In an article bemoaning the consistently shallow media coverage of the deep problems revealed by the crisis in the Gulf, Bill McKibben wrote,
The questions that the Gulf spill raises, in other words, go well beyond: How big an idiot is Tony Hayward? What will happen to the tourist economy of the Gulf? How cool is James Cameron's minisub? The questions are more like: How out of balance with the natural world are we? And what would it require to get back in balance?You'd need to interview not just oil execs and colorful shrimpers, but nature writers, solar pioneers and psychologists.
Well, I'm a psychologist and since writing here on Psychology Today lets me be a "recovering source" no interview is necessary. I can tell you directly what I think.
Simply put, I've got Gulf oil on my hands and so do you. It drips from our fingers while we peck at our keyboards, drive our cars, or cool ourselves with frigid A/C air. Like a murder victim's blood, it leaves a guilty trail on everything we touch.
Also, our hands were oil-soaked well before the Gulf's environmental, economic, and social disaster became impossible to ignore:
As Bill McKibben wrote in a recent article, “Dirty as the water is off the Mississippi Delta, that’s barely the tip of the damage from fossil fuel. If that oil had traveled down a pipeline to a refinery and then into the fuel tank of a car, it would have wrecked the planet just as powerfully.”
You don't have to agree that the damage would have been equal to know that there would have been some significant damage "(i)f that oil had traveled down a pipeline to a refinery and then into the fuel tank of a car." All you have to do is take climate science more seriously than politics. The fact is that everything from our food to our information to how we get where we're going floats on a poisonous ocean of oil and gas.
The only question is how do we wash it off. And the only answer for washing the oil from our hands is with as rapid as is possible a transition to a way of life built from renewable energy. This point was reinforced when I contacted Kelly Rigg, Executive Director of the Global Campaign for Climate Action, during the Bonn Climate Treaty talks. She said:
"The only sustainable solution to prevent more oil-spills is to get a good climate treaty and speed up the transition to renewables."
But unless people feel directly responsible for something it is very hard to make changes and, making it worse, it is even more difficult to feel responsible for consequences that are far away—see, psychology does have a place in this discussion. Casual-tokers getting high at a weekend BBQ don't feel responsible for drug gang shootings in northern Mexico. Nor do lap-dance aficionados shoulder the blame when some pimp beats-up an under-age prostitute. Nor are we able to feel responsible for our energy future, should it result either in catastrophic climate change or a sustainable reliance on renewables. Our minds are just not built that way. The further away a consequence is in space or time, the easier it is to disclaim responsibility.
And when events like the Gulf shove feelings of responsibility into awareness we have lots of ways to get rid of the feelings. We can become outraged and angry: lets find some ass to kick! Or maybe just criticize a President for not being angry enough. Or we can boycott or protest or volunteer in the hope that if we do something—anything—we'll feel better. Who cares if it moves us closer to a renewable energy future, lets find a villain and get really, really angry or, maybe, wash a few pelicans and switch from bottled to tap water.
Such a path of immediate emotional discharge helps avoid uncomfortable personal responsibility and can take some funny turns. Consider the following, a move that reminds me of the right-wing trying to rebrand french fries as "Freedom Fries" in response to France's criticism of the Iraq invasion:
In a protest over the Gulf oil spill, a minor league baseball team is changing the name of batting practice so the players will no longer have to utter the letters "BP." The Brevard County Manatees of the Florida State League say they will now take "hitting rehearsal."
The River City Rascals (independent; Frontier League) are also changing the name of batting practice to hitting practice.
Also discharging rage directed at BP is a nascent protest movement with a rallying cry of seizing BP's assets:
From coast to coast, people are stepping up to the plate and organizing demonstrations for the Seize BP Week of Action in their cities and towns. We will take to the streets from Thursday, June 3 to Thursday, June 10 in cities across the country to demand: Seize BP
In outlining a smart strategy for a boycott Jeff McMahon at True/Slant pointed out the problem is not just with BP:
... is it better if they drive further to fill up at Exxon, which survived the last major oil boycott in the early 1990s to set new profit records in the 21st Century? The effort to boycott BP, growing for a few weeks now, is undermined by the lack of a clean competitor and by the extent to which petroleum is woven into our lives.
Another True/Slant writer, Michele Catalano, points to some dangerous unintended consequences of boycotting BP that include hurting small business people who just happen to sell BP rather than some other kind of gas:
Ok then. Who’s going to pay for the cleanup now? Who is going to pay out money to all the people who lost homes, jobs and businesses? Who is going to be held financially responsible for all of this is if there is no BP? I don’t think a few bake sales is going to take care of all that.Be careful what you death-wish for. And think your protests through. A boycott may be a symbolic act meant to represent your anger, but the wrong people are going to feel the brunt force of it.
If you boycott this oil company that one will still feed our petro-hunger. It really is just a roll of the dice choosing which company will bear the burden of the unintended spills and disasters inevitable with the complex technologies that run petro-world. Oil companies are like hard drives in that there are only two kinds: those that have failed and those that will fail.
Even reducing consumption as much as possible, the ultimate boycott taken to its ultimate extreme, will only slow not stop the rush to "spill, baby, spill." The only answer is renewables: slow to implement, infrastructure and life changing renewable energy sources.
But we won't be able to wash the oil from our hands with renewable energy unless we all shoulder our responsibility for what is taking place. We don't need an angry President who kicks ass, that just makes us feel better momentarily because we don't then have to feel responsible. But we are responsible.
It's just that it is psychologically quite difficult to hold on to the idea that we are all personally responsible for everything we see down in the Gulf. We're responsible for the spill even if we are not psychologically built to assume that responsibility. But if you look, you'll see both the oil dripping from your hands and the reality that renewable energy is the only way to get them clean again.