You've Learned Helplessness


As 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.