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July-August 2010
Vol. 35, No. 4

What the Gulf oil crisis can teach us

Social, economic, ecological and political crises collide as U.S. citizens continue to watch the oil catastrophe destroy communities, livelihoods, wildlife and our trust in the politicians we elected to lead and guide us through such calamities.

Socially, the oil spill shines a spotlight on the serious inequality that exists within U.S. society. As oil ruptures the lives of people who make their livelihoods from fishing and showing visitors the beauty of the flora and fauna of coastal wetlands, BP executives calculate just how much the company (which made $17 billion last year alone) can pay out in damages. In the past 15 years, while some salaries quadrupled in size, social mobility has declined for many in the U.S. who never climb out of poverty.

Economically, the oil spill is just another reminder of loss for those in the nation’s middle class whose pensions, retirement funds and homes vanished in the wake of Wall Street gambling. While many in the U.S. lost their hard earned savings, entire communities overseas were deprived of food and affordable transportation as food and fuel commodity speculation wreaked havoc on prices.

Ecologically, the oil spill points to collective U.S. inaction in developing energy alternatives to fossil fuel and in bringing consumption to a sustainable level. If no action is taken, the current rate of over-consumption, waste production and investment in dirty technologies will permanently and negatively impact Earth’s capacity to support life. But rather than slowing these activities, the U.S. has played an active role in accelerating the pace. The frenetic tempo, stoked by patriotic choruses of “oil independence,” has led to the tragedy we witness in the Gulf of Mexico and the massive displacement of people around the world as coal-fired plants, hydroelectric dams and more drilling for oil and other precious minerals continue to be developed.

Ironically, the political implications of the oil spill are rooted in President Obama’s attempt to cajole some of the most headstrong members of Congress into passing a climate and energy bill. The administration rushed through investigations to open up offshore drilling, taking the industry at its word on safety standards which had been watered down and overlooked by previous administrations. Even as the Minerals Management service and the Department of the Interior work to find a path toward lifting the moratorium brought on by the spill, the Senate bill - laboriously worked to cater to the whims of the few - will likely not garner the votes needed to pass (see related article).

According to David J. Hayes, a deputy interior secretary interviewed by the New York Times on the Gulf Coast oil spill, “Congress, environmental groups, industry, the government — all stakeholders involved – were lulled into a sense of what has turned out to be false security.”

Despite this and the collective faulty memory which allows past mistakes to be repeated, people keep searching for an authentic way to follow Jesus and God’s desert teachings.

If we look to our faith, we will find a way forward amidst the social, economic, ecological and political crisis of our day. We were called to live with sufficiency – to take just what’s needed; to keep gifts circulating and to stop our busy, frenzied lives every seven days to rest and re-create.

In ancient times our ancestors were led out of slavery and into the desert where they were taught how to live with sufficiency. In the desert they were given manna so that they would not go hungry. They were instructed, each one, to take no more than what was needed, to keep the gifts circulating and to pause for a day to honor Sabbath.

If each one took just what he or she needed, we might not have the rich amassing mountains of wealth while others suffered. Jesus had much to say about this as well. In the story of Lazarus and the rich man Jesus makes it clear that the rich man passed up many opportunities to share his abundance to ensure that Lazarus’s needs were met.

If we kept God’s gifts that we experience through creation circulating, we would treasure these gifts, keeping them pristine for the next community to use and the next generation to enjoy. There would be no inner city children growing up never knowing that a tomato grows from the ground; animals would not be forced to stand in their own excrement awaiting slaughter and packaging; and we would employ the precautionary principle to find the safest and most renewable way to produce energy to power our way of life. As he sat at table with his friends many times and especially just before his death, Jesus modeled how to keep the gift of food circulating at a table where all are included and all are fed.

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