A fascinating commentary in Sunday’s New York Times entitled “The Ahab Parallax” drew on the timeless metaphor of Melville’s Moby Dick to consider the insatiable human quest for oil as the essential fuel of modern life, and the even more powerful instinct of human beings to try to conquer nature.
If there is any image more futile than the last glimpse of Ahab lashed to the whale plunging into the depths, it must be the mesmerizing image of oil spewing relentlessly into the Gulf of Mexico 5,000 feet below the surface. There is it on our desktop, the videocam from hell, day after day, week after week, a Dickensian horror in moder cyber time.
President Obama is back in the Gulf tonight, and soon will address the nation on the disaster. He’s come under a great deal of criticism for responding too slowly, for being tepid in the face of monstrous negligence by BP, for failing the test of public emotive leadership. More recently, he did say that he was ready to “kick ass” but that does not seem like much a solution to upwards of 40,000 barrels a day polluting the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, wiping out the fishing industries there and devastating wildlife.
Like Ahab hoisting his spear once more in search of the whale, Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi now says that oil drilling should continue despite the catastrophe. Remember, Ahab lost his leg to Moby Dick, but that didn’t stop his ultimately fatal quest to conquer the beast. Barbour claimed that this was the very first time that such an accident ever occurred. Not so!
Lost in the mess of this moment is the little historical fact that this is not the first time that a massive oil spill reached beaches in the Gulf of Mexico. A 1979 explosion at the Ixtoc rig released nearly 150 million barrels of oil, spoiling beaches in Mexico and Texas. It took ten months before that broken well could be stopped by relief wells.
Mighty BP has been brought mighty low by the forces of nature. The well cannot be stopped by any of the methods used thus far. The tragedy grows each day. Perhaps the only good that might come of this whale of a mess is some pause, however briefly, to consider the limits of humanity’s ability to claim all of nature as our very own.