About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure;
the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The suffering of the oil-laden Gulf of Mexico goes on. Like the suffering of Icarus in W.H. Auden’s insightful Musée des Beaux Arts, it is in some ways a strange suffering, partly accidental, partly brought about by hubris and nearly invisible to the world surrounding it. But it is suffering, nonetheless, and Brueghel’s depiction of its reality is masterful.
Through it all and despite the suffering, corporations, politicians and a President have lied, bullied, concealed and dithered, apparently believing this latest horror can be left behind as easily as a rotting pelican on the beach. This time, it will not be so easy.
This is not the Nigerian Delta, where a flood of spilling oil has destroyed lives and ecosystems for years. This is not Ixtoc, conveniently ignored in the American Petroleum Institute’s current ads. This is a production disaster in the very heart of an end-user community with access to technologies of its own and a preference for hard data and truth over “spin control” and “transparency”.
To put it another way, what is happening in the Gulf is not an anomaly. It is only that other affected peoples around the world have not been able to publicize their own experiences with these New Colonialists quite so effectively. I use the term “colonialist” advisedly, and yet it seems apt. From its days as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, when it marked its water fountains “Not For Iranians” , to its current attempts to curtail journalists’ access to the consequences of its spill, BP has taken a distinctly colonial approach to the communities in which it works.
BP hardly is alone. Royal Dutch Shell, embroiled in battle after battle with Nigerians whose lives have been devastated by its presence in their country, often insists its spills are the result of sabotage. No doubt some are. It is equally certain that at least some of the sabotage is born of Nigerians’ unutterable frustration with a company which has been decimating their land. Sadly, the oil-rich Niger delta and this country’s beloved Mississippi delta now share more than their geographic features. Nigeria has experienced what the American Gulf Coast is about to experience - unimaginable damage to if not irreversable destruction of an entire ecosystem .
In the coming months and years, a new awareness of shared experience and a deeper appreciation for the ambiguities inherent in oil-based economies may lead the world’s people to begin a new battle – a fight not necessarily against oil per se, but against the arrogance, contempt and willful exploitation that occasionally gush from the heart of the oil community and its regulators.
One can only hope. To borrow the poet’s metaphor, Icarus still is falling. There is more suffering to come, and the time for turning away has passed.