Thursday, June 3, 2010

Spill. Plume. Geyser. Wound.

Once again this morning on NPR, I heard about the “biggest oil spill in U.S. history.” I don't know about you, but the word "spill" just seems so inadequate, so insultingly paltry, to describe what's happened since the TransOcean/British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico six weeks ago. "Spill" is what I do when I accidentally dump juice, coffee, or water on the table when I'm eating. It's what happens when something pours out of something else because of gravity. "Spills" are usually little things that we might swear about and apologize for at dinner. They are worth an "Oh crap" followed by "I'm sorry."

Somehow, I think that what's unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico is hardly a "spill." Tar balls are on their way to the Florida panhandle hundreds of miles away from this “spill.” Pelicans are being covered in oil (image from Associated Press). Sea turtles are dying. British Petroleum has used thousands of gallons of ultra-toxic Corexit to disperse oil. Corexit contains arsenic, chromium, and copper and the EPA has advised BP to stop using it. It's likely to worsen the oil "spill."

Words like "plume" or "geyser" come a little closer. When they are coupled with “disaster” or “catastrophe” they start to make sense. This “disastrous plume” of oil or “catastrophic geyser” words might work for us.

Starting with plume, let's consult the Oxford English Dictonary for some guidance:
plume, n 7. a. A trail or cloud of smoke, vapour, etc., issuing from a localized source and spreading or billowing out as it travels.
That's a bit more like it. I think that more or less describes this now (tragically) standard footage.

If you go to Alexander Higgins' blog you can watch lots of video footage at how ineffectively an "oil spill robot" tries to deal with a "massive plume." But I don't really like this word "plume" much either because in its best associations we think of plumes as linked to plumage, the beautiful mating displays of birds. There is nothing beautiful about this. This is pure ugliness threatening so many lives, human and non-human. Let’s face it, the already deteriorating and atrophied shrimp populations of the Gulf of Mexico are in for more devastation. As Zach noted in an earlier entry, this will compound the problems caused by chemical fertilizer, pesticide, and organic run-off that brought about the enormous Gulf dead zone. Put this plume on the dead zone Gulf and we have a peacock plucked of a third of its feathers and fanning a tail bathed in oil. Nice.

So what about "geyser"? Once again, the OED.
geyser, n. 1. An intermittent hot spring, throwing up water, etc. in a fountain-like column.

2. The name given to an apparatus for rapidly heating water attached to a bath. Also for the heating of water for use in wash-basins, sinks, etc.
This thing is hardly intermittent. At about 70,000 barrels a day, we are approaching 2,1000,000 gallons of oil in the Gulf. It is a column. It is a fountain. But it lacks the majesty of Old Faithful in Yellowstone. Like "plume," “geyser” and “fountain” hardly express this rupture...

this inundation...

this deluge...

this thing that shows us how small we are even with our awesome tools and how criminal we are in our acceptance of ugliness and collateral damage in the name of technocratic progress that wants to believe it should not and must not be limited. No matter how greedy, how negligent, nor how ill-informed this whole process is, it continues.

I am reminded of the children behind the Spirit of Christmas Present's robes in Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

"Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!" exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

"Spirit, are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.

"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!" cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. "Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end."

"Have they no refuge or resource?" cried Scrooge.

"Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. "Are there no workhouses?"

The bell struck twelve.

Ignorance and Want. If you know anything about Dickens’s London, you know that it was a smoggy soot-coated city. It was the seat of British might. It was ugly and toxic. It killed the countryside. It was addicted to coal. Are we so different? A little. But not enough.

I think that in our hubristic belief in the "progress" of our industrial economy, our "enlightened" political systems, and our concomitant educational system(s) we have bred ourselves into being wanting and dependent creatures endlessly filled with "needs." This needy person (as the philosopher Ivan Illich called us) has educated himself into believing that his own "needs" are rights owed to itself and that the pursuit of those needs is the path to enlightenment. The enlightened person consumes their way to happiness through the acquisition of material wealth and the extraction, movement, and transformation of "resources" through "advanced" technology. The human product of this globalized state's market's school is, perhaps, the most parasitic organism on the planet. It wants as much as it can get, calls those wants needs, declares that those needs are owed to it by alleged rights and the person who understands that they have these rights is educated, enlightened, and progressed.

This needy person ignores and relabels the rights of the non-progressed people of the world. It pretends that they don’t exist as externalities to the economy or it calls them ignorant and in need of education. It forces them out one way or another: by climate change if your are an Inuit; by poisoning if you live on or near natural resources like coal or natural gas; by coercion if you are Filipino rice farmer, Jamaican banana farmer, or Indian farmer who refused the Green Revolution; or by military force if you refuse compliance. People are pushed and pulled from their historically evolved niches and places and moved into slums where they are neglected in high concentrations. Those historically evolved niches are transformed into places for resource development, into dumps, or into the homes for our waste. Of course the slums are polluted. At least in the slums they are within the bounds of civilization where they can be taken care of. Because people who do not work within the cash economy and have lived within the economy of nature cannot be trusted to take care of themselves because they don’t have access to things that they “need.” No. They are too ignorant. They must be hurting themselves.

Not only has our “progress” shunted people into slums, but it has ghettoized nature. Those niches and places fall to our ignorance and serve our want. The Gulf now falls rapidly to them. There has been no large lesson learned from the Exxon Valdez and comparable disasters. Chernobyl meant nothing. We are addicted to power, will, and appetite as Ulysses speaks in Shakespeare’s Troillus and Cressida:
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

We are those children and, as the Spirit of Christmas Present says, on our brows is written Doom. Can we call ourselves fine children? I would choke on the lie if I were to try. We eat ourselves as we eat that oil, both literally and figuratively. We are the ignorant universal wolf so needy and wanting we have made ourselves and every thing around us a universal prey. We bite and bite and bite. We wound.

There is the word. “Wound.” The Gulf rupture is a wound that we have punctured into the Earth.

Once again, the OED:
wound, n.
1. a. A hurt caused by the laceration or separation of the tissues of the body by a hard or sharp instrument, a bullet, etc.; an external injury.
2. transf. a. An incision, abrasion, or other injury due to external violence, in any part of a tree or plant.

5. (= L. plaga.) a. A blow, a stroke. (Cf. PLAGUE n. 1.) Obs.
b. A plague. Obs.

As Earth is a body of tissues, much of it living and all of it involved in the great processes of life and living. The sea and the seabed support life. This Gulf wound is a great laceration and separation of those tissues due to external violence. That violence came from a series of blow from our own plague for power.

I believe our hour has struck twelve. The night now deepens. Perhaps we will move into a new day, a day of sunlight, that greatest of disinfectants and the universal wolf will temper itself and stopping it up itself and find a more sustainable way of being. But right now it is very dark, and the wolf’s stomach is rumbling.

1 comment:

  1. In conversation now, two other words have come up, the first of which, "eruption," gets to scope but not cause (comes across as too natural and notes no human involvement) and "hemorrhage," which seems appropriate, possibly better.