Why the Gulf oil spill demands more than new regulations

Just trying to prevent similar human-caused natural disasters with more government rules doesn't get to the deeper need for humans to act even more morally in a complex, high-tech world.

The Gulf oil spill is not the first time in history that humans have spoiled paradise by being reckless.

The list of sudden environmental disasters just over the last century is long enough: the killer London smog, the Chernobyl reactor meltdown, the Bhopal and Love Canal industrial pollution, the Exxon Valdez and Santa Barbara oil spills, and so on.

Then there are the slow ones, such as America’s Dust Bowl, DDT pesticide, Minamata mercury pollution, the missing ozone layer, and of course global warming.

In many of these catastrophes, the carelessness that caused them lies as much in a disregard for other humans as for the natural world.

On the Deepwater Horizon offshore platform, for example, reported tensions between Transocean workers and BP officials over the pace of drilling may have led to mistakes that triggered the April 20 explosion and gushing leak.

And in the US Minerals Management Service, several federal regulators ignored their duties for rigorous oversight of the extraction industries in return for illegal drugs and other gifts from the industry.

An industrial-age faith in fail-safe systems and technological supremacy often falters on such moral lapses. New laws and regulations can try to control the type of behavior that led to each past disaster, much like generals still fighting the last war. And indeed, President Obama has rightly set up a commission to recommend new rules for offshore drilling even as he suspended permits for new drilling.

But to prevent unexpected, human-caused natural calamities in the future will take something more: a demand for higher qualities of thought, such as a greater sense of obligation to others, a respect for one another’s views, and a longer-range regard for the collective good and the environment.

Those lessons aren’t new but they must be in greater demand as the pace of environmental problems requires more vigilance over virtues needed to run the complex worlds of oil rigs, chemical factories, nuclear reactors, and resource mines.

Stories in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the Bible, taught that if people would only love one another and love their deities they would find peace and happiness in the wilderness. The very word paradise comes from a concept of a garden in which humans can live in harmony with one another as well as nature. Today, movies like “Avatar” or books such as “Silent Spring” are the modern-day equivalents of those old lessons, but are needed even more.

The global aspects of pollution also require a more universal set of ethics.

It is not enough for one nation like the United States to simply tighten its own regulations after each disaster only to then import products from countries that don’t have such regulations. Oil spills in places like Nigeria might only increase if the US now ends offshore drilling without also cutting its oil use. Saving forests in the US without also helping other nations save theirs is only environmental NIMBYism – not real environmentalism.

Stewardship of the earth isn’t just an aesthetic imperative or a self-serving desire for sustainable use of natural resources. It is also a spiritual exercise in how people get along and define progress for their society.

After the plugging of the Deepwater Horizon oil gusher – and after all the anger, blame, and fear over the Gulf oil spill – the deeper lessons of this disaster must be learned.

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