Monday, June 7th, 2010
43

You've Learned Helplessness

FLY BIRDY FLYAs is the case with these things, it was the pictures of the oily birds-the one that looked like some gurgling monster; the one that lay on its back like a human, dying-that yielded the most authentic reactions to the oil spill I've yet seen. Showing the photos to three friends, I watched the anger over the oil spill subside in their faces, the frustration drift from their voices as they scrolled down the page, lingering on each new frame. Unprompted, all three eventually said the same thing: "It makes me feel helpless."

More than any other word, perhaps, helpless is the one best for describing exactly how what's happening in the Gulf renders people. Rage, hate and embitterment are indeed part of the equation as well, but it seems obvious that those are mostly the byproducts of rampant powerlessness (this, by the way, is also a very, very basic explanation of violence in the inner-city). The president, the oil company, important Hollywood celebrities and the world's best engineers are stumped, and here we are, not any of those things, forced to watch the pelicans try in vain to flap their sludge-burdened wings.

In a way, the very word "helpless" seems wrong in this situation. In fifth grade, I once hit a river stone with a golf club and watched it zoom away much faster than I'd anticipated; right before it cracked Alison Stevens in the forehead, I felt helpless, knowing damn well I couldn't take my decision back. Nowadays, I sometimes feel helpless when my cellphone dies. It seems like a criminal understatement to say it makes us feel helpless to watch endless shit pour into a delicate ecosystem, poisoning everything in its wake, spoiling coastlines, ruining industry, sickening for God knows how long those charged with attending to it.

This helplessness is unorthodox. This helplessness is existential, which is why it's hanging on everything, like the oil itself.

When I hit that rock into Alison's forehead, snapping open her skin and drawing into her eyes a rush of blood, what made me feel most horrible wasn't the pain I'd caused her, but the negligence that lead to that pain. I knew smacking stones with a driver in a crowd of people was dangerous and idiotic, but I did it anyway, because it was fun. In the same vein, I believe what hurts most about the oil spill, what we find most terrifying and jarring, is that there was no way we could not have expected it. Drilling gaping holes into the crust of the earth with fallible equipment in order to summon forth millions of gallons of hydrocarbons is difficult and extraordinarily precarious. The disasters the oil industry has caused around the world in the past 20 years alone are numerous, each instance massive and tragic and wildly destructive in and of itself. Yet we continue to do it, day after day, decade after decade.

Anyone who's consistently read the news for the past couple years knows for a fact that people consuming less meat would knock a sizable dent into the oil industry. But we don't do that, because beef tastes good and Fette Sau is fucking fun. Also, even if everyone stopped eating meat altogether, there's still this:

In America, food completes a 1,500-mile journey, on average, before making it to your mouth. How did it get there? Trucks, trains, planes, and ships … which run on diesel and jet fuel. The asphalt the trucks drive on? Made with oil. The tires? Yep, they include oil, too. Tractors, fertilizers, pesticides? Oil, oil, oil.

And because nobody wants to eat cheese grits or crunchy, salty strips of bacon in an uncomfortably hot room, we pump our homes and restaurants (and movie theaters and offices and…) with air conditioning, never letting summer get in the way of some decent brunching. We drive our cars to our brunches, as well as other places, as walking or biking would be too time-consuming, sweaty, exhausting, uncouth or, say, with a family of four, downright impossible. Those of us who don't drive say nothing about it to our friends who do, especially not the ones with $50,000 fuel-slaughtering luxury SUVs. Because to bring up the environment to other grownups sounds whiny and pretentious at best, secretly envious at worst.

Petroleum goes into the rubber in our shoes (probably even those hip, hippie TOMS ones) and is integral to keeping textile factories literally running smoothly. And in 2008, the CFO of Procter & Gamble, whose scores of brands include Gillette, Herbal Essences, Old Spice and Gucci Fragrances, noted, "Virtually everything that goes into our products comes from crude oil or natural gas or some other commodities." We need oil to produce our books and newspapers and garden hoses.

If you're reading this, it's quite likely you're not only an early adopter of computer technology, but also surrounded by it at work and home. Besides all the oil needed to produce the plastic needed to produce our MacBooks and iPhones and Androids (about eight percent of the annual supply), once we wait in line for hours to obtain those things, we end up using them horribly inefficiently. In fact, because we never turn our gadgets off so that we might access them quickly when we do need them, "of the $250 billion per year spent on powering computers worldwide, only about 15 percent of that power was spent computing–the rest was wasted idling."

If we were bakers, oil would be our flour, an ingredient in the goods themselves, of course, but also something to rub on rolling pins, dust counter tops, coat nuts before adding to batter and share with neighbors to do with what they liked. By day's end, there would be flour on our faces, in our hair, under our fingernails and all over the floor.

We know this stuff. We've been spoonfed it ad nauseam for years now, through books, movies, magazines, PSAs, newspapers and one another. The only reason it's worth bringing up here again is because I think it's this ubiquitous information that is at the root of our most current, entirely profound bout of collective helplessness. When we look at those blackened birds, or those men and women trudging through the sludgy Gulf waters, we feel helpless not because we're not down there ourselves wiping feathers with dish soap, but because we know it's only a matter of time before it happens again. We know that if we boycott BP and instead fill up our cars at Exxon and Citgo, we'll in essence only be rewarding Exxon and Citgo for not screwing up the world most recently. We know that we're going to buy new computers and clothes, and leave the AC on while out at dinner so we can come home to a cool apartment. Whether or not we'll admit it to ourselves or our children, who most deserve to hear the truth, we know that, despite its inherent danger, despite the evils it's wrought, despite the awful people it's enriched for centuries, despite the fact that it's ruinous to things both tangible and intangible, we're never going to stop using oil. To do so would be akin to giving up water-even though you can technically survive without ever consuming a drop of fossil fuel.

We feel helpless because we are helpless, our wings so sticky it's easy to forget we ever had any.


Cord Jefferson also writes at The Root. Photo from the "Deepwater Horizon Response" official Flickr.

43 Comments / Post A Comment

sunnyciegos (#551)

The "Deepwater Horizon Response official Flickr" and indeed all the official government free-use photos are so whitewashed I want to scream. Only happy stories of pretty birds going back into the wild, please!

You're mostly right, Cord, but we don't need to dredge up oil from ridiculously unsafe places in order to keep living the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed. There's a great deal of greed and corruption behind the current disaster.

r&rkd (#1,719)

You say that "we don't need to dredge up oil from ridiculously unsafe places in order to keep living the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed." I'm not sure there's a basis for saying that, aside from wishful thinking.

I suppose you would more likely be correct if, by "we," you mean only the part of the world currently enjoying per capita GDP of over, say, $30,000. But is there any way you could still be correct if much more of the world were to attain that lifestyle? And, if only a certain part of the globe can maintain that lifestyle without imposing ecological disaster on everyone, should it continue to be the part of the globe that is living that lifestyle now? In the short term, millions of Indians and Chinese pose this question.

sunnyciegos (#551)

My thinking is more along the lines that our technology is moving past petroleum-based products. Will the next wave be just as environmentally destructive? Possibly. But innovation continues. The millions of people who just got cell phones in the third world in the last 5-10 years didn't get land lines first. There was no need to.

Jeremy_W (#5,194)

Despite having grown up in south Mississippi and living the previous three years in New Orleans, my response to this disaster has been not anger, not sadness, but a sort of cynical resignation.

It was some of those same photos, when I saw them last week, that finally produced an emotional response within me – one of visceral anger – but the resignation soon took back over.

And this piece explains why perfectly. Excellent.

Just moved to NOLA in November. I've done grown up things here that I never thought I would ever do (opened a bar! it's not losing money!). This past week I've moved to sadness. I am scared about the hurricane season. I am scared that something that I helped build is going to be lost. I am scared for the boy that I came here with who I met in Chicago after he lost everything the first time. I know moving on and making wise choices are the best way to get through it, but sometimes it's just hard and that's exhausting.

I'm tired and I want it fixed and it never will be.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

One crushes under so much existential weight when confronted with these simple facts… might as well be at the bottom of the ocean.

Redacted (#2,882)

If you do end up there, would you mind checking on the top kill for us?

LolCait (#460)

I drove an SUV to an IKEA yesterday, air conditioning blasting.

We drove by a BP gas station and I shook my head and said to my companions, "Look at those jerks, going to a BP gas station."

Zoom!

I should have slapped myself, huh?

lawyergay (#220)

Well said.

For our space-bound human memorial, I would propose the works of Shakespeare, a few climate-controlled bottles of Bordeaux, the boxed set of "Arrested Development," plans for a hydrogen bomb, a copy of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and the mummified remains of Zac Efron.

Well, this Commenters' Bawl is going to be just a barrel of laughs, isn't it?

Hoover (#2,245)

At the risk (the horror!) of not being funny, I'm just going to say that what pisses me off about this article is the idea that the only possible responses are apathy and this Jesus-walking-on-the-water thing where one gives up fossil fuels and convinces all one's friends and family to do the same. I mean, come the fuck on with "you can technically survive without consuming a drop of fossil fuel." First of all, that's barely true, and second of all, even if one did decide to do that it wouldn't make a bit of difference–there would just be one more Annoying Hermit Person in the world.

On the other hand, there is a time-tested and effective tool for people in modern society to work together to make things incrementally better and change fucked-up situations, and that is political action. I know everyone hates that because it's boring and earnest and hippieish, but going to some marches or making some phone calls seems to me to be preferable to apathy or despair, which are the only options this post admits to.

spanish bombs (#562)

"Political action" is a little vague. I mean, basically, the long-term plan is presumably to switch to alternative energies, and the way to help this along is to support higher energy taxes or something. So yes, definitely go do that, but I would say that this is a completely unrealistic goal. Drill baby drill, etc.

As far as whether the article presents the alternative to apathy as some sort of oil-free martyrdom, I would definitely disagree. You don't have to go vegan, but you know, "eat less meat". We all know that not driving, if not impossible, is kind of a pain/not safe unless you live in a big/bike-friendly city, but, like, don't drive a Hummer?

HiredGoons (#603)

My friend's mother was in town visiting from the Gulf side of the Florida Coast and we had cocktails last evening.

I asked her about it and she could barely speak about it without tearing up.

The ramifications of this are going to be far reaching and felt for generations, many of them probably irreparable.

HiredGoons (#603)

I mean, that's an incredibly obvious thing to say, I know. I was just sharing my own experience with feeling helpless, as my friend's mother and stepfather just start watching this stuff wash up on their beach.

They went to the beach before it came because, she said, they probably wouldn't be able to again for a long time.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

For pete's sake say the obvious thing! The FT didn't let Denton say the obvious thing and we got a) all casino capital all the time and b) Gawker.

Bridget Callahan (#5,234)

I'd be pretty happy if we just started actually trying to convert to sustainable energies. Like, you, with major government funding and stuff. And regulations.

No one is going to stop driving, but there's layers of complexity between here and there, and this should be the time to start peeling.

mamacita (#127)
spanish bombs (#562)

"Plus, if more and more folks do adopt vegetarian diets, it could kill the UK's meat industry, meaning meat production would move overseas."

This article seems like it is for the UK. I don't think that the points about meat substitutes such as soy beans coming from overseas are true for the US.

mamacita (#127)

There is still the point about the transportation of meat substitute "foods" — do you grow Boca Burgers in your backyard? — as well as their packaging and storage. The vegetarian diet as environmental salvation is a notion simplistic to the point of irrelevance.

spanish bombs (#562)

It's hard to see how packaging, transportation and storage are not also part of meat-containing foods. If it is not true that meat substitutes are travelling much greater distances than meat products, then the traditional meat-is-relatively-resource-intensive argument should apply.

migraineheadache (#1,866)

Also vegetarianism does not equal "meat substitutes". Beyond that I don't think figuring out how to grow more legumes in the US is a problem like putting people on the moon or anything.

Feeling helpless is perhaps understandable as an initial reaction to an apparently overwhelming situation. But we are not powerless. Get informed and then make decisions. Vote, don't vote, drive more, drive less, drive on recycled fryer fat, be a loudmouth and disseminate information, go down to the gulf and scrub a bird and rake some sand, or stay away and start playing the fiddle…

Feeling helpless? Then do something.

Abe Sauer (#148)

But he did do something, he wrote an essay!

ProfessorBen (#1,254)

Too much of some kinds of information, maybe, but way, way too little of the kinds that would really outrage; all the connections and corruptions that keep real regulations from being applied to businesses and oil developers are kept out of the ears of the vast bulk of people.

Cord_Jefferson (#2,111)

As my father used to say: Negro PLEASE!

I've been a vegetarian for six years and a vegan for two. I haven't owned a car for about five years. I buy 95 percent of my shoes and clothing used, and I've purchased ONE computer, ONE iPod and TWO cellphones in five years. I consistently donate my money and time to causes I believe in, one of which is climate change. And in my nearly six years in the labor force, I've spent half of that time working at nonprofits, one of which works directly on energy policy every single day.

If you wanna discuss bona fides, I got John Blaze shit. If you wanna sit there, be dismissive and shout, "He wrote an essay!" that's your right, also. It identifies you as ignorant and presumptuous, but it's definitely your right.

carpetblogger (#306)

The Awl's China correspondent weighing in here: Surrender.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Also, 31 uses of "We."

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

You're helpless about lots of things. You're helpless to not need to breathe and drink water, yikes! The point is not to berate yourself for it or get mad at other people for caring in a haphazard fashion. It's, gah, you know, grant yourselves the serenity to accept the things you cannot change etc. etc. (Please don't make me write it out.) Professional do-gooders are well aware that the public only cares about the most pressing thing at any given time, and so said do-gooders need to peel off as much long-term gain as they can when they have their moment in the sun, so they go a little overboard with the rhetoric and all. And this works, which I guess bothers people, but I don't really understand why. People seem to think that it would be nice if we didn't have to do this and could have an honest conversation about politics, but honestly, that would just end with a knife fight, you know? We can't organize attention or caring, and everything everyone in the world ever does pretty much comes at someone else's expense. The point is not to feel awful about that, but figure out what's the most helpful thing to do long-term. Note that this is very, very different from "the thing that makes you feel the most better about yourself," which still seems to be the end goal that Cord is driving at here. That is an awful end goal. Like I say, we are helpless about lots of things, and literally everything everyone in the world does is oppressive or damaging to something somehow, and if you haven't realized that, you're fucking stupid. But correspondingly, if you get depressed about doing something that literally everyone in the world does, that doesn't make sense. If that's being awful, then being human is awful, and there's nothing we can do about that. And it's certainly not productive. Stop feeling helpless, assholes! No one cares if you feel helpless! Awful things happen all the time and we just don't pay attention to them. We can't! We have to live our lives. Suck it up and stop feeling sorry for your goddamn selves long enough to make the small contribution to the greater good that is all that is actually required of you. Jesus H.

Scum (#1,847)

Planes crash, buildings collapse, power plants explode, tightrope walkers fall off tightropes, lion tamers get eaten by lions. Having things go wrong is an unavoidable consequence of having things go on at all.

Should we reign ourselves in because of this? Should we blubber over our helplessness? I don't think so. It's certainly true that we don't need to consume a drop of oil, but if if I were to ever find myself in a society where men were permitted to do and consume only what they need to live I would very quickly discover that I didn't need to live at all and would try my chances in the land beyond.

Humans are indeed vain, pitiful creatures that stare up in to the heavens and aspire to be Gods. Whatever it's shortcomings, it is surely better than staring down upon the soil aspiring to be carrots, which, if your post has any point, can only be this.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Small steps, people. Small steps.

First: http://abcnews.go.com/WN/gulf-mexico-oil-spill-animals-cleanup/story?id=10521929

Those of you with means, pick a target, or several, and donate. Those on the front lines need resources. Any little thing helps.

Those with time, and means, go. Find an agency who can set you up in some sort of volunteer capacity. A week, a couple days, whatever. Resources.

Then: make an effort, some little effort, to pull back from the dependence you have on this. At some point we are going to get it that we have to recast how we fuel our lives. Get us serious about moving ourselves to more self-sustaining, less draining, means.

It has to happen. It's a numbers game. The day has always been coming. Perhaps this tragedy, in a strange, awful way, helps save us from ourselves.

There always is hope for that, you know. And hope is something you can't help, either.

Good article, Cord. Strikes the nerve.

danielle johnsen (#3,585)

I try, as Im sure much of you do, to make even the slightest effort. Im a vegetarian, support non-profit causes, etc. — but Cord's article resonates. Its hard not to feel helpless, when you know that there is just another catastrophe, war, economic collapse and no amount of green avatars and online petitions will help. Most of us are children from the generation of radicals, who protested and got "things done" – albeit too late in some cases. Its hard not to feel like failures and helpless when we are all more aware of the facts nowadays as opposed to generations before us. Is it better to be naive and bash your head against a wall or do small things and contribute?

Do small things and contribute.

I also think that we need to find ways to make it easier for the bulk of people to do the right thing. I think that some people want to be seen as super hardcore anti-establishment types and that's great, but the those numbers are small and will have little to no effect overall. How do we make it easier for the bulk of our society to transition into being less oil dependant. I remember an article about these super-efficient garbage burning plants in Europe–Denmark I think? They are providing energy and heating towns. People don't want that here because they think it will increase our competitive consumption and garbage creation. They said that they would rather reduce our garbage output to zero. Ok. Thanks for playing. See you in the next life.

saakshi (#5,994)

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this was a really quality post.I wasn't aware of the many ripples and depth to this story until I surfed here through Google! Great job.

roboloki (#1,724)

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