The plume of oil reflects our obsession with scarcity

The Black Plume rises from the ocean floor in grim, silent opposition to our beliefs that we need ever more energy, possessions, and control.
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First, the plume of smoke from the Deepwater Horizon fire, then the Black Plume of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Black Plume rises from the ocean floor in grim, silent opposition to our beliefs that we need ever more energy, possessions, and control.

The Black Plume spirals forth beneath the oceans of the Gulf of Mexico. We would rather not think about it but we do. We do and we must. This Black Plume is both fact and symbol. The sad, scary factual reporting goes on day by day. But what kind of symbol is it or shall it become for us?

To put it another way, what message does this Black Plume have for us?

Some meanings are clear. For one, it symbolizes a god that failed: technology. The various technical solutions have so far failed, not only frustrating engineers and politicians, but belying a faith that technology will finally save us. It will not. We are approaching the point, already past it, when it is not enough to change our techniques; we must change our lives.

It is also clear that the Black Plume signifies a poisoning of the earth as yet beyond our capacity to grasp or comprehend. Particularly, it poisons the ecosystem of the Gulf and all that depends upon its timeless rhythms, whether migratory birds, sea creatures great and small, fish, and the human beings dependent upon harvesting the seafood for their living. In all likelihood, it will destroy a way of life and culture among Gulf residents that is generations old.

The Black Plume seems, as well, curiously linked to the Wall Street debacle and recession. After 30 years of "the government is the problem" ideology, we should not be surprised that no respected or adequately resourced arm of government is effectively watching over the corporations.

Are there other meanings, symbolic resonances of the no-longer-televised dark cyclone of oil surging forth day by day, hour by hour?

It is striking that this precious resource, "black gold," flows now so wantonly, so wastefully, so prolifically. Think of the lives that have been sacrificed over decades now to gain oil. Think of the armies mobilized and governments overthrown to control oil. And there it is, spewing forth, both mocking and rebuking our acquisitiveness.

Note the terms used to describe the Deepwater Horizon disaster. We hear of the number of "barrels" of oil flowing into the Gulf in an hour or a day. It is an "oil spill." The terms suggest control. This is a resource we may, occasionally, spill. It can be comprehended in barrel amounts. It can be "barreled," and contained. It is reducible to the logic of production and consumption, of warehouses and stockpiles.

For a long time now, the dominant narrative at work in our culture has been a narrative of scarcity. Despite our great affluence, there's never enough.

We must get more, do more, have more. We must build up our stocks and piles, fill our warehouses and supply bins. Yet this narrative has not made us safe. It has not made us secure.

Quite the opposite: our narrative of scarcity, constantly rehearsed, has made us anxious and fearful and selfish. Human bonds have been sacrificed to gain stuff, but the stuff cannot save us.

The narrative of scarcity is a narrative of control. It tells us that we must capture and control. But the swirling, wanton, wasteful Black Plume mocks us. What we have killed and died for gushes away. We aren'ꀙt in control. The earth is beyond our control. We are not here, on earth, as owners. We are guests. The awful Black Plume speaks of the limits of our control, the limits of our power.

There is another narrative possibility besides the narrative of scarcity. There is another way of construing the world. There is a narrative of abundance. Not the abundance of mega-retailers with their array of countless consumer products and items, many petroleum-based. Nor should this be construed to mean that I imagine there is an unending oil supply. There is not.

But if a dominant narrative of scarcity drives us to anxiety, fear, and isolation, the alternative narrative of abundance is the ground of the trust and the basis of a concern for a common good that is our only real hope.

Nature itself often suggests to us the true abundance of life. That abundance is evident in the thousands of seeds sown heedlessly by the poppy, the dandelion, and sunflower. This abundance is manifest in a glorious sunrise or beautiful sunset, either of which we may behold, neither of which may we hold, possess, or control. The abundance of a meal freely shared with others or the abundance of a child's laughter. Life construed from abundance rather than scarcity makes community possible, makes concern for neighbors possible. Such is the path to our proper security.

So this Black Plume is more than technological problem or failure, more even than ecological disaster, more too than a sign of appropriate government roles discredited and undermined. It speaks of a failed dominant narrative. It is sign and symbol that life cannot be reduced to barreled quantities, to the calculus of production and consumption, to a narrative of scarcity. It tells us that this system and narrative are neither life-giving nor life-sustaining. As such, it is a veiled invitation to embrace an alternative narrative: a narrative of abundance not scarcity, and of a good that is common and shared, not private and controlled.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.