On being ... inured

By Ingrid Sapona

The oil disaster happening in the Gulf of Mexico has been going on for over 10 weeks and for at least the last three columns I’ve considered writing about it. I’ve held back until now because I felt funny writing about a crisis that doesn’t have an immediate, direct impact on me. But, at the same time, since day one I’ve felt it’s something that should concern everyone and so it’s something I’ve wanted to write about.

Had I written a column early on in the crisis, the title would have been: On being … a drop in the bucket. That column would have pretty much been an attack on a theme some oil executives and others made to the effect that the amount of water in the Gulf is so vast that any such “spill” will be diluted to the point that it will have a negligible impact on the environment.

I’ve never much liked “drop in the bucket”-type rationales because I don’t find them compelling. Anyone who’s ever tried to lose weight by watching their caloric intake or who has tried to save for a down payment (or to pay off a credit card debt), knows that every little bit matters. It seems to me that if analogies are called for to describe the situation, a more apt one would be about the straw that breaks the camel’s back. At least that analogy contains the notion of responsibility for a negative consequence.

As the news of the various efforts employed to contain the gushing oil was reported on and different experts were giving their opinions, I was struck time and again by the hubris that underlies the whole endeavour of sub-sea oil drilling. Don’t get me wrong -- I’m genuinely in awe of the amazing things humans have been able to do. (Putting a man on the moon is just one of many examples of outstanding human achievements.) But, whenever someone says an activity is “perfectly safe” or that something “can’t happen” -- the hair on the back of my neck stands up.

I just never understand how people can say such things, much less honestly believe them. (To those who would say I’m either ridiculously superstitious or naïve, I refer you to all the engineers and others who thought -- even after the first plane struck -- that the World Trade Center could “never” come down because it was built to the highest engineering standards, blah, blah blah...)

And then there’s the issue of the news coverage of the Gulf disaster. Of course it’s newsworthy and people want to be informed of the status. But, I think there’s a very real risk the media coverage is actually having a negative impact. For example, starting a broadcast with “Day 72 of the Crisis in the Gulf” makes it seem like there will be an end -- a last day. Though (hopefully) there will be a day when the gushing stops, that certainly won’t be the end of the negative consequences to the area.

And then there are all the stories about how much oil is gushing. Initial reports were in barrels of oil. Then some reporters started converting that to gallons, which meant the number took a staggering leap (given that there are 42 U.S. gallons per barrel). Here in Canada some reporters then converted the gallons to litres, resulting in a number about four times higher still. No matter how you state them, the numbers are eye-popping. But, focusing on the amount (which is, at best, a guesstimate) only diverts people’s attention from the real issues: how to stop the gushing; whether to allow offshore drilling; how to wean ourselves from oil; and how to deal with the oil already there.

As the weeks passed since April 20th (how many even remember that it started in April?), I moved from anger, to frustration, to helplessness. Eventually I found it was easier to just tune the story out. Interestingly, the past few weeks I’ve also noticed that it’s not even a topic that comes up in conversations with my friends, as it did during the first few weeks.

As a news junkie, the fact that I’d taken to simply ignoring stories about the Gulf disaster was disconcerting. The realization that others around me seem to be routinely doing the same got me thinking that maybe there is a common theme worth writing about.

Indeed, I think the phenomenon of people tuning out the disaster isn’t attributable to apathy or disinterest. I think the underlying reason is something far worse: that people have become inured to the whole thing. (I certainly think that’s the slippery slope I was on until recently.) And, the more people become inured to a situation -- willing to accept the undesirable -- the more likely it is that people and companies will take chances that can have such dire consequences.

I don’t have any particularly insightful comments about how you go about avoiding becoming inured to the disaster, much less ideas about positive steps we might take to improve the situation. But, I think encouraging others to guard against becoming inured to it is important. So, how about it? Is it time for a personal reality check? It certainly couldn’t hurt, and I dare say we’d collectively be better off if everyone had their guard up…

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


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