looked into what are known as “oil-eating microbes,” finding some truth to it, and they do exactly what their namesake says they do. However, the first problem is that there are far too few of these microbes to consume that much oil. And the second problem is that oil-eating microbes deplete the oxygen in the water in large swaths called dead zones which asphyxiate other species.(4) These dead zones have been plaguing the Mississippi Gulf for years as runoff from the mighty watershed brings phosphate-rich fertilizers (petroleum products) and pesticides down from the heartland and dumps them into the Gulf. So this man was wrong, just as some of the right-wing pundits who claimed that the oil leak was basically natural and that the oil leaks up from the bottom of the Ocean all the time, and that the “ocean can handle it.”(5) This sort of turning reality upside down it typical of industrial thinking, including the trademark defense mechanisms – denial, rationalization, minimization, and turning the conversation around to make it look like the colonial/industrial power is doing the land and the people a favor.
It was a bit perfect symbolically that BP CEO Tony Hayward would come to represent everything the locals in Louisiana hate. The prep school boyish looks and demeanor of this English gentleman echoed the deep past when the British Empire exiled the Acadian people from their home in Nova Scotia in the 1750s. Again they were alienated by a foreign power, and their plight could not be sufficiently empathized with by the disconnected corporate worldview that had been pillaging them for years. This plight was crystallized when Hayward told The Guardian, “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”(6)
We are faced with a fearful numbness to disaster, particularly when it is human-made. We seem no longer to see what is right in front of our noses. Robert Jay Lifton called it “psychic numbing,” a condition where we fail to identify with others. We fail to think as much as we fail to feel. Seeing the executives play the blame game in Congress, regurgitate slogans and canned responses, and as Congressman Henry Waxman called it, play “kick the can down the road,”, was emblematic of a failure of cognition as much as a failure of empathy. It’s like when Hannah Arendt wrote of Adolf Eichmann in her seminal book Eichmann in Jeruselem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of someone else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.”(7) Likewise, James Hillman writes, “the question of evil, like the question of ugliness, refers primarily to the anaesthetized heart, the heart that has no reaction to what it faces, thereby turning the variegated sensuous face of the world into monotony, sameness, oneness.”(8)
In the discourse around the spill, we anesthetize it, putting up filters from understanding it, unready to leave our comfortable fantasies. It is as if the oil itself conjures a dissociative plume in our epistemology. In their magnificent book Toward Psychologies of Liberation, Watkins and Shulman write that this form of denial in the psyche of a culture of perpetuated violence leads to a worldview that is not just banal, but one that we can disavow even being a part of. “The world itself appears diminished. Not only is the integrity of affects surrendered, but also the complex cognitive understandings that rely on affects, compromising our capacity to understand what is happening intrapsychically and in the world around us. One pretends to not see and to not know what one does in fact see and know.” (9) We seek what oil brings, its wealth and products, but deny its consequences. It seems to fit the mythos around oil, which turns reality upside down along with the processes of life and death. The substance, after all, is a fossil fuel, literally liquid death. Craig Chalquist notes the mythic roots of oil as an underworld substance:
“Petroleum” goes back to Greek words that mean “rock oil.” “Gasoline” refers to khaos, and “crude,” from the Latin crudus, and to “rough,” “raw,” and “bloody.” “Carbon” has a number of early referents: “black,” “burnt,” “singe,” “fire,” “coal,” “brazier,” and “smoke.” “Derrick” means “gallows” and “hangman.” The vocabulary of petroleum draws us down into a mythology of the Underworld, the place of Pluto … the dark death god whose Roman name means “wealth.” … To extract petroleum from the depths in order to burn it reverses the great geochemical cycles that built life on this planet. Plants and diatoms that poured oxygen into the air took its carbon down into the earth for safe storage. This cleared the way for other forms of life, including ours. When internal combustion (now there’s a metaphor!) releases carbon back into the atmosphere, the wheel of evolution on which all life depends spins backwards toward entropy, degeneration, and death. No wonder Native Californians in the Great Central Valley once used petroleum to make death masks.”(10)
What are the death masks like today? – the stonewalling testimonies to congress, the layers of crust, of anesthetically frozen hearts, the willful incapacity to feel and see what is right under our noses, the willful spraying of toxicity into a Gulf, an unwillingness to recognize limits, or to identify with others? This is how industry today, stripped of its veneer of economics, looks fearfully like holocaust.(11) This is more of a mechanical villainy than a maniacal one – dull, quiet, banal in its procession and its incapacity to access empathy for a dying coast where profits are privatized but risk is socialized. As Chris Hedges writes of this bureaucratic mind, evoking the Freudian version of the mythology, bureaucrats “serve Thanatos, the forces of death, the dark instinct Sigmund Freud identified within human beings that propels us to annihilate all living things, including ourselves. These deformed individuals lack the capacity for empathy. They are at once banal and dangerous. They possess the peculiar ability to organize vast, destructive bureaucracies and yet remain blind to the ramifications.”(12) It seems that if, as Marshall McLuhan said, “all forms of violence are quests for identity,”(13) the reinforcement of the bureaucratic-industrial identity comes at a violent price; one demands the plume of complicit silence.
In all of our simulacra where all our desires are met by the market, the only thing that can shatter our anesthetized heart is a jolt of pure shock and awe in the form of catastrophe. BP tried diligently to manage the narrative, both as a public relations move, a litigious move, and to preserve the public faith in the industry. When Congressman Markey ordered BP to make a live camera feed of the wellhead available on the internet, he allowed what had been denied – a glimpse of the hole in the underworld. The layers of thanatos, numbness, anesthesia and passivity broke apart. And the community became outraged. We began to see the other side of the story, the other side of the gulf between us; a far richer, surprising, and soulful culture of inhabitation parallel to the slick industrial veneer of Louisiana the oil colony.
to be continued ….
(1) Juhaz, 180.
(2) Klein, Naomi, “The Search for BP’s Oil,” The Nation, January 13, 2011.
(3) This is exemplified further in a 1960 oil propaganda short film called “Progress Parade,” produced by the American Petroleum Institute. The film “demonstrated” how scientists allegedly debunked fishermen’s fears that oil was killing the oysters and depicts men in lab coasts dropping crude oil directly into tanks of oysters. They then claimed that the oysters were not dying, but in fact increased in their livelihood. The tag line was that the oysters, “Never had it so good!”
(4) Juhasz, 92.
(5) This was a right-wing slogan repeated by figures like Rush Limbaugh and Brit Hume of Fox, who said, “But you know where the greatest source of oil that seeps into the ocean is? It’s from natural seepage from subterranean deposits. That’s where most of it comes from, not from drilling accidents. So what’s badly needed here is on our energy policy, and also on the realities of what really goes on when it comes to oil spillage.” And, “We’ll see if it is. The ocean absorbs a lot, Juan, an awful lot. The ocean absorbs a lot.” (Cited in the Huffington Post, “Brit Hume, where is the oil?” May 18, 2010.)
(6) Tim Webb, “BP Boss Admits Job on the Line Over Oil Spill,” The Guardian, May 12, 2010.
(7) Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, ( New York: Viking Press, 1963), 49.
(8) James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World, (Dallas, Tex: Spring Publications, 1992), 64.
(9) Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman, Toward Psychologies of Liberation, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 73.
(10) Craig Chalquist, A Brief Mythology of Petroleum. (World Soul Books, 2010), Kindle locations 44-52.
(11) Derrick Jensen, The Culture of Make Believe, (New York: Context Books, 2002).
(12) Chris Hedges, “BP and the ‘Little Eichmans,’” Truthdig. May 16, 2010. Internet resource.
(13) Marshall McLuhan, Stephanie McLuhan, and David Staines Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2003), 264.