Monday, May 31, 2010

Perspectives addendum

Here's an addition to today's earlier post, another perspective on the Gulf oil disaster.

In Perspective: Visualizing the BP Oil Spill Disaster  superimposes the area covered by oil in the Gulf on a map of someplace close to home, giving us a better perspective of the size of the area. Centered on Lincoln, the northern part of the oil blob lies a little southeast of Wayne, the eastern part somewhere east of Council Bluffs, the southern tip just south of Beatrice. The western reach of the blob is all the way out in Kearney. In other words, if the area of the spill were along I-80 in our part of the world, it would extend from where I-80 and I-680 split in Iowa to Kearney. It's a big area.

Thanks to Elizabeth Kaeton for sharing this link on Facebook.


You give us mastery over the works of your hands; you put all things under our feet:
All sheep and oxen, even the wild beasts of the field,
The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.
(Psalm 8: 7-9, St. Helena Psalter)

What we know about the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf, its effects on the entire ecosystem, and the possibilities (or impossibilities) of stopping the flow of oil into the ocean and of dealing with the effects of the oil and the chemicals used to disperse it has been in constant flux. This changing stream of information along with the volume of words that have been written and spoken about it in recent days make it difficult to stay with any one picture of the disaster long enough to really process it and see what sort of sense can be made of it. The finger-pointing and blaming that has threatened at times to take our focus away from the search for a solution and from consideration of ways we might help to ameliorate it effects is perhaps an attempt to catch hold of some pieces of information and make some sense, make a story, out of it. Something I’ve found helpful is to take note of articles, videos, and photographs that strike me as especially meaningful and then look at them again awhile later, allowing time for some deeper reflection to displace some of the string of immediate reactions that allow information to reach my brain without allowing for any deeper understanding.

Psalm 8 on Trinity Sunday brought some of these pieces from the past week together. The thought of God giving humankind mastery over creation, and especially the thought of God putting us in charge of caring for the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and “whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea”, shed some light on the larger meaning of this disaster. We’ve seen pictures of oily birds – some alive, some dead – and we are beginning to see the results on fish and turtles and other sea creatures. Something has gone terribly wrong; our demand for lots of oil at a fairly cheap price has come at a high cost for everything in the path of the Gulf waters.

Last Monday, the New York Times ran an article Oil Hits Home, Spreading Arc of Frustration  that talked about the changes in perception of the crisis as the oil washed ashore and became more visible in bays along the coast. The story begins with this sentence: “For weeks, it was a disaster in abstraction, a threat floating somewhere out there.”  Everyone knew there was oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, and scientists had been telling us what to expect as the oil kept on gushing, but the severity of any environmental crisis is easy to deny if we can’t see the damage. When the oil starts significantly affecting coastal areas, it’s harder to deny its impact.

On Tuesday (“Oil Spill Day 36” as they called it), ABC News ran a story that showed what Phillippe Cousteau, Jr., and Sam Champion saw when they put on hazmat suits and dived into the Gulf. This was a chance to see what lay between the place on the sea floor where the oil gushed continually and the surface, and it was a sobering perspective:

Then, on Wednesday, the Huffington Post carried A Lesson from the Gulf Oil Spill: We Are All Connected    by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Bishop Jefferts Schori wrote about the truth of humankind’s interconnectedness with the rest of the creation, a truth she said is known by the original peoples of North America, by scientists, and by the Abrahamic faiths. She wrote:
 Another way of saying this is that we are all connected and there is no escape; our common future depends on how we care for the rest of the natural world, not just the square feet of soil we may call "our own." We breathe the same air, our food comes from the same ground and seas, and the water we have to share cycles through the same airshed, watershed, and terra firma.

The contrast she made between “our own” square feet of soil and the entire natural world, along with the reminder that God has charged us with caring for all of creation, not just our own private piece of it, opened another perspective on the oil disaster.

In shrinking ourselves to fit only our own personal space and our private concerns, we make ourselves less than what God created us to be. This is not humility; true humility would be seeing ourselves as we are. Instead, this is denial of who we are, which brings with it a denial of who God the Creator is. The denial is tempting because if it were true that we have no effect on the rest of the world, then our responsibilities would be small. If my own greed and lack of care for the effects of my choices on creation are insignificant, then I can blame either BP or the government for the disaster while pumping gas or waiting for a plane or packing my groceries into a plastic bag.

When we diminish ourselves to take away our sense of responsibility, though, we diminish God.  If we are good at convincing ourselves of our insignificance and smallness, then we also become convinced that a small god can meet our spiritual needs. A small god can tend to our immediate concerns and give us some comfort; such a god would not be concerned with the bigger picture, with people we don’t know and with other living things, and certainly not with the entirety of creation. But such a god would not be our God, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, the Alpha and Omega. In times of disaster, it's especially important to keep everything in proper perspective.