The Gulf oil spill is now identified as the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. The crisis has the potential for changes in the lives of the people along the Gulf Coast, and our country as a whole.
The incident for me, personally, brought up memories of the Santa Barbara, Califorina oil spill. At the time of the Santa Barbara oil spill, I was attending college a few miles down the road in Thousand Oaks, California. At the time the 11 days to cap the spill seemed like an eternity and the 200,000 gallons spread out on a 800 mile slick seemed hard to comprehend. The numbers of this oil spill now seem to be dwarfed by the mammoth spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Some have noted that it was the Santa Barbara Oil spill that was the catalyst for the first Earth Day and the passage of several new environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and more. We even had a U.S. President in the 70’s calling for a reduction in oil imports, increased conservation, energy efficiency, use of renewable energies, the creation of the new Solar Energy Research Institute and symbolic solar panels put on the White House roof.
But then we faced new leadership in the form of Ronald Reagan who as one of his first acts symbolically took down the solar panels off the White House, and put more emphasis on oil, gas, and nuclear power and less on conservation, efficiency, and renewables. Reagan told the American people what they wanted to hear, that there would be no need for sacrifices or changing lifestyles as President Carter had suggested. Ever since no American President has had the courage to try to change course as Jimmy Carter did. The result, our oil imports from Carter through Bush have doubled from 5 million barrels a day to 10 million barrels a day according to the U.S. Energy Administration. See: http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=PET&s=MCRIMUS2&f=A
Despite many warning signs such as the Three Mile Island accident (1979), the Exxon Valdez incident (1989), the Prudhoe Bay oil spill (2006), and several tragic refinery fires and mine disasters, the nation continues to pursue an unsustainable and increasingly dangerous energy policy. Not even the Pentagon commissioned report published in the book Brittle Power by Amory Lovins, released in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, warned of the national security threats of U.S. energy policy was enough for politicians to change course.
So now we have the inevitable result of a poorly regulated energy industry, who has been taking increasing risks, to satisfy the increasing fossil fuel appetite of Americans, the tragic Gulf oil spill.
The losses are incredible and include destruction of wetlands, sea grasses, and other important ecosystems, the destruction of thousands of birds with the risk of more to come when the migratory season beings this Fall and birds return from the North, the loss of human life with the deaths of those killed on the oil rig explosion, the increasing number of health problems being reported, the loss and end for some of their family heritage of fishing, the loss of tourist dollars, and the loss of jobs, to name a few. Consider the following:
- Over 40% of the U.S. fragile wetlands are in danger.
- Louisiana is already estimating 12,000 in job loss and that is just the beginning.
- The U.S. Government has already declared Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama a fishery disaster and closed 30% of the Gulf of Mexico to Fishing. Louisiana alone supplies 40% of the U.S. seafood supply, a $2.4 billion industry employing 27,000 people.
- According to John Hofmeister, an ex-CEO from Shell Oil, the offshore moratorium could cost 50,000 jobs in the oil industry alone. The Wall Street Journal says the number could reach 75,000.
- Florida hotels are already reporting as much as 50% decrease in reservations in the Florida Keys.
- Thousands of birds could die from the oil spill with more impact to com in the fall when the migratory birds return to the oil infested marshes and wetlands.
- Many fish species are in danger including the blue fin tuna, 90% who spawn in the Gulf Coast. Other fish who may experience major impacts include grouper, red snapper, oysters, and spiny lobsters to name a few.
- 28 species of whales and dolphins inhabit the Gulf of Mexico plus sea turtles who are all at risk
- Depending on the path of the oil spill, mangroves, coral reefs, and beaches in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are all at risk.
- Health risks are increasingly being identified with over 70 people already diagnosed as ill from the Oil Spill with headaches, nausea, skin damage, respiratory problems, to name a few. More serious long term effects are also possible.
While the full scale of this unfolding disaster is still unknown, the collective trauma, stress, and grief from this environmental disaster will not end when the the oil leak is finally plugged. It will take years if not decades for ecosystems to recover, some communities and industries may never recover, and for many individuals life may never be the same again as they had known it. The personal and cultural losses are at a scale that few in the U.S. have ever experienced. Millions across the nation are expressing outrage and feelings of sickness as they view birds covered with oil and dolphins and sea turtles attempting to swim through the oil filled waters. Fisherman who have had long family histories in this profession are grief stricken as they realize the family heritage and way of life may be ending, businesses dependent on tourism are stressed with the possibility of failing in an already tough economy, and the ecosystems that have supported much diversity in nature are threatened with a blow that may take them decades to recover if they ever do.
While the State of Louisiana has already deployed mental health workers to address this crisis, that comes not that long after Hurricane Katrina, the breadth and depth of the grief and trauma is likely to be to big to handle on an individual basis.
As my friend and colleague the late Dr. Howard Clinebell, founding President of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, asked after 9/11, “What is the missing piece in facilitating wholistic healing of collective trauma and systemic grief?”
This question led Howard and I to collaborate and identify some tentative answers that include:
1. The missing piece is an in-depth understandings of the unique dynamics and process of healing collective as compared with individual trauma, anxiety, terror, rage and grief. Both the PTSD and the CISD (Critical Incident Stress Debriefing) literature focus mainly on individual and family trauma. Although collective trauma trigger many responses like those elicited by trauma in individuals, the unique dimensions must be understood more fully and addressed effectively by caregivers who strive to be truly wholistic.
2. The key dynamic in collective trauma are terrifying, disorienting shattering of the collective identities that give large social systems like communities, states, and nations a sense of shared security and meaning. In trauma produced by disasters such as the Gulf oil spill, this identity shattering often produces intense, defensive in-group bonding. This defense is often expressed in uncritical political and economic responses and immediate, non-rational transference elevation of key leaders, along with self-righteous glorification of "us" vs the totally evil "them". In this case the people vs. BP All this feeds the collective ethical craziness of the social psychology often found in disasters.
3. The unique role of pastoral psychotherapists is illuminated by awareness of the tidal wave of collective existential anxiety triggered by the terrifying awareness of our extreme human vulnerability and the unpredictable nature of loss and death for all we love and for ourselves. This deep, fear, anger, and pain often creates a wave of defensive religious passion and expressions intertwined with intense, uncritical response. Mobilizing our expertise in diagnosing and treating pathogenic faith and value systems will enable us to help care-receivers eventually move toward more wellness and healthy values systems. Our knowledge of the healing potential of group rituals should equip us to coach clients in creating and participating in healing rituals for PTSD responses long after the Gulf Oil Spill.
4. The Gulf Oil Spill and other collective trauma highlight the inadequacy and incompleteness of stand-alone, intrapsychic pastoral or mental health counseling and the urgent necessity of integrating systemic, prophetic strategies in our caregiving responses.
The good news is like the Santa Barbara Oil Spill became a catalyst for new environmental awareness and a series of new environmental laws, the Gulf oil spill may become a catalyst for a serious shift in U.S. energy policy to get off its fossil fuel addiction and chart a new sustainable energy course. The new sustainable energy course with an emphasis on conservation, energy efficiency, and renewables will also create new jobs, reduce the nations trade imbalance, reduce the national debt, and increase national security. Groups like the Waves of Change campaign have already begun to chart a course for more sustainable, disaster resistant, and economically sustainable communities through its Blue Communities program. see www.wavesofchange.org
The challenge of the Gulf oil spill for pastoral caregivers and other mental health workers is immense and many faceted. Let’s hope is that we who are trained to think in disciplined ways about cultivating spiritually-centered, wholistic healing will use this window of opportunity to make innovative discoveries of healing modalities for countless wounded persons and families but also for our deeply and collectively wounded nation and global community.
Let’s hope and pray that we can somehow use our expertise to help our loved country stop contributing to the negative impacts of climate change and ocean acidification that will be experienced much greater in poor countries by increasing terrible poverty and economic oppression by our misguided energy policies.
If we do this, we will help many individuals and families experience healing of their collective grief and, equally important, we will perhaps also help our country to grow into a more mature and ethical member of the family of nations!
We need to channel the public outrage, into concrete practical actions, and move our nation decisively onto the path of a sustainable energy future.
Lets use the opportunity of the tragic crisis of the Gulf oil spill to say no more to energy companies dictating our national energy policy and begin moving toward a sustainable future. This is perhaps the one thing that can bring rapid healing to the collective grief and trauma from this horrific event.
Dr. David W. Randle is a Pastoral Care Specialist in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, President & CEO of the WHALE Center, and Managing Director of the International Ocean Institute Waves of Change Campaign