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Fear and Self-Loathing in an Environmental Catastrophe

Oil Soaked BIrd2010-06-06 at 11.12.03 PM

I cannot look at this photograph without being utterly and thoroughly disgusted.  I can feel the bile form and rise in my stomach, there is a stench that triggers the first hints of an urge to wretch, my gag reflex forces me to avert my gaze.  And at the same time I can’t stop looking at the image. Disgust is among the most visceral and sensuous of emotions; in point of fact, it might be thoroughly corporeal, an affect that literally defies verbalization.  Hate, anger, fear, even love to some extent, can be put into words, even rationalized.  But the very attempt to explain disgust recasts it as something like “contempt” and thus shifts the locus of judgment from a moral to an ideological register.  Put simply, disgust is beyond contempt, an intuitive, affective response to our own impurities; but, and here’s the rub, because they are our own impurities, part and parcel of our own waste and decrepitude, we can identify with them in some measure, we are attracted to them as much as we are repulsed by them.

It is for this reason, I believe, that photos such as the one above “speak” to the current environmental catastrophe in the Gulf in ways that are far more revealing—and certainly more powerful and compelling— than any study an environmental scientist can offer, any report an investigative journalist can write,  or any speech an activist or even the President can make offer (angry or not). Shot in tight close-up the photograph is devoid of all context, underscoring its universality rather than its particularity; indeed, the image incorporates many of the conventions of portrait photography with the point of focus slightly off-center and with the subject both filling the frame and yet looking askance the lens so as to put itself on display.  There is something of a regal quality to the bird’s pose, as if to acknowledge that it is on view for all to see and yet refusing to succumb to the humiliation of the muck and mire that covers and encases it. It is not a stretch to say that the bird exudes a prideful majesty—a sense of dignity—that resonates with the better part of the human spirit.

But there is more, for there is nothing in the photograph that directs our attention to the immediate cause of the bird’s plight.  The caption locates the bird on a beach in Louisiana’s East Grand Terre Island, and so we might be inclined to point our fingers at British Petroleum or perhaps the oil industry more generally.  But the photograph itself fails to provide any direct evidence to support that conclusion.  If any blame is identified in the photograph it must come from elsewhere, and as with any portrait this one urges us to look inward, to see ourselves lurking in the image somewhere.  When we do that, and if we are in any measure honest with ourselves, we have to recognize that for however much BP is culpable for the catastrophe in the Gulf—and there is no question that they own a considerable portion of the blame—the responsibility for this bird’s quandary is not theirs alone.  Everyone of us who enjoys—or more, who demands—the use of petroleum and oil byproducts must own up to our responsibility as well.  This does not mean that BP should be let off the hook when it comes time to pay for its negligence in the Deepwater Horizon accident, but it does suggest that we need to do more than simply hold the oil industry in contempt.  As a society we need to view the disgusting effects of our usage of oil on its own terms and in the context of a larger moral universe.

What we see in the photograph then is an image of ourselves.  The disgust we experience in viewing it is a measure of self-loathing animated by the implicit recognition of own impurities and decrepitude.  The question is, will we simply assume that this is part of the natural order of decay  and thus continue as if nothing is to be done (or assume that the problem can be solved by stronger regulations),  or will we recognize and act upon the need to change the way we live our lives?  It should not be seen as overly dramatic to suggest that our future hangs in the balance.

Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel/AP Photo.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


A Show of Hands

Hans Deryk

We tend to think of oil as having relatively low viscosity, largely because most of us encounter it once it has been refined and readied for consumption.  But here we see it as the sludge that it becomes after floating about in the gulf for several days – a gloppy, brown, glutinous mess that resembles nothing so much as tar.  Notice how it clings to the protective rubber gloves and when it drips off it does so in globs that will attach to anything solid – rocks, sand, reefs, water reeds, marine life … what have you.  And there are plenty of other pictures that make the point.

What I find most striking about this photograph, however, are the hands.  These hands belong to a Greenpeace marine biologist testing the waters at the mouth of the Mississippi River where it meets the Gulf of Mexico, but of course we can’t tell any of that that from the picture itself.  Rather, what we can tell is that it will be impossible for any of us to keep our hands clean as we deal with the environmental impact of the Deepwater Horizon accident.

The image stands in stark contrast to another photograph that appeared this past week of the Presidents and chief spokesmen for BP American, Transocean Limited, and Haliburton.

Andrew Harrer

The smug expressions on their faces belie their efforts, against all credulity, to “deflect blame and responsibility for their respective companies.”  But notice their hands. Folded or resting on what is probably the transcript of their prepared statements, they suggest a uniformity of indifference, perhaps even a degree of nonchalance.  And note too that they are as clean as the white colors on their dress shirts.  The metaphor, of course, is rich and altogether ironic.  Or at least we can only hope so.  If the photograph at the top of the page is correct, the sludge from Deepwater Horizon will stick to everything it touches.  It would be a crime if Congress doesn’t make sure that these three all get their fair share of greasy hands.

Photo Credit: Hans Deryk/Reuters; Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.