“Jose Arcadio Buendia dreamed that night that right there a noisy city with houses having mirror walls rose up. He asked what city it was and they answered him with a name that he had never heard, that had no meaning at all, but that had a supernatural echo in his dream: Macondo.” ~ Gabriel Barcia Marquez, “One Hundred Years of Solitude”
Today is the 7th anniversary of the inferno that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig and unleashed the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. In an interesting coincidence, a BP well on Alaska’s North Slope leaked oil and vented natural gas for four days last weekend, until the “Unified Command achieved source control and killed the well.” (Don’t you just love the military language of oil drilling?)
Here are a few facts about the Deepwater spill taken from Wikipedia, that—for me, at least—do little to put it in proper perspective:
“The US Government estimated the total discharge at 4.9 million barrels (210 million US gal; 780,000 m3). After several failed efforts to contain the flow, the well was declared sealed on September 19, 2010. Reports in early 2012 indicated the well site was still leaking.”
I’ve been thinking about the Deepwater Horizon all week. I even watched the 2016 film of the same name. It does a credible job of telling a very human story despite all the technical complexities of the disaster. Of its many horrific moments, one of the worst for me was when an injured pelican somehow flew inside the bridge of the drill rig’s companion ship. Squawking and terrified, it bounced off windows and control panels until finally landing, exhausted, on the floor. The oil-soaked bird’s final death throes were sickening.
That moment was an effective dramatization of the ecological devastation that would be unleashed by the leaking well. The action scenes of humans being thrown by explosions, debris raining down on them, balls of fire chasing them down dark corridors all had the you-are-there quality of a good disaster film. But, somehow, they didn’t affect me as much as that single pelican.
The more interesting question isn’t what happened, though. It’s why it happened at all. I don’t mean the investigations into the series of arguments, poor decisions, or malfunctions of emergency systems that led to the blowout. I mean, what makes human beings believe that we can keep drilling in riskier and more remote environments? That we can design for and control any setbacks that occur? That we have a firm grip on the world when we fail, again and again, to account for its vast mythic dimensions?
The Deepwater Horizon was at the time the world’s biggest ocean-drilling exploration rig. And the well they were drilling for BP, by the name of Macondo, was the deepest ever attempted. (Doesn’t the name Titanic mean anything to these people?) As if we needed more, here is yet another example of our hubris. Our seemingly undeniable need to conquer and subdue Mother Nature.
Indeed, this well and the disaster itself have a mythic dimension that we overlook at our—and the planet’s—peril.
Hence the illustration for this post. There’s a card in the Tarot deck called The Devil. The other day, I was exploring the imagery of this card, the symbolism of it, and what associations it brought up. It was already on my mind, so maybe it’s not so surprising that the Deepwater Horizon came up. The more I thought about it, the more connections I noticed.
The Devil a pretty frightening card, but it’s also quite curious. For instance, the man and woman who are chained by the neck to the devil’s black granite perch are a kind of reverse-image Adam and Eve. Counter-intuitively, they don’t seem to be in any distress. In fact, the chains around their necks are quite loose; they could slip out at any time. So why don’t they?
This is the picture of addiction, of bondage to something that we know is bad for us but we keep coming back again and again. Even though, by staying, we are growing horns and becoming more and more devil-like by the day. We are implicated in our own enslavement. This all plays out on a deeply unconscious level, so it’s impossible to catch more than a brief glimpse of clarity now and then.
In the visual language of myth, the ocean symbolizes the unconscious. The mysterious, unknowable depths can intimidate and frighten, even kill us if we aren’t careful. I kept thinking of how the Deepwater Horizon was over 50 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. So far that the only way to commute to work was by helicopter. Which necessitates jet fuel, which necessitates drilling for oil. See the trap we have built for ourselves? The chains that we could slip, but choose not to?
A very sophisticated system of engineering and technology kept the Deepwater’s pontoon system floating safely above that ocean of the unconscious. Until the fire, that is.
Drilling for and consuming fossil fuels is, quite simply, life-threatening. These massive spills keep reminding us of that. As gaudy as the Exxon Valdez disaster was, it would have been an equal, though far more disperse, disaster had the oil been delivered, refined, pipelined and trucked to gas stations, pumped into cars, and burned into the atmosphere. We are in constant denial of this basic law of life on earth that everything goes somewhere.
The journalist Tom Friedman calls oil and gas “fuels from hell,” in contrast to renewable energy (solar and wind) “fuels from heaven.” It’s an apt image. After all, the fossils have been sequestered down in the earth’s crust over millennia, far from the thin and fragile layer of life known as the biosphere, for good reason. In every form, they are toxic to life. In mythic stories, hell is often depicted as a place of continuous fire and sulfurous smoke, a place of eternal damnation and suffering.
Which is what the Deepwater Horizon must have felt like that night of April 20, 2010. The balls of fire topped over the rig, which was the height of a 27-story building, and blasted through every deck and level, eventually sinking the 32,00 ton structure. Worse, the explosions took eleven human lives and countless lives of other creatures unfortunate enough to call the Gulf home.
A consummate mythic storyteller, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, wrote that the buildings in the city of Macondo had walls of mirror. The sheer scale of the Deepwater Horizon, its literal and metaphorical connection with hellfire, invite us to imagine that it is also a mirror. It’s a mirror of our current failed energy policies, a mirror of our lack of humility and humanity, and a mirror that reveals the instability, unpredictability, and destructiveness of our continued addiction to fossil fuels.