I’ve been watching this oil spill disaster in the Gulf with no small amount of sadness and horror, but haven’t had much to say, because what can you besides, “Bleeerarrrrrgh?!” The coincidental nature of things, with this disaster happening so close to Obama making offshore drilling a centrist centerpiece item, has already started turning up conspiracy theories about how leftist environmentalists destroyed the environment to prove a point. (Right wingers assume everyone else is an venial and short-sighted as they are. They also believe that environmentalists can’t really care about the environment, because again, projection.) I think the nation may be in the throes of denial, even with all the coverage. It’s becoming clear that no one really stopped to think about what it would take to stop an oil spill like this, or to clean it up. They’ve got one cap on, but it hasn’t even slowed the leakage, which is no doubt bigger than the state of Delaware by now. I worry this is the end of the Gulf Coast as we know it; goodbye marshlands, goodbye shrimp. Things may come back slowly, but I suspect nothing will ever be the same.
It was hard for me to wrap my head around the arrogance and short-sightedness that led to this disaster, until last night, in the course of my bedtime reading, I was reminded of the Taliban destroying the Buddhas of Bamyan. The two incidents don’t necessarily seem to have much in common; the Taliban deliberately set out to wipe out these priceless artifacts because they offended their joy-killing, art-hating sensibilities. The oil spill, of course, is an accident. But I’d argue that there’s a common thread between the incidents that led up to both these acts of unfathomable destruction.
Whatever the ostensible excuse the Taliban had for destroying the Buddhas, outsiders can clearly see that they’re motivated mainly be a petulant unwillingness to engage or regard anything that makes them feel smaller or less important. Pleasure and beauty offend fundamentalists, because these things are out of their control and present a threat to their death grip on power. Art reminds people that there’s something more than the tightly controlled, colorless existence offered by fundamentalism, and so the fundamentalists are wary of it. In Afghanistan, they just destroy amazing pieces of art that remind you of the long history and imagination and diversity of humanity. Here, Christian fundamentalists fight against pop culture by replacing it with weak replicas that are meant to satisfy the urge without giving too much of that dangerous pleasure.
The struggle between environmentalists and wingnuts has a similar flavor to it. Wingnuts mock and deride environmentalists for their awe at the grandeur of nature, for their desire to let it exist uncontrolled and unexploited by humans. Nature can quickly make a person feel small and mortal. You look over vast ecosystems clipping along doing their own thing indifferent to you, and you realize that this was all here before you were, and will all be here when you leave. Unless, of course, you level it, take all the resources, and leave a wake of destruction in your path. A lot of environmentalists use rape metaphors when describing what polluters do to nature, and a lot of feminists criticize them for it. But it’s hard not to think of it in those terms when the pro-pollution side glories in the same kind of metaphors.
(Yeah, yeah, you could say it’s a sex metaphor and not a rape metaphor, but I’d point out that the retrograde politics of conservatives mean there’s no substantive difference, metaphorically speaking. Sex/rape, either way they think the woman is dirty and ruined afterwards. It’s the egalitarian, feminist view that doesn’t see sex as somehow winning one over on and degrading a woman.)
“Drill, baby, drill!” was a slogan that revealed that, for conservatives, the potential for environmental destruction is a reward unto itself. It excites. It makes you feel big and important, that mere nature will bend to your will. Only softies care about things like preserving the past or securing the future. Past and future are concepts that offend the narcissism of right wingers, since both concepts remind you that there’s more to this world than you and what you want. Preserving the environment for its own sake seems pointless, since that just means that it’ll survive you, which reminds you that you’re mortal and will one day be forgotten. And so just as the Taliban blew up those Buddhas that stood as stark reminders that there’s more to this universe than their petty little egos, so American conservatives yelled, “Drill, baby, drill!”
Of course, Obama is to blame for giving in to this most petty and childish side of American conservatism, in order to scramble for a few votes he’s not going to get, either from the public or from Republican members of Congress. (Look how quickly Lindsay Graham was able to find an excuse to back out of supporting climate legislation even after getting his way on offshore drilling.) Offshore drilling is like catnip to politicians of all stripes, since it fits the short-sighted popularity trolling that most politicians live for. The very concept of creating a long term legacy seems to be a lost cause in modern American politics; thank god this wasn’t true in the past, or we’d not have things like national parks that are off limits from the “drill baby drill” wingnutteria.
Maybe the immediate effects of this oil spill will give people pause before we go find some other irreplaceable precious environmental resource to destroy.