Corporate Kindergarten

Ever since the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, has been under pressure not unlike the oil well itself. He has had to announce his resignation, having become the public face of the oil spill. Not an image anyone wants. Musing on the fact that he is being forced out as the head of one of the world’s largest corporations (which earns billions of dollars of profits each quarter) Hayward has stated that life is not fair. Welcome to Kindergarten, Mr. Hayward. Ask any of those millions of poor who’ve never been given a chance at a decent life and they will tell you. The lamentations of the rich are more annoying than jock itch. These guys have had it so good for so long that they’ve forgotten what it is to participate in the struggle for existence.

Not content to lament the fact that he still has an exorbitant salary within the company – being sent to Siberia is a great hardship, even if you have a mansion there – Hayward also stated that BP’s response to the tragedy is “a model of what corporate social responsibility is all about,” according to the New York Daily News. His words ring truer than he realizes. This is indeed a model of unbridled greed and utter disregard for either the planet or those who get in the way of corporate acquisitions. Yes, the response reveals what truly drives the corporate world. If the rich are left alone, they will allow life to remain just tolerable for those on the bottom.

Having learned very early that life is not fair, I have watched the response of the uncivilized wealthy to their various slings and arrows with a slurry of bemusement and rage. What separates those on top from others is their ruthlessness, not their intelligence, or, please!, their worthiness. Experience is the best teacher. I worked my way through three degree programs and earned exceptional teacher ratings for over a decade before being thrown in the unemployed slush pile. I routinely watch colleagues earn far more for doing far less while future prospects grow blacker and blacker. Oh, my heart goes out to Mr. Hayward. It is obvious he missed Kindergarten. Maybe the second-floor maid will be able to fill him in some day.

Soaring ever higher

When Dinosaurs Will Rule

Just about all of us begin life as budding paleontologists. What kid doesn’t adore dinosaurs and their paradigmatic story of planetary rule followed by inexplicable decline? The mystery and drama only add to the fantastical nature of the beasts themselves – creatures towering over houses and trees, predators the size of school buses. When my daughter hit dinosaur age, my latent paleontologist experienced a profound resurrection. Sure that she’d become the next great dinosaur hunter, I relearned all the old species names and added dozen more from creatures discovered since my interest went underground. While my career was spiraling downward at Nashotah House, I contacted the paleontology program at the University of Wisconsin to see about retraining. I even started to teach myself calculus.

Life delights in playing funny tricks on people. Once again my career in religious studies spirals downward and the specter of the dinosaurs rises. Literally. A former student of mine pointed out an article on that spells out some possible implications of the Deepwater Horizon fiasco. The first sentence reads: “Ominous reports are leaking past the BP Gulf salvage operation news blackout that the disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico may be about to reach biblical proportions.” The Bible is our standard measure for disaster; no crisis can not be made worse by throwing in the adjective “biblical.” If Terrence Aym is correct, however, even the Bible won’t save us now.

Apocalypse now?

Basing his analysis on Gregory Ryskin’s thesis that immense methane bubbles from under the ocean led to several past mass extinctions on our planet, Aym suggests that all the signs are present that a true doomsday scenario is unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. I have seldom been impacted by doomsday predictions, but Aym’s article is perhaps the scariest thing I’ve read in years. I’m not enough of a scientist to assess the danger, and the media blockade only makes the speculation worse. Could it be that the decay from all those dead dinosaurs, their cohorts and predecessors, their flora – the very source of fossil fuels – is rising to deal yet another mass extinction on our planet? The reader will need to decide. For me, I regret that I didn’t stay with the dinosaurs, for they still rule the planet.

Oil’s Well that Ends

Greed has been on my mind quite a bit lately. I like to think it isn’t petty personal greed, but the insatiable corporate variety of greed. Friends send me links to sad commentaries on the Gulf Oil Spill, an event that severely amplifies the cruelty already inherent in nature, but an event that would have been preventable were it not for greed. My friend James from Idle Musings sent me a compelling story from the UK Guardian that poignantly demonstrates how a shift of worldviews has bestowed divine approval on the rape of our planet. The very religion that began as animism, the belief in the ubiquitous divine in nature, has evolved into a Neo-con Christianity that supports free markets as surely as it believes in resurrection. If a few million animals have to die, well, their invisible, loving God sees far more than our limited sight.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the video link my wife pointed out to me last night. Here an advocate for biblical “prophecy” points out that it can not be coincidence that the day after the United States withdrew unilateral support for Israel in the United Nations Security Council was the very day that Deepwater Horizon exploded. No, the pundit declares, do not be fooled. God is punishing the United States for withdrawing support from Israel. This idea, unfortunately, draws on a morass of sloppy theology that can be historically traced to an evangelical death-wish for the planet. Barbara Tuchman, one of the most respected historians of the last century, objectively traces the story in her classic Bible and Sword. Political support for Israel was perceived as a means of forcing God’s hand into releasing the second coming. So much for human sympathy.

Coincidences continually occur. April 19 is the day that Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope just five years ago. It is the day Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco. It is the Feast of Saint Aelfheah of Canterbury. It is Patriot’s Day in New England. It is the day The Simpsons premiered. Whether to see God’s hand in any or all of this is a matter of perspective. As is the motivation behind supporting Israel, big oil, or the second coming. If there is any name other than greed for offering political support for a nation of sacrificial lambs and spilling oil in order to hasten the apocalypse, I simply do not know what it might be.

And this was only April

Life in the Laboratory

Nancy Gibbs’ essay “Creation Myths” appears in this week’s Time. Leaping off from Craig Venter’s “creation of life” in the laboratory, Gibbs asks who the final arbiter might be in this world we’re creating in our own image. The more I ponder the question, the more I realize that no person really decides how far we will go and the implications will only grow more and more unanswerable. We all attempt to construct the world according to our idea of how it should look; it is not a question of if we create the world in our image as much as it is whose image will prevail. As I noted in a recent post, no one person has all the answers. What each of us does impacts all the others just as a wave influences everyone in the sea. We fear science taking the prerogative of creating life because we are fully capable of imagining where it might go, but we just don’t know.

As an individual who has often been on the receiving end of other people’s visions of how this or that institution or company should look, it is my humble assessment that we have already lost control. We never really had control in the first place. At the end of the day, who will really be able to prevent another Gulf oil spill from occurring? Make what laws we will, other creators will find ways around them. And as in Gibbs’ article, the rest of us will simply have to react. No one is really in control.

Perhaps this is the real reason that religion is so appealing. It is terribly, terribly convenient to have an omnipotent divine entity on whose anthropomorphic shoulders we might cast our worries and burdens. Whether we believe in predestination or not, it is comforting to suppose that when it is all over God will somehow sponge up all that oil (preferably squeezing that sponge back out into BP’s great, sturdy tankards of crude), or stop that evil clone we’ve engineered, or stomp out that hyper-aggressive virus we’ve unleashed. We may make laws against creating life or human clones in the laboratory, but it will happen nevertheless. Gibbs wonders if scientists are about to cross some moral Rubicon. My answer is simple: we crossed that Rubicon long before the river itself flowed, when we first put our webbed feet out onto dry ground and began our still uncertain journey to the future.

God exits, stage left

Converting Triffids

“Stupendous as this disaster is, there is, however, still a margin of survival. It may be worth remembering just now that we are not unique in looking upon vast calamity. Whatever the myths that have grown up about it, there can be no doubt that somewhere far back in our history there was a Great Flood. Those who survived that must have looked upon a disaster comparable in scale with this and, in some ways, more formidable. But they cannot have despaired; they must have begun again – as we can begin again.” This quote from John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids brings into focus a number of themes from this blog. Initially, it is another example of the intersection of science fiction and religion, specifically the Bible. In his apocalyptic 1951 novel, Wyndham can find no better example of disaster than the Flood Myth. The Bible and science fiction have kissed each other once again.

Another recurring theme reflects on disaster and how religions deal with it. As the Gulf of Mexico oil spill begins taking on apocalyptic dimensions religion is brought into the discussion in a variety of ways: God will take care of it; it is a sign of the end times; God is punishing us for something; corporate greed must stop. Take your choice. When people feel threatened, religion is quickly brought off the shelf, dusted off, and thrust out as the harbinger of deep solutions. Those of us who deal with religion every day must be forgiven for being a bit more circumspect.

The Flood Myth is a regular theme as well. It crops up in unlikely as well as predictable locations. As mentioned yesterday, it was evident in the Mystic Aquarium (unexpected), and it constantly resurfaces in Fundamentalist rhetoric (predictable). On a previous travelogue entry I mentioned Noah’s Ark being rebuilt in Maryland (unexpected). Seeing the Flood as the benchmark of worldwide disasters in a science fiction novel may be predictable, but the troubling ethical concomitants drawn out by Wyndham are profoundly disturbing. The Flood is not longer the worst disaster imaginable, but the Bible will continue as the measure of catastrophe long after the triffids have vanished.

Mystical Aquariums

This is the dawning of the age of aquariums. With the Gulf oil spill still gushing out of control, there is a current awareness of the plight of the seas due to unnatural (i.e. human) interference. Perhaps that is why so many people flocked to the Mystic Aquarium yesterday. That, and the fact that it was a beautiful day on the northeast coast. Having grown up in land-locked western Pennsylvania, I have always appreciated the oceans and their microcosms, designed for human visitation. My first actual aquarium experience was the New England Aquarium in Boston, a facility that sets a very high standard for all others. Trips to the Seattle Aquarium, the Norwalk Aquarium, the Camden Aquarium, and a variety of smaller facilities (I unfortunately missed out when my family visited the San Francisco and Shedd (Chicago) Aquariums) always leave me with a sense of connectedness to our planet. Life emerged from the seas, and, as Rachel Carson observed, we always long to go back to our ancestral home.

It is easy to spend an entire day at the Mystic Aquarium. Beluga whales are impressive close-up, and the sea lions show more intelligence that your average Republican. Jellyfish, with no brain at all, are capable of doing tricks humans can’t – a tank of bioluminescent jellies was captivating. The penguins had a fascination all their own. It had been a few years since I’d been able to pet a shark or ray. In a separate exhibit on Deep Sea exploration, largely featuring Robert Ballard, the man who discovered the Titanic, the aquarium houses several robots used for entering regions uninhabitable by humans. Since my intense association with FIRST Robotics is never far from mind this was an unexpected bonus. The biblical aspect of the journey, however, came at the end.

Exhausted from a day of wandering, hot and lethargic, we came across the final exhibit: Noah’s Ark! I had begun to wonder if I’d managed to spend a day in an entirely secular venue when the Bible showed up. The display was about the Black Sea. William Ryan and Walter Pittman’s theory of the origin of Noah’s flood in the Black Sea deluge was showcased, along with a video of Ballard, Ryan and Pittman discussing their ideas. As I tell my students, I don’t find this theory particularly convincing – the flood story first emerged, it seems, in southern Mesopotamia – but it is an excellent example of the hold the Bible has on the western imagination. The Black Sea did flood, shifting from fresh to salt water; that discovery is fascinating in itself. In the western world, however, it somehow just feels incomplete without giving old Noah his own Nantucket sleigh ride. To find the origin of the story of Noah, a trip to any vantage-point along the ocean where the power of the sea is evident is all that is required.

Voices from the Third Estate

Discussions over the past week in that great wasteland we call state government have included talk of actually having millionaires taxed to shoulder a little of the state’s fiscal burden. Naturally there has been a strong backlash in this nation of deeply embedded plutocracy. Those who have their millions certainly feel little social responsibility, since the prosperity Gospel (or its analogs) comforts them with whispers that wealth is a sign of blessing. One of the most evil ironies of all is that many such folk have the chutzpah to cite the Bible as their backer. God loves the beautiful people.

Such virulent misreading of religion shrugs off millions of gallons of crude oil gushing into the Gulf. Petroleum companies breed some of the wealthiest individuals around, and if we wipe out the marine life of the southern coast, well, that’s a small price to pay for individual privilege. Somewhere along the line an unholy matrimony between religion and greed produced the great plague that will lead to the fall of western civilization. This may be seen clearly among the apes.

Frans de Waal, an author whom I’ve quoted before, notes that in ape society when an individual (or individuals) takes advantage of the system, the group eventually brings an end to his (or rarely her) reign. Primate society can only tolerate abuses that damage a community for so long before a collapse is immanent. Consider Rome, “the eternal empire.” Every day politicians posture in the media about how they have the best interests of society at heart. As members of the privileged classes, they have lost sight of what it feels like to live in the constant umbra of the supercilious wealthy while millions have no jobs, no health care, no future. Millionaires owe nothing to the society that allowed them to become rich, for the Bible tells them so. Nature, however, begs to differ.

I See You, This Time

With the advent of Avatar on DVD, I finally had the opportunity to see the movie. This time there was no booming bass and overly active 3-D, and I didn’t end up feeling nauseous for days after. On a small screen it lacked the compelling sense of being in each scene that the first ten minutes of my theatrical experience of the movie had, before I had to seal my eyes tight for the rest of the film or be carried out on a stretcher. Nevertheless, I was able to follow the story this time.

I have posted several times on my affinity for old science fiction films; a large part of my boyhood was spent watching hours of improbable adventure on the black-and-white. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I ended up studying religion instead of science, or even literature. Religion, however, is deeply embedded in science fiction, probably because it is deeply embedded in people. And Avatar was no different. Early commentators noted the similarities of Pandora to Eden. Two trees in the garden (Hometree and the Tree of Souls) were easily borrowed from Genesis. The idea of nearly naked natives living in harmony with the world around them, the soft, graceful curves of the forest contrasted sharply with the angular, obtrusive construction vehicles intent on raping paradise. I’m a sucker for archetypes, I guess. The concept of Eywa as “All Mother,” a nurturing goddess rather than a frowning father deity, only enhanced the sense that Pardora’s box should not be violently wrenched open. Even the hideout of the protagonists was nestled among floating rocks called the Hallelujah Mountains – presumably the name given by earthlings.

Yes, the writing was at times trite, and the characters were caricatures of themselves, but in the tragic light of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, Avatar’s world was pristine, uncomplicated by greed and corruption. The Na‘vi, like zealous Christians, are born twice; the metaphor of foolishly maintaining hope in the harsh light of uncaring entrepreneurs might lead to a limited salvation even for this tired old planet. I am an unrepentant tree-hugger. And if there is a film that, despite its limitations, says it is alright, even noble, to hug trees, then I say it is religious in the deepest possible sense.

All Mother is watching