What the Gulf Spill Means to Me

Jun 9th, 2010

We live in a hyper-technological age in which information is cheap and ubiquitous.  I am no Luddite, and I have benefited greatly from social media, but we must remember that both cheapness and ubiquity are traits indicative of  poor quality.  Not only do our Twitter-fried brains have 140-character attention spans, but I am convinced that the availability  of instant information has caused us to overestimate the possible and underestimate our fallibility.

In reaction to the Gulf oil spill, pundits of all stripes have scored points by calling both BP and President Obama “incompetent.”   Increasingly in our cultural environment, incompetence is a term synonymous with failure.  The two words mean, and should mean, radically distinct things.  Incompetence denotes a person or institution’s inability to achieve something that is readily possible, while failure simply denotes the inability to accomplish a goal, whether possible or not.  Our information environment makes us feel like anything is possible, and we generally wait in impatient incredulity when someone tells us they’re doing “everything they can.”  We have lost the cultural ability to accept that failure is possible, or indeed frequently inevitable.  There is much that remains beyond us.  To quote a certain POTUS, sometimes there are just no ‘asses to kick’.

The reality is hard:  it is the nature of machines to break, the nature of accidents to happen, the nature of humans to fail.  In our history conflict, deprivation, and terror are the rules not the exceptions.  Entropy is both a physical and anthropological reality.

Recognizing the fundamental darkness of the world is terrifying, and it is the antithesis of much progressive thinking.  But it also produces a useful humility and skepticism.  When institutions and cultures succeed, as they have so remarkably often throughout our history, I rejoice at the unexpected.  When they fail, I solemnly accept the expected.

When I think of oil, three basic traits stand out:  necessity, scarcity, and dirtiness.  We desperately need it, there’s not much of it, and it’s nasty stuff.  In this light, and with a pervasive sense of Kantian Universalizability (or, if you prefer, the Golden Rule), it is my absolute moral duty to use as little of the stuff as possible.  I must do unto others as I would have done unto me.  Yet I must also realize that wealth is a peacemaker.  Nothing brings out our terrible baseness like poverty, so we have two conflicting yet simultaneous moral demands:  we must reduce consumption while becoming rich.  We have a duty to achieve the highest possible living standard for a given unit of oil. That is the definition of efficiency, and the essence of a sensible conservatism.

Waste is morally inexcusable.  Oil has done a fantastic job elevating people from poverty to affluence, and that is its proper use.  Yet in my rich corner of the world we just don’t need that much of it.  We don’t need cars, or 2,500 sq. ft. houses, or parking lots, or deepwater wells at the limits of our technological abilities.  We can actually live better without these trappings of waste.

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