The exquisite morbidity of the BP oil spill has concentrated the collective national mind like few other events in this ongoing long emergency. How many times a day does it occur to you — perhaps while sitting in traffic, or oogling some girl in a nearby cubicle, or cruising the freezer stacks in the supermarket — that one mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico that crude is just blasting away into the deep blue sea? Anyway, it troubles my hours. But what if it hadn’t happened? What if the nation’s attention was not fixed on the “fierce urgency” of this disaster and we were left with all the tiresome familiar problems of politics and economy?
After the financial storms of May, people in the knife-and-fork-using nations may feel that all our troubles with money have been sorted out and settled. Greece had an apoplexy and Europe somehow survived — at least so far. Spain fell to its knees and apparently remains there, in mid-aria, waiting for an orchestra to strike up the next measure. Portugal is trying to hide in plain sight, like a beach-goer who has lost swimsuit in the surf. Hungary choked on something last week and was left sitting at the table with its face in a plate of goulash. Iceland has been put on, well, on ice after stiffing its British account holders. The Brits have discovered that they have enough money to run their country in the style of Edward the Confessor. France is weeping over all the Spanish, Greek, and Portuguese bad paper in its bank vaults. Italy, having become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Silvio Berlusconi, is eating a sparse lunch under the grape arbors. The Baltic states are sinking into a northern peat bog of penury…. And Germany remains upright, wondering how it can wiggle out of this sad-ass collective of fazed cookies.
June so far is a strange ebb tide of of events relating to the world’s money, but when the water goes out like that, you know it’s sure to return before long, and the peaceful mud-flats of June may vanish under a summer tsunami. I know I’m not alone in the creepy feeling that really nothing has been sorted out and the world is waiting to get hammered six days to Sunday by the consequences of living too large for too long. The markets have been stranded, too, gyrating on the peculiar life-support of robot-traders — since all the humans have packed up and left the scene for higher ground. The corporate creaming-off of anything not nailed down in America continues apace, with the cream ending up as icing on the petit fours passed around the twilight lawns of East Hampton.
President Obama may be lucky that he has something he can pretend to be decisive about in the BP oil spill. It’s allowed him to completely avoid taking a public stand on crucial parts of the financial reform legislation working its way through congress like a stinking bolus. For instance, where does Mr. Obama stand on the reform of credit default swap activities? This dark realm of swindling has come close to choking the American money system to death — and might yet do the job — but the president hasn’t offered up a word of leadership on it. My guess is that the gestures of reform will leave reform completely unfinished by the time the high water of events starts rushing back in. All the structural fault-lines will remain as even more decay sets in and new cracks appear. Something is gonna give this summer.
It all comes down to one thing: the world is mismanaging contraction. The world will not solve the problems of massive over-complexity with more complexity. But scaling down is apparently not an option, though it will happen whether we participate or not. The USA is like Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener who, when asked to do anything, replied, “I prefer not to.” His preference led him to a pauper’s grave.
The future attempts to regulate undersea oil drilling will send many companies to do their thing in other parts of the world where nobody gives a shit what you do offshore as long as you pony up the royalties to the grifters in charge onshore. America is going to lose a whole lot more of its own oil production. Smaller companies may shut down altogether from the cost of complying with new safety rules and an inability to get insurance. The oil from deep water in the Gulf of Mexico was how we hoped we would offset the ongoing depletions in Alaska. We’re going to have to import even more oil than the two-thirds-plus we already depend on. One thing President Obama — nor anyone else with an audience or a constituency — will speak a word about is our massive, incessant purposeless motoring.
Pretty soon, the oil missing from the Gulf will leave a message at the 7-Eleven stops in Dallas and Chattanooga, and before the year is out the cardboard signs that say “Out Of Gas” may hang on the pumps. A great hue and cry will rise out of the Nascar ovals and righteous lady politicians with decoupaged hair-doos will invoke the New World Order and the Book of Revelation in their rise to power. Reasonable men with moderate views will dither on the sidelines, afraid to offend one faction or another.
Sometime this summer that ebb tide of events is going to reverse and we’ll have more to contend with than just the shrieking wildlife suffocating in orange gunk, and the ruined spawning grounds of the shrimp, and the lost livelihoods of the sportfishing charter guides, and the tarball covered beaches and devalued real estate. We decided to de-complexify the hard way, the way that brings about as much pain and disorder as possible until we discover that the long emergency beats a path straight into a world made by hand.
A sequel to my 2008 novel of post-oil America, World Made By Hand, will be published in September 2010 by The Atlantic Monthly Press.
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