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The Mirror of the Sea


My apologies to the seafaring author Joseph Conrad, who published his memoirs under this title in 1913; the sea as a mirror has been on my mind a lot lately, though.  Part of the reason is my recent 1,000-mile sailing adventure helping deliver a 41-foor sloop from the Panama Canal to Cancun, Mexico.  Like other adventures, seven days and seven nights out of land's sight, along with the usual and sometimes unexpected adventures of sailing, can mirror how we show up in general and what we have to learn - on sea or land.  I will save those lessons learned for another time, however.   What's really been on my mind is Joseph Conrad's belief that the sea mirrors our culture.  I heartily agree, and given the disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, that should give us all great cause for concern.  No one seems to know the actual number, but something like 141 million gallons of crude oil spewed into the Gulf in the first two months, and there is no end in sight.  Shame on us if we don't seriously reflect on what this latest in a long string of environmental disasters reflects about our culture and if it doesn't cause us to make some changes.


Here's my take on how the unfolding Gulf disaster reflects our culture, and some implications:

  • Poor accountability - We will see to what extent BP takes responsibility for the damage it is causing, and to the extent possible pays for it.  In any event, clearly we already know that they exercised poor accountability by not paying attention to what mattered on their rig and not following their own safety protocols.  Also, apparently various oversight and regulatory parties were asleep at the switch, just as we learned that was the case when Wall Street and our economy began imploding in 2008.  It would be a mistake, though, to just pin blame on the most obvious parties; we need to examine our own contributory roles and how we are accountable.  Are we doing all that we can to curb an apparently insatiable appetite for fuel to run our SUVs, jet-skis, mega-yachts and creature comforts?  Are we finally going to get serious about replacing traditional fuels with more earth and sea-friendly alternatives? 
  • "Mindlessness" - Most of us seem totally unaware or unappreciative of our sea gifts - the seas themselves and all that they provide - transportation, relaxation and entertainment, food, medicine, energy of course, and more.  We are used to pumping our gas, buying our shrimp or fish filets and discarding their packaging without any "upstream" or "downstream" thinking like asking:  "Where did this come from?"  "What processes, and who, were involved?"  "Where will this go when I am finished with it?"  Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University, author of "Melville: His World and Work," talks about how "it's irresistable to make the analogy between the relentless hunt for whale oil in Melville's (author of "Moby Dick) day and for petroleum in ours.  We want our comforts but we don't want to know too much about where they come from or what makes them possible. People ashore don't want to know about the ugly things that go on at sea."  Ignorance can be bliss, but usually not for very long.
  • Lack of transparency - It shouldn't serve as an excuse for not doing a little "due diligence" ourselves, but entities like BP, gulf seafood purveyors and others that make or distribute what we consume generally don't provide much information about the history of whatever we're purchasing - at least not the less attractive aspects.  We can hope that we would be more responsible consumers if we learned more of the "stories" behind what we consume. A different kind of transparency issue became a problem early in the Gulf fiasco when it became very difficult to determine just how much leaking oil there was, what it's impact was and what was being done about it.  Installing a live-cam at the leak's source was of course not BP's idea, and obfuscation accelerated with BPs low-ball and inaccurate reports of the leak's size.
  • Disrespect - What does it say when we commonly use the seas as dumping grounds for industrial, human and toxic waste?  As just one visible sign of our disregard and disrespect, there is now a floating island in the mid-Pacific about the size of Texas and growing that is composed entirely of garbage and plastic.  Language can reflect a lot about cultural mindsets; Anglo-Saxon cultures speak of edible sea harvests as simply "seafood," the French say "fruits of the sea," and Slavs use the term "gifts of the sea."  How do these different terms reflect different mindsets with respect to our relationships with the sea?
  • Greed and misplaced priorities - Is there something familiar here?  What parallels are we seeing between apparent shortcuts, disregard for nice-sounding values and risk management protocols, blind drive to hit a number and profit-over-people modus operandi with the behavior we observed that brought down our economy?  I understand that we live in a competitive world, that profit drives investment and growth, that management needs to be fiscally responsible, etc.  However when everything - including the eleven lives lost on BP's rig, endangered species, the Gulf as we know it and the livelihood and lifestyles for millions - is subsumed by an all-consuming, white-hot drive for profit maximization, can't we see that there's something wrong with the picture and that a little more balance is in order?  Captain Ahab of Moby Dick comes to mind again here - so consumed was he in pursuit of the white whale that nothing else mattered - including the fate of his own ship and crew.  (Ironically, Moby Dick was written around the time of another world-wide energy crisis when it was feared that the world's supply of whale oil would end - which it did.)  Mr. Delbanco of Columbia University believes that Melville's story "is certainly, among other things, a cautionary tale about the terrible cost of exploiting nature for human wants.  It's a story about self-destruction visited upon the destroyer - and the apocalyptic vision at the end seems eerily pertinent today."


Sometimes, unfortunately it takes a shock to change deeply-ingrained mindsets and habits.  It certainly seems that we are overdue for a sea change in our course; we can only hope that the Gulf fiasco will serve that purpose.


How might we begin making improvements as responsible consumers - by learning more about the "stories" of our purchases, or perhaps just consuming more responsibly?


In what ways might our organizations improve by increasing transparency, informing consumers, becoming more mindful of "upstream" and "downstream" impact or exercising better stewardship?


 What overwhelming drives might we examine that may be displacing other aims, values or  priorities?  How might we make appropriate adjustments?


No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.

George Burns

The only thing it takes for evil to succeed is for someone to say "It's just business."

                                     Alan Shore ("Boston Legal" character)


Man's responsibility increases as that of the gods decreases.

                                                        Andre Gide (1869-1950) French author

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