Amanda Ripley

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Obama’s 9/11: The Opportunity in the Oil Spill

21st May 2010 posted in General

Check out Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times this week. He argues that Obama is missing a massive opportunity in the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico, and I think he is right.

“Sadly, President Obama seems intent on squandering his environmental 9/11 with a Bush-level failure of imagination. So far, the Obama policy is: “Think small and carry a big stick.” He is rightly hammering the oil company executives. But he is offering no big strategy to end our oil addiction….Please don’t tell us that our role is just to hate BP or shop in Mississippi or wait for a commission to investigate. We know the problem, and Americans are ready to be enlisted for a solution.”

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill leaves us all, regardless of politics, with a pit in our stomachs—a sense that something awful is happening, and there is no satisfying way to place blame, much as we’d like to. The thick sludge washing up on the shores of Louisiana belongs to BP, but also to the rest of us. That’s why more than 5,000 people have submitted ideas to a suggestion box set up by BP and the Coast Guard for how to respond to the spill. That’s why people all over the world have sent hundreds of thousands of pounds of hair (yes! hair!) to help sop up the oil, even though it’s unclear how effective such containment booms will be.

As is the case in every disaster I have studied, the primary public reaction to catastrophe is positive and powerful: We urgently want to do something to help. The public wants to be part of a big solution—not a congressional inquisition. But we don’t know what to do.

We want to think big, to make changes, to sacrifice so that this doesn’t happen again—and yet. We are told to stay home and let the people in charge keep doing what they’re doing, however poorly they are doing it.

All that energy is draining away, just like it did after 9/11, slipping into a leadership void, dissipating until we are left feeling just helpless and fatalistic. And that poisonous combination of helplessness and fatalism does not end here. That attitude is, I promise you, the best way to guarantee more disasters of all kinds in the future.