Jul 20

There are a few topics that Mother Teresa and Joseph Stalin agreed on, other than the cause for human apathy. So I suspect that both would be surprised – as I am — about the reaction to the BP oil spill.

If six months ago someone were to describe to me a tremendous oil spill and ask me to predict our collective reaction to it, I would have said that we would be highly interested in this disaster for a week or two and, after that short time, our interest would dwindle to “mildly interested.” After all, we (the public) appear only vaguely interested in a whole slew of environmental issues. The destruction of the Amazon rainforest, for example, has been going on for decades. Since 1970 we’ve managed to destroy about 600,000 square miles (www.mongabay.com/brazil.html), but we’re so used to these kinds of statistics that no one seems to care much.

So, why is it that we care so much about the BP oil spill than what happens on a daily basis in the Amazon? Here’s what we know about human caring and compassion.  First and foremost, it is based on our emotions rather than our reasoning. Joseph Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.”  Mother Teresa said, “If I look at the masses I will never act, but if I look at the one I will.”  In oil spill terms: We see pelicans and turtles mired and dying in oil, and we want to cry. We hear about families who have had their homes ruined and their livelihoods horribly affected or even destroyed, and we sympathize with their helplessness and want to do something to help them recover.  Our compassion isn’t necessarily proportional to the magnitude of the catastrophe. It depends on how much of our emotion is invoked.

Perhaps I’m mistaken about human apathy, but it is also possible that there are particular features of the BP oil spill that influence how much we care, and that if these features were different, we would care substantially less, even if the magnitude of the disaster were the same.

Here are a few characteristics that might differentiate the BP oil spill from the destruction of the Amazon. First, it is a singular event with a precise beginning. Second, while the tragedy was ongoing (and we are not yet sure if it has ended or not) it seemed to become more desperate by the day. Third, we have a single organization that we can villainize. In contrast, in the Amazon, there are many organizations and individuals at fault, both in the countries where deforestation is occurring and abroad. And fourth, the Gulf is so much closer to home (at least for Americans).

The BP oil spill is, of course, a hugely devastating tragedy. At this stage, we don’t fully understand the magnitude of its consequences, which will likely last for decades. At the same time, it might be worthwhile to take this moment in history as an opportunity – when are caring about this tragedy is still high – to reflect on our larger relationship with the oceans, and the apathy with which we generally greet the less dramatic, but perhaps equally devastating, environmental consequences of overfishing and “everyday pollution.”

I suspect that, because our abuse of the oceans is commonly the result of many small steps by many people, we fail to become enraged with either the process or the outcomes. But we should be. And we should do our best to take better care of our oceans, and not only when the pollution is caused by a single large, easily villainized organization.

Maybe this is another case in which we want to make sure that we don’t waste a really good crisis (for a related missed opportunity see financial crisis). Maybe it is time to look more broadly at our interactions with the oceans and make it a better long-term relationship, and maybe we need to do this while we still care, and before our interest in the oceans dissipates.