Who should stand in the dock?

by Chuck Redfern, first published on www.creedible.com on May 14, 2010.

What happens when the would-be dragon slayer peers into the mirror and sees a flame-throwing reptile?

That’s the real question as tar balls wash ashore in the Gulf and the ooze seeps into the reeds of Louisiana’s marshes.  We long to rail against BP and the oil industry in general. The companies seem so devious, so crafty, so … oily.  Just think of the 1969 Santa Barbara spill, the Exxon Valdez, and the plight of  Nigeria, which “has spills equal to that of the Exxon Valdez about every year,” according to Bryan Walsh of TIME.  And there were those unseemly energy crises profits and BP’s record of accidents: US Representatives Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak sent the company a letter in January in which they listed mishaps in Alaska – including the failure of safety backups.  Perhaps 11 dead workers would still be alive if BP had been more alert.

So I’ll unsheathe my muckraking sword and slay the oil company dragon – just after I wrap my son’s lunch in petroleum-based plastic, drive him to school, gas up the car, check its oil, and call the repairman so I can push my lawn mower with ease …

Our Own Decisions

My inner dragon slayer drops his sword and I squirm within the confines of my own lizard skin.  I remember my childhood.  We moved from Minnesota to the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles in 1960, where the last orchards unleashed their fragrance and the city’s trolley cars were still linked to wires above.  The trolley cars vanished; the orange trees fell; the orchards became developments and their aroma faded into the enveloping smog.

I squirm more when I think of the parting scenes in all those black-and-white movies: Hepburn and Crawford blew kisses at Tracy and Gable as the conductor cried: “All ABOARD!”  Train travel – far more efficient than today’s interstates – was the norm.  Europeans understood that and levied taxes to fund the rails while we laced our landscape with asphalt.  Perhaps trains are not as convenient as cars, but since when did convenience become the only measuring rod for sound policy?  Convenience must be coupled with overall effectiveness and societal benefit.  Many of those highways plow through old neighborhoods or loop around major cities and towns, the centers of which now hulk with abandoned store fronts because of lost business.  Bedroom communities mushroomed in the former countryside.

The ambitious dragon slayer must ask:  Did any dictator mandate the extermination of LA’s transit system?  Did God sweep away the orange groves?  Did an army of oil company executives force us to build the interstates?  No doubt they applauded it; no doubt the auto industry CEO’s salivated; no doubt they lobbied.  But here’s the nasty truth: We really are a free country.  We can talk freely and, even more important, we can listen freely.  We can measure arguments and make decisions.  We’re the ones who vote the politicians in and out.  Because of that, they wet their fingers, point them to the sky, and measure the wind of public opinion.  If their constituents want highways instead of rails, so be it.

Opportunity Squandered

There have been potential turning points.  The Santa Barbara spill could have spurred deliberation and implementation of viable energy alternatives.  Our radio preachers could have weighed in with sermons on environmental stewardship and thrown in verses on sacrifice.  But Walsh points out that we fooled ourselves with “subtle energy hypocrisy.”  No new oil rigs were permitted off our Pacific and Atlantic coasts.  “New Jersey’s senators, for example, may use their influence to keep offshore drilling away from the Garden State’s beaches, but no one presses the state’s residents to give up the 230 million bbl. of oil they burned in 2008 alone.”  We’ve merely outsourced offshore drilling to the Gulf, Alaska, and to other nations, including Nigeria, where the “black gold” became a “curse,” to coin the terms of Tom O’Neill.

President Jimmy Carter tried to use the energy crises of the 1970’s to prompt wise policy, proclaiming this in April of 1977: “Our decision about energy will test the character of the American people and the ability of the President and the Congress to govern.  This difficult effort will be the ‘moral equivalent of war’ – except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not destroy.”

But we opted for Ronald Reagan, which was understandable.  Indeed, the “great communicator” could have picked up the mantle and rallied the nation with one of Peggy Noonan’s speeches.  Perhaps she would have written something along these lines: “I see the men and women of our past and how they toiled for freedom.  I see farmers and merchants picking up their muskets and fighting off the world’s greatest empire.  I see the sons of small-town bankers and store owners defending Little Round Top at Gettysburg.  I see young men from Yonkers, Mobile, Los Angeles, and the hamlets of Iowa storming the beaches of Normandy and rescuing Europe from Hitler’s tyranny.  Those heroes fought so their grandchildren could thrive in freedom – and they call us to sacrifice ourselves for our descendants and theirs.  They call us to free their great-grandchildren from the grip of an exclusively oil-driven economy …”

Alas, there was no such speech.  Almost all reliable accounts testify to Reagan’s personal compassion and sincerity, but he saw what he wanted to see: A mythic America, a blurred-rim nation of wholesome folks waving their flags in an eternal fourth of July.  No energy crisis lurked in that dream – so we, who bought the Reagan myth, answered Carter’s call by buying gas-guzzling SUV’s.  They were convenient.

I’m not supposed to say this, but …

The missed opportunities, the 11 grieving families, and the encroaching ooze force me to ask an unpalatable question: Do we know what we mean when we call America a “great nation?”  Do we think we’re great because we’re innovative and powerful?  “Power” and “greatness” do not necessarily walk hand in hand.  Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor was powerful when his police arrested Martin Luther King Jr. and sicked their attack dogs on peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama.  Picture Connor in his office and King in the prison cell.  Who was greater?  P.W. Botha, the powerful prime minister of South Africa, negotiated with a prison inmate named Nelson Mandela in the early 1980’s.  Who was greater?  Then there are all the teachers, ministers, and coaches who opted for low-paying careers; compare them to glitzy celebrities fawning their scandals.  Who is greater?  King, Mandela, the teachers, ministers, and coaches show us that great individuals often shun convenience and power.  They see Christ’s wisdom: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31).

I must ask: Is America’s greatness slipping through its fingers?  Look into the mirror.  What stares back?  A dragon slayer or a dragon?  Elizabeth Denlinger Reaves says the events in the Gulf must force us to consider the log in our own eye.  Lament is legitimate, “but unless my lament leads to personal repentance, can I expect to find peace?”

And therein lies our rescue.  The way toward peace – which means “well being” in the full Hebrew sense of “shalom” – must involve repentance, or a change of our national mind.  We must finally acknowledge that Exxon, Shell, Mobile, and BP were providing products we demanded.  In this instance, BP must be held accountable, but it is not the true dragon.  We, as a society, made the choices that led to this disaster.  We opted to become what we are – and we’ll only slay the beast within after we admit it’s there.  Perhaps we will finally become a people who shun convenience and walk in the greatness that humility brings.

A video:

For further reading:

Carter, Jimmy, “Primary Sources: The President’s Proposed Energy Policy,” American Experience, Jimmy Carter, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/carter/filmmore/ps_energy.html

Denlinger Reaves, Elizabeth, “Gulf Oil Spill: Watching a Disaster Unfold with a Log in My Eye,” God’s Politics, a blog by Jim Wallis & Friends, http://blog.sojo.net/2010/05/05/gulf-oil-spill-watching-a-disaster-unfold-with-a-log-in-my-eye/

Lustgarten, Abraham, “Congressmen Raised Concerns About BP Safety Before Gulf Oil Spill,” http://www.propublica.org/article/congressmen-raised-concerns-about-bp-safety-in-months-before-gulf-spill,  May 5, 2010.

Noonan, Peggy, What I Saw At The Revolution: A Political Life In The Regan Era (New York: Random House, February, 1990).

O’Neill, Tom, “Curse of the Black Gold: Hope and betrayal on the Niger Delta,” National Geographic Magazine, February 2007. http://www.docstoc.com/docs/19896577/National-Geographic_-February-20

Stupak, Bart; Waxman, Henry, Letter Concerning Alaskan Pipeline Safety, January 14, 2010, http://www.propublica.org/documents/item/congressional-committee-letter-to-bp

Walsh, Bryan, “The Meaning of the Mess,” TIME, May 17, 2010

The following sites have up-to-the-minute updates on the spill:




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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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