Blood for Oil

I know I’m not the only person linking the mine disaster in West Virginia to the oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf. I felt the irony in the fact that the Deepwater Horizon platform collapsed and sank on Earth Day. I felt the inconvenient truth in Dan Wasserman’s Boston Globe cartoon picturing one mournful and sooty miner telling another: “Folks on Nantucket worry that windmills will spoil their view.”

We shouldn’t let spinning windmills in the current news cycle spoil our view of the deeper message from the oil-slicked Gulf. Many of the windier pundits are saying that these horrific events highlight the need to conserve energy and convert as soon as possible to renewable sources. Other huffer-puffers counter that it’s naive to think that conversion can happen at anything more than a (shrinking) glacial pace. Both sides have a point, but it’s not my point.

Religiously, I want to urge that we view mineral and energy extraction as a form of unacknowledged violence against Mother Earth. We Westerners are convicted matricidal batterers, and we might wish to pause a moment to think about that. But it’s not just Gaia we’ve been assaulting: it’s also her most exposed and vulnerable human children. Almost every form of mineral and energy extraction entails severe exploitation of workers and their families: from the diamond mines of Africa to the copper mines of Chile to the hideous suffering surrounding coal mines just about everywhere. I need hardly mention the appalling and chaotic conditions that still prevail in the despoiled Niger River delta.

Lisa Margonelli reminded us in a Sunday New York Times op-ed that we deceive ourselves when we talk about curtailing our own oil extraction for environmental reasons: all we do by declining to drill here is “end up getting people to drill for us in Kazakhstan, Angola, and Nigeria.” That’s as long as we keep on guzzling oil at the rate we do, which it appears we are not about to stop doing. Margonelli also noted that since the first Earth Day 40 years ago, we have increased our automobile fuel consumption by two-thirds while quadrupling the amount of petroleum we import.

Because we are locked into a particular kind of oil addiction, the extreme violence lurking just beneath the surface of the addiction has become all but invisible to us. Many of our business and academic elites even consider very rapid fossil fuel extraction to represent “normal” behavior for a developed economy; but it really isn’t. Considered over the longer arc of human existence, our practice of drilling incessantly for liquid gold and then gulping it down as fast as possible represents a freakish aberration and a shockingly risky thing to do. More shocking and more risky, even, than the continuing folly of creating a financialized casino economy that remains vulnerable to bubbles and speculation.

And here we must acknowledge the extent to which an insane lust for mineral wealth is a Western phenomenon, albeit one that is now fully emulated by the Chinese. I will step right into what, in this case, is a helpful and illuminating cliché. Westerners made a horrible Faustian bargain in assuming that we had an unlimited right to extract wealth from the bowels of the earth, using almost unlimited violence to unleash vast mineral power that we use in turn to support unlimited consumption. The Mephistopheles figures in our generations-long seduction have been “Drill, baby, drill!” figures who long preceded Ms. Palin (just think of Sir Cecil Rhodes and Sir H. Rider Haggard of actual and fabulist African fame).

Again, we rarely consider the interconnections between mineral lust and lethal violence. But it really should come as no surprise that the level of violence and injustice surrounding mineral extraction and mineral processing matches the intense level of greed that has been triggered historically by dreams of buried mineral treasure—a greed that begins with the primal lust for gold but certainly extends to gems, iron, copper, bauxite, coal, and oil. As the prophets of old tried to tell us, the cult of Mammon is a surpassingly cruel one: no amount of human sacrifice is unacceptable or unimaginable where the relentless pursuit of glittering riches is concerned. “Blood Diamonds” is actually an appropriate tag for all forms of mineral wealth; all of it is won and held at the price of rivers of blood and suffering.

Sigmund Freud is our great spiritual pioneer in this somewhat dim and cave-like arena, and it’s not too much to say that he has mined this still-little-understood psychological territory. Freud observed that we are obsessive and secretive about hoarding and depositing wealth in much the same way that we’re obsessive and secretive about depositing our shit. There’s a lethal mania here, and tremendous violence coils around our wish to extract and secure hidden wealth. But Freud is not alone in exploring this troubled nexus and recognizing its fateful importance for who we have become. Aggressive wealth extraction and aggressive wealth accumulation are psychologically and spiritually linked behaviors. And they do seem to belong, one regrets to say, to a peculiarly Western disposition. Ours is a sorrowful, if stupendous, golden hoard.

If I might be permitted to wax biblical, I would say that what we have been pleased to call Western civilization bears the mark of Cain just a bit. Maybe it’s finally time for us to try to shed some of our Cain-line violence and try to recover some of the Abel part of our inheritance. Because there actually is another way to live on the earth: an alternative to battering the created order and ruthlessly extracting private wealth. There is also the Peaceable Kingdom approach, the nonviolent pastoral approach, the way of the happy shepherd. Sweet dead Abel!

I noted earlier that it’s doubtful we will stop guzzling oil like drunken lords any time soon. And thus I despair that we will save ourselves or save our bright blue-green planet from asphyxiation. But maybe (just maybe) if the unfolding apocalyptic scenes of utterly ruined seascapes and blasted landscapes become sufficiently lurid, we will reach a kind of psychic rupture and then perhaps even experience a dramatic conversion.

Maybe we will look at our petroleum-drenched lives and finally say: “Do we really even like the way we’re living?” Maybe we will figure out that dear old William Blake, that prophetic denouncer of England’s dark satanic mills, was also prescient in conceiving of energy differently from the coal and iron barons of his time—or from the petro-potentates of our own—in speaking of energy as “eternal delight.”

If we could experience a dramatic conversion in that way I think that God’s great heart would rejoice—and I know for sure that Mother Earth would smile to see her prodigal children finally repent of their profligate ways and begin to live with a lick of sense.