At the end of April, I wrote this short piece, Signs. In June I wrote, Mourning for the World. I’m revisiting the state of the ocean, and particularly the Gulf oil spill today, not to celebrate the much touted Bottom-kill and our return to normalcy; but because at this time, when the spectacle has begun to pass it all by, to be replaced by irrelevant bustle, before the next catastrophe until it too passes from its acute to its chronic stage; it is important to take a moment to look at how The Gulf Oil Spill remains significant.
In Signs, I equated portents visible on almost any stretch of coastline anywhere in the world, if we but give up on the forced ignorance and willed blindness that keeps so many of us from seeing what’s plainly in front of our faces. Stating that it shouldn’t take what was then just shaping up to be an immense calamity, to see that business as usual should be its own warning. Mourning for the World, at least the spirit behind its title, was about how such inexorable tragedies engulf us to become – or at least come to seem – examples of an institutionalized ignorance and blindness playing out in the face of intractable reality. That when the willful and petulantly powerful poke around in the basement of the world, unleashing vital forces about which they have no clue, that we all must pay. And that the results – if not today, then soon – will be tragic beyond all our possible imagining. Today what I want to explore is the gap between the time scales of the world and our inability to grasp not only immensity, but progression.
Years ago I spent an afternoon wit one of those acquaintances you meet for a few hours time spread out over decades. Someone you spend the whole time in their company wishing you could bring the circles of your every-days somehow into a closer orbit. They are so charismatic, interesting to be with….
In a bar on the Portland Maine waterfront, he was talking about what it’s like to command a towboat. He said, “With a tow, you can know with sharp certainty that disaster is coming, inexorable and unavoidable. Let’s say an engine failure on your tug, towing an immense fuel-barge. Yet there’s nothing to be done.”
“You might as well go below and make yourself a cup of tea.”
“You’ll have time enough for that, time enough to think about the risks you discounted and the mistakes you’ve made to get you to this point.”
“Time enough to celebrate or regret your whole life, passing before your eyes as the tow looms larger over the stern.”
“What you don’t have is the power to do a damned thing about it.”
Looking into the eyes of this vibrant young man, his vivacious young bride at his side, I was struck by the knowing look in his eye. At that moment it was especially chilling. The moment, the image, the predicament… this is our predicament. This insight has never left me since.
What keeps such an understanding from being a common-place of common-sense; realizing that chains of events can be long, subtle, and yet inexorable. That they end in violent tragedy. This realization is buried deeply in our primate evolution. It runs counter to a stimulus-response cycle that underlies our ability to perceive. Few people today are both in situations of potential peril COMBINED with having a tradition and culture of responsibility that holds them to see the inextricable links between such a long chain of causation. We are all if us immersed in a world of continual risk. We drive automobiles, behemoths of metal careening about at high speed, potent weapons treated as playthings by people with no appreciation of personal responsibility, cocooned within an infantilizing culture that finds it lucrative and expedient to diffuse any signs of latent portent through a combination of statutes and products, an entire state of spectacle forever ready to wash away any inkling of self-awareness for the sake of further profit and sheer accumulation.
We are quick to jump to revel in melodrama. It is almost unavoidable, whenever tragic consequences penetrate our numbed shell, that some will choose what may seem easily avoidable self-destructive acts as setting the stage for a full panoply of hysterical emotional reaction, while others exercise themselves in a call-and-response chorus to work themselves into a frenzy over cherry-picked grievances until they can wrap themselves in the self-righteous mantle of victim-hood. Even those of us who pride ourselves on taking a long view, on penetrating the usual traps, invariably succumb to confusing inevitability with a cascade of “What-if’s.” Until the grand scale of the world’s time is telescoped into the twinkling of our run-away imagination.
So many things can be quickly grasped or simply stated that still take unbearably long to accomplish:
“To find love.”
“To do meaningful work.”
“To make a living.”
Even these most personal imperatives can take a life-time or they might never reach fulfillment. What about effects occurring on immense time-scales over tremendous distances and with lag-times of unknowable proportion? It’s just as easy to misstate these, to rush to conclusions, so as to deny they exist at all. In attempting to live a responsible life it’s as important to be aware of this confusion as it is to acknowledge that we will just as often be wrong in overstating the immediacy of an outcome as we will be surprised by some turn of events that topples our expectations and leaves us reeling at the suddenness of the overturning of all we had envisioned: Calmly awaiting the rush of collision as the barge prepares to run over our immobile tug after slowly rolling over its half-mile long tether; we are startled to find that a seemingly unrelated event brings a smoldering flame in our dead engine-room to some inflammable leak and our tug explodes into flame.
“Who knew?” This may be our last thought, in the final instant before all awareness is snuffed out. A final spark of curiosity fed by wonder at how unpredictable fate truly is.
Having a keen eye for chains-of-events and an instinct for smelling out hazards, I often chafe at what I know to be good advice, as when my friends who founded Dark Mountain insist that apocalyptic visions are as dangerous a fantasy as outright denial. When something as portentous as the spill in the Gulf occurs it is so hard to avoid connecting the dots and coming to conclusions concerning not only how inevitable a bad outcome will be; but that it is imminent and will soon be unavoidable. To be recognized even by the most successfully conditioned deniers around us.
Yet if experience has taught anything, it’s that such moments of pivotal epochal culminating tragedy, the stuff of catharsis in drama and fiction, are exceedingly rare in real life. Just as when our own bodies make the small, barely noticeable changes from wellness to morbidity and we find it almost impossible to curb ourselves at moments of possible transition that might lead us to a different outcome. So it is for us all as we watch a similar procession in the state of the world. Nothing is easier than the glib hindsight that smirks at the excesses of millennial grief suffered whenever past ages felt the turnings of fate on a large scale and misinterpreted the suddenness and the quality of the payback they must incur. The hard part is seeing our own signs and portents and finding a way to stay on the edge between denial and surrender.
The spill in the Gulf has been one in a series of escalating insults to the integrity of the world. It has been more visible than many. Yet it’s amazing how little of its true import has penetrated the obfuscating screens industry and government have placed between us and its outcome. All that, and yet it is probably not going to bring about the kind of dramatic and incontrovertible incident of ecological collapse that some of us know it has been instrumental in hastening. This is a common paradox. Expecting anything else is a sign of impatience misplaced. An example of anger externalized, frustration exercised in looking for a scapegoat.
Sometimes, we will counter, the scapegoat is guilty! Really? Who will actually pay the price of our wrath? I don’t think the breed of carefully groomed sociopaths who’ve made a success on corporate or governmental ladders will pay. Short of petulantly wishing “to have my life back!” They will ultimately share in whatever befalls all of us when some final tipping point is actually reached. Until then they won’t be the one’s to suffer. They may even find comfort in the ridicule they can heap on all us “chicken-littles.” It does place us on a roller-coaster, “Next year in Jerusalem!” or “After the Revolution!”
If we are to learn from what makes our moment unique: The conjunction of a tattoo of blows against the arrogance of hubris, coupled with a nearly global reach of information; so that we are both hit from all sides by signs of collapse and have the knowledge that the same is occurring everywhere around the globe. This awareness leads to the slim chance of avoiding the traps of exceptionalism that have always caught those witnessing the fall of their city, their state, even their globe-girding empire in the past. High on the lists of our lessons we may be the first to have the ability to take to heart this one: Inevitable tragedy has its own timetable. It’s not ours to decide when the inevitable will befall us or even how it may arrive. Learning to set aside our reactions to hypotheticals might free us to find some unprecedented response to our predicament.
The list of our disillusions grows long. It needs to be longer. It should be endless. Only then will we see that all the easy answers have already been tried and never worked. Only then might we find some way to derail the Juggernaut or at least find the dignity to properly mourn for our world.