Commentary by Liza Field, Bay Journal News Service
If anything has been harder to contain than BP's oil spill in the Gulf, it's the mental picture of a catastrophe so vast. Footage of brown plumes flooding blue ocean waters, heading toward countless unwitting sea creatures, is hard to look at.
But look we must, because the fate of ocean life-and the living planet-depends on human vision. Blindness-as-usual is no longer viable. If humans can poison entire oceans, we should be capable of oceanic vision.
And we are. We've known for decades that whatever happens to one part of a living world happens to everybody.
Biologists and fishermen see this on the East coast, envisioning oil from BP's spill spinning northward in a hurricane. Storm activity itself may increase from a Gulf warmed by huge platters of solar-heated oil.
Meanwhile, we have our own ongoing spill in the Chesapeake—oil, chemicals and fertilizer flowing from a vast inland drainage into an ever-expanding dead zone.
This humdrum spill rarely catches the media's eye, because it's never news. Moreover, there's no clear entity out there to blame. We're the ones, far inland, who asphalt the land, coat it with motor oils, pesticides and fertilizers that flow-with our household and car-wash detergents-down drains, creeks and rivers.
Are we in fact out of our minds- ruining waters our planetary life depends on? Certainly it has the cast of a vague, surreal dream that, even as the Gulf's disaster expands, oil industry promoters continue calling for business-as-usual.
Shortly after BP's rig-explosion, Virginia's Governor Bob McDonnell headed south to get a view. Not of the Gulf, but of off-shore drilling profits, inside an oil-industry conference in Houston.
McDonnell returned to Virginia "impressed," not by BP's massive spill, but "how enormously huge this industry is, how much money it generates."
While conservationists view any potential drilling off Virginia's coast as a threat to the Chesapeake Bay, not to mention shorelines of neighboring states, McDonnell sees coastal drilling as a local economics issue.
It's also a campaign pledge to special-interest donors, to further fog some boundaries.
The Obama Administration says the blurry line between private oil interests and public regulating agencies will be clarified. But public-private coziness is far more pervasive than a slack Minerals Management Service.
Big Energy bucks underwrite everything from TEA party rallies to Sarah Palin tours, anti-climate-science campaigns to legislative seats.
"For the most part, we have similar interests," Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, said of his private meetings with BP officials after the spill.
McDonnell's Virginia drilling campaign has been linked to his longtime career-adviser Ralph Reed, known for brokering deals between private energy interests and conservative candidates.
Industry-influence also throws light on actions by Virginia's Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, who has filed petitions to challenge EPA findings on greenhouse gases.
Cuccinelli also recently ordered University of Virginia to turn over the correspondence records of Michael Mann-a former UVA professor and climate researcher now at Penn State-in what academics see as a climate-science witch-hunt spurred by special interests.
As public officials increasingly work for Big Energy, you may wonder, who's watching the henhouse?
"We are," say the Cato and American Enterprise Institutes and The Heritage Foundation.
These "independent" think tanks (so heavily-endowed by petroleum interests they might be called oil tanks) have been hard at work this past decade getting the public's eye off long-term climate concerns and back onto the more "crucial" immediate profit motive.
BP's spill, they've jumped into the media to say this month, had nothing to do with slack regulatory oversight. Indeed, declares Conn Carroll of The Heritage Foundation, government oversight itself is to blame.
Since environmental regulations are "highly burdensome and difficult to follow," they cause noncompliance. Clearly, the profit-motive would better protect oceans, Carroll says, freeing corporations to drill anywhere, unfettered, their bottom-line focus prompting them (somehow) to put the environment first.
If this logic-fog makes you squint, a glance at the Heritage Foundation donor list may throw light on what inspires its vision: Exxon Mobil, ChevronTexaco and the Koch-family energy empire.
To be fair, looking out for the long-term life of our oceans-much less the planet-is not the job of the Heritage Foundation or its corporate sponsors. Their job description is about guarding personal profits, not the big picture of life.
Who, if not corporations, should be guarding life?
Maybe the actual humans, with eyes. Granted, we've grown so used to viewing life as a product of money, rather than vice-versa, this distortion no longer occurs to us as insane. But disasters like the BP spill ask us to look again.
Liza Field is a hiker and conservationist. She teaches English and philosophy in the Virginia Governor's School and Wytheville Community College.