The Deception of Disasters
Time Magazine has two interesting articles this week on the Gulf’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, “The Spill’s Psychic Toll” by Bryan Walsh and “Big Spill, Little Damage?” by Michael Grunwald. I appreciate Walsh’s article simply because it is about people. In a culture gone green it seems like we are more concerned about the birds than we are about the people. Coupled with Grunwald’s article, which suggests that the “predictions of ecological catastrophe” were “overblown”, one can surmise that the Gulf oil spill will cause more long term devastation to people of the region than it will to its habitat.
Crisis does something to people. It causes panic and confusion. As such, disasters have always been breeding grounds for dishonesty and deception. Price gouging is the most obvious example. The sheer lack of resources beckons shady entrepreneurs to make a quick buck off of desperate people. One man sells a $50 heater for $300. A cold man suddenly believes that a $300 heater is a good deal. In certain types of disasters, ie. Katrina, looting is common. During chaos the unwritten but agreed upon moral codes that prevent us from devouring one another are tabled. While the streets are flooded a man breaks into a store and steals a plasma TV. Is a 42 inch high-def necessary for survival? No. He steals it simply because during a flood, he can.
In times of disaster logic is overcome with emotion. Helpless people are emotional people. In the case of the Gulf oil spill the most noticeable emotion is anger. Anger leads to blame. Walsh writes,
“By its nature, a man-made disaster like an oil spill differs from a natural one like an earthquake - and it can cause far more psychological havoc. The difference, in a word, is blame: while no one can really be at fault for a natural disaster, victims of man-made catastrophes have plenty of places to point fingers. That creates anger, and it builds and builds, it leads to what Picou calls, ‘corrosive communities.’”
Because people were angry at BP there have been some major decisions by the U.S. government that have been unprecedented and have largely gone unchecked. From day one this oil spill has been lauded as the greatest ecological disaster of all time by people in every sphere of influence from top level government officials, to those in the media, to the blogosphere. Because we were angry, we were told it was the worst, it felt like the worst, and so we believed it was the worst; no question. Soon after, before the gushing well was ever capped, there was a massive demand for cash; $20 billion to be exact. Because we were angry we never asked if our government can constitutionally do that sort of thing. More importantly, because we were angry, we never asked if that is how much all of this actually costs.
I am not saying that people have not been hurt. I am not saying there has not been major ecological damage. I am not saying that BP shouldn’t pay. I am simply asking, have we, out of anger, been led astray?
Saying something is the greatest ecological disaster of all time is like saying that Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer in history when statistically he still falls short. It is like saying that Stephen Strasburg is one of Major League baseball’s greatest pitchers before he ever threw a major league pitch. Tiger is floundering. Strasburg has a bad shoulder. The Gulf oil spill has been less than advertised. If you believe the Gulf spill to be the worst, you should also read "Four Environmental Disasters Worse Than the Deepwater Oil Spill" by Ryan Tracy from Newsweek. I would contend that the lost tourism in the Gulf had nothing to do with oil and more to do with sensationalism. So, what happened to the oil? Grunwald explains as he compares the Deepwater spill to the Exxon Valdez,
“First, the Deepwater oil, unlike the black glop from the Valdez is unusually light and degradable. Second, the Gulf of Mexico, unlike Alaska’s Prince William Sound, is very warm, which has helped bacteria break down the oil. Third, heavy flows of Mississippi River water have helped keep the oil away from the coast. And finally, Mother Nature is resilient.”
To demand $20 billion without legal checks and balances or a receipt not only sets a bad precedent but it creates another gusher. Instead of oil, this time it is a money slick. It spreads, no one knows where it is going or how big it will be. There will be corruption. Inevitably there will be a new set of victims. Strangely, there will be a new set of millionaires and a new set of paupers. Ask Alaska. But people want to be paid. Is anyone making sure that the right people are being paid for actual damages and/or to fund viable solutions? No one seems to care whether or not it is legal to fleece BP. Sure, everyone is mad at them, but is it right to destroy a company just because you are mad? The golden rule applies here, what if the company or family or wallet in question was yours? A government that will fleece big oil can and will eventually do the same to big shrimp, big beaches, and little sea side restaurants. All it will take is for someone to get mad and point a finger. Furthermore, is it really going to cost $20 billion to make what is wrong, right? I concede that there are incalculable costs in disasters. No amount of money can buy back the lives of those who died in the initial explosion or who have died in the cleanup effort. I have no frame of reference, but what if it only costs $11 billion, or $70 million, or $15 billion to make restitution? What happens to the rest? Who gets it? I have my suspicions. But what if it costs $44 billion? What then? Because we were mad, have we sold some people who really need help short?
I will probably be deemed heartless for writing this article and portrayed by some as if I don’t care about the environment or the people of the Gulf who have been hurt by not only BP, but also by the other oil companies, manufacturers, and regulators whose negligence has caused a disaster (has our anger also made us believe BP stands alone?). Yet the primary reason for writing this article was not to debate who needs to pay, or how much, but rather to call attention to the fact that during times of distress and disaster we care less about the facts because we think emotionally rather than logically. This is not true of the Gulf oil spill only. The same holds true in almost all disasters. Disasters do something to people. In climates in which emotion usurps logic, people can be easily led astray.
In Mark 13 Jesus predicts a cataclysmic event for the nation of Israel. The Temple will be destroyed. In His teaching Jesus emphasizes not necessarily what will happen, but rather how we are to react. He is careful to instruct us not to be led astray. Jesus bookends His teaching (Mark 13:6, 22) by calling attention to false Christs and prophets who will deceive and mislead. How does this happen? It happens because in times of crisis the loudest voice often sounds like the most logical one. When people panic, they can be easily swayed. It is like a man in a smoke filled room who shouts to the rest, “This way” and no one takes the time to ask if he actually knows where the exit door is. They just follow. Because they went the wrong way, the human toll is greater. This is the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 13. If you follow the wrong voice you will not find solutions, you will find an even greater disaster. A cursory reading of Josephus’ writings of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D. will testify that what Jesus said here, is true. Before disaster strikes, take time to study the room. Know where the doors are. It could keep you from making a rash decision in a crisis. It could save your life.
False prophets prey on emotional responses. They captivate people who are careless with the facts. Disasters are breeding grounds for deception. They are the megaphones of false prophets. Politically, disasters become platforms for an agenda. I think we need to be careful. I think we are writing too many checks and not asking enough questions. If we are not more cautious, after the oil is gone, there will be more victims. It is not just the victimization of people, but potentially the death of ideas like - free enterprise, capitalism, democracy, and any decent solution to the looming energy crisis. Spiritually, what is happening in the Gulf is a commentary on the human soul. This is what we do when we panic. We get emotional and we are easily deceived. According to Jesus, there are more disasters to come. Let us note how we react to them, awaken to truth (Mark 13:37), and refuse to be led astray.