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Friday, May 21, 2010

The Oil Debacle = Return of the Repressed

The oil gusher is not a "spill." We call it that because we are far more familiar with marine oil disasters involving tankers. This crisis is about a gusher, which is a great thing on land (and a very rare thing these days, since petroleum discovery peaked in 1964) and a total disaster in the water. It's around 95 thousand barrels per day.

My days of professional journalism about oil are long over. I haven't really followed industry trends since FTW folded in 2006. But I'm still thinking about it, and POETRY-POLITICS-COLLAPSE is where I do my thinking on current affairs, with my 46 subscribers and my Don Quixote helmet.

The oil gusher disaster is the return of the repressed. It is the outbreak of the deep past, raging into the present like the suppurating narcissistic wounds of childhood busting upward from the unconscious in the form of somaticized neurotic symptoms--a facial palsy, a tic, a paralysis, an addiction, or a tremor, or poor dear Fairbairn's inability to urinate--and plenty of mental symptoms into the bargain. The somatic symptoms are like the wrecking of the biosphere; the mental symptoms are like the mounting ecological anxiety of the culture, together with its two major defenses--denial and hysteria.

The oil is the deep past; it's the intolerable & heartbreaking message of extinction, not only because the popular mind associates the origins of oil with the dinosaurs, but because in reality petroleum is the product of two enormous algae-blooms from 150 m.y.a. and 90 m.y.a. (long before the meteorite that vaporized the last Tyrannosaurus Rex).

The algae was alive an unthinkably long time ago, a length of time which utterly dwarfs not only the timescale of a human life (102 years), but even the timescale scale of the entire human species' tenure on Earth (~2 x 106 years). The older of the two algae-blooms was 1.5 x 108 years ago. It has been totally transformed into hydrocarbons, whose amazing level of energy storage evokes the vast size of the ancient blooms, the vast energy of the incident sunlight they captured, and the vast aeons it took to "ferment" their myriad microscopic corpses into petroleum.

We call it "rock oil," as though it were as inorganic as stone; in reality, it is liquid death, the "excrement of the devil," which ruins every country in which it's discovered. How? By bringing a cloud of corporate vultures who will kill anybody whose priorities differ from those of capital. Oil brings in The Man, to do what Shell did to the Ogoni in Nigeria. With its easy wealth, it also erases the folkways of traditional expertise; by the time the exportable oil runs out, nobody is left who's old enough to remember how to grow food without it. Pretty soon, there's not even adequate supply for domestic consumption, and things get sticky, as they've begun to do in Britain since the North Sea petro-bonanza ended, sinking Maggie Thatcher's star below the horizon.

Now we're confronted daily with the bizarre spectacle of apparent abundance--a gusher like Spindletop, right out of 1901--but this time even CNN realizes we are only out there drilling deepwater because all the conventional giant fields are in decline, from Ghawar to Cantarell, depleting at about 14% per year. It's a weird tableau of abundance and scarcity.

The oil is precious; human beings busted their asses and risked their blood and treasure to get at it; it is all going to waste; it is toxic and flammable, intensely concentrated liquid power; it is time and sunshine made tangible; it's the materialization of Sun light, that life-giving, life-taking mindless force of the blazing thermonuclear furnace to which we owe our existence; it ruins everything it touches; it is invading the ecosystems of the Gulf and an ever-greater portion of the coastal United States.

BP is behaving like a typical corporation--utterly amoral, hubristic, venal--lying through its teeth, hoarding information, treating the rest of the human community with utter contempt. That's not news; they always do that. The news is that this time, a non-trivial minority of Americans actually know something about Peak Oil; they know about the appalling fragility of the biosphere, and that when it crashes, we all perish; they know the whole industrial food empire runs on cheap & abundant fossil fuels which are rapidly becoming gone things. They even know that before the "spill," the ocean was afflicted with gigantic dead zones and islands of floating trash the size of various New England states.

The Bush crime family, whose lifeblood is gasoline and heroin, recently sent its cat-torturing scion to the White House, where in 2006 he told their battered Stepford bride she had to quit her habit: "America is addicted to oil." Well, it's late in the game for that, since Ford-Firestone and Standard Oil gutted our public transportation systems a hundred years ago and then Ike replaced them with the interstate highway system. Then Cargill, ADM, and Monsanto drove the farmers off the land and into the industrial cities, so we all forgot how to feed ourselves without off-the-shelf Twinkies at our disposal. Then manufacturing went to China, since the American ruling class decided around 1980 that compared to F.I.R.E. (finance, insurance, and real estate), making material things of intrinsic value was a sucker's game. Throw in narco-traffic, war profiteering, and money-laundering, and the picture of the U.S. economy is much closer to completion.

Everybody's in debt, there are no new jobs, and the old jobs all suck--working for the Wal-Mart "folks" who own the country, as their big-box armada homogenizes the entire landscape of the lower 48, eating small businesses and excreting their digested remains in the form of billboards, strip malls, and chain after chain, franchise after franchise, plastered with the smiley emoticons of fake happiness and atomized emotional hypothermia. Brrrr, that Slurpee's cold! So is bowling alone...

But whether we produce or consume, it all runs on cheap oil. At this point the price has plunged toward $50/barrel, apparently because the weak euro is making everything cheaper in dollar terms. That won't last, especially with the shitification of the deepwater oil industry.

Meanwhile, Republican Louisiana Governor Robert Jindal (hands off the "Bobby" nickname; it belongs to RFK, not you) sees fit to wait for permits before building sandbag installations, perhaps because he thinks this emphasis on red tape is helpful to his absurd life's work of being an anti-government governor. The irony there, of course, is that a bit more of the dreaded "big government" regulatory enforcement might have prevented the disaster that's currently crippling his state.

The gusher at the bottom of the ocean is a wound. It is too deep under water to repair. The pressurized oil comes from an even deeper place, below the surface of the ocean floor (in that regard, it's a bit like the balrog that slept underneath the mines of Moria; holla back, my nerd homies); depth under depth. It represents all the bitter self-knowledge we cannot yet tolerate, but which is blasting up out of the unconscious and into the blogs, the press, the conversations (remember those?) at a rate of 95 thousand barrels per day.

That inexorable black plume is the unfinished business of America's drunken dream. It means we are coming to the point where our systems of food, transportation, and economic exchange are going to start failing. Only then will a majority of people be forced to break the law and squat in properties they don't own, hoping for the best until the werewolves of the law come knocking; growing their own food and raising their own animals in the hope that the zoning laws won't kick them into the street; walking and biking after the cars just die in the driveway and stay there. Digging up the pavement to plant corn, and hoping it isn't loaded with cadmium and lead. And so on. Meanwhile there's this other little problem of the hottest year on record, with all the nasty consequences for crop yields.

It's as if the planet is saying, "You want oil? I'll give you oil..."

The good part of this current disaster is the forced march toward integrity, the excruciating uphill slog into truths we can hardly bear to notice, let alone deal with. The dead wildlife won't benefit from our soul-searching, but whatever survives down there will probably have a few years' respite from the trawler-fishing that's devastated coastal shellfish populations to the brink of collapse. With any luck, it'll be like the DMZ in Korea, where animals are free to eat each other alive without interference from man--not because we grew up and learned to respect "nature," but because the Korean War is not yet officially over and the no-man's land of the North-South dividing line happens to be several miles wide. I hear the deer are thriving at Chernobyl.

"There is plenty of hope. But not for us." --Kafka

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this. The situation is so frustrating and such a horrible thing to watch. It's like watching 9/11 except that it keeps going on and on and on with no end in sight. You're right, at least there is some awareness and "Beyond Petroleum" won't get away with their insulting "look at how Green we are, we've invented solar power" ad campaign. The scariest thing to me is that not even BP has enough money to fix this.

    I'm happy to be one of the fortunate forty six.

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  2. Beautiful post, Jamey. Thanks so much. I loved this half-hour talk about fish:

    http://blog.ted.com/2010/03/how_i_fell_in_l.php

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  3. GOD DAMN BRAVO!!! FINALLY, I hear someone else say it: IT'S A F*CKING GUSHER, NOT A "LEAK" OR "SPILL". THANK YOU, Jamey. I didn't know you were still around. I read you all the time at FTW. I will read you here now, too.

    Balrog! Flee, you fools!

    ron
    key west

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