The two columns on opposite sides of yesterday’s New York Times were a study in jarring juxtaposition. In the one, David Brooks explored the incoherence of America’s response to the oil spew in the gulf. Boiled down to its essentials, the populace at once wants a limited government – one that will concentrate on the few things that it can do with some competence – and, at the same time, one that will DO SOMETHING to solve our myriad problems.

In times of crisis, you get a public reaction that is incoherence on stilts. On the one hand, most people know that the government is not in the oil business. They don’t want it in the oil business. They know there is nothing a man in Washington can do to plug a hole a mile down in the gulf.

On the other hand, they demand that the president “take control.” They demand that he hold press conferences, show leadership, announce that the buck stops here and do something. They want him to emote and perform the proper theatrical gestures so they can see their emotions enacted on the public stage.

They want to hold him responsible for things they know he doesn’t control. Their reaction is a mixture of disgust, anger, longing and need. It may not make sense. But it doesn’t make sense that the country wants spending cuts and doesn’t want cuts, wants change and doesn’t want change.

On the opposite side of the same page, Bob Herbert’s column was a portrait of the very incoherence about which Brooks was writing. Herbert begins his column by condemning the creation of institutions that are “too big to fail” and efforts to drill in places too deep to repair.  He laments the helplessness of America – and particularly its leadership – in the face of our various crises, but goes on to call NOT for a reduction in our hubris, but an increase in our “can-do spirit that made America the greatest of nations.”  He calls for a second “Manhattan project” of energy development (does he know what the first Manhattan project created?), and for “dynamic leadership” to take control of our situation.

In response to his observation that “all around us is the wreckage of our failure to master the challenges confronting us,” he calls for the expansion of mastery, all the while vaguely but inchoately aware that those very failures are the result of previous efforts of mastery.

What’s remarkable about the images of the oil spewing from the severed pipe a mile deep in the Gulf is the widespread belief that this leakage represents an environmental catastrophe in contrast to the norm. Our understanding of the “norm,” of course, is the belief that we control our circumstances and fate. Our true norm, in fact, consists in a more widespread but no less disastrous release of poison into our world. The norm that we fantasize about returning to is when we imagine that we control our circumstances by pumping the substance through pipes to containers to refineries to gas stations to automobiles to exhaust pipes to a warming atmosphere (or, to fertilizer factories to farm machinery to topsoil to erosion to rivers and back to dead zones of the Gulf).  In other words, our experience and belief in “control” is little different in the end than our current felt condition of “helplessness.” The only real difference at the moment is the concentrated visibility of the disaster, one that makes visible what is usually hidden – that our civilization exists by poisoning our world, by a concerted and organized effort to release toxic substances from confines where they are relatively sequestered for life to flourish, to a condition where we must come to mistrust the food that we eat, the air that we breath, the water that we drink. Rather than dispersed throughout the world – including the very molecular composition of our bodies – the spew allows us to see with unusual clarity the nature of our civilization. Yet we treat it as an exception, a momentary and controllable lapse, the fault of nefarious oil profiteers, rather than the rule, our “way of life.”

It is at once painful and risible to watch the indignation of our modern moralists, from talking heads who claim to “keep them honest” to a President who must insistently exhibit sufficient quantities of rage (apparently by the clenching of his jaw), who demand that government DO SOMETHING when it’s precisely the modern State that was conceived to foster the conditions whereby we would indefinitely extend our mastery of nature. Nearly every effort one now witnesses by that same modern State is aimed at employing its massive power toward the end of mitigating the mounting (and probably uncontrollable) consequences of that very project of mastery. We live in the wake of efforts to control the natural world – in significant part by harnessing concentrated ancient sunlight – and see the fruits of our labor not only in the poisoned gulf, but a poisoned world. We live in the aftermath of efforts to eliminate risk from our financial world – and see the fruits of that effort in an economic crisis that remains at the edge of conflagration. We live in the shadow of efforts to eliminate all forms of human suffering and want, and face a future of unpayable debts for payments given to the richest generation on earth. We live in a time of self-satisfaction of our brilliance and inventiveness, but pen articles questioning why it is that – for all our technology – we seem to be daily more stupid.

In the face of these crises, we are trapped in the deepest imaginable form of incoherence: we call for more control over the consequences of mastery, yet vaguely recognize that this very response is the source of our deepest troubles. Yet, shorn of our ability to respond in a way that questions or challenges this default response, we allow our indignation to carry us over any doubts and our finger-pointing to avoid any question of our own complicity. But for the fact that catastrophes surround us and any action we take is only likely to draw them nearer, it would be the silliest season of all, an amusement for the ages.

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  1. Then there’s that great mental midget, Charles Krauthammer. He blames all those bad environmentalists, who prevent our drilling in friendlier waters and remoter places.

    Clusterchuck was on his way to making sense for once–“Here’s my question: Why were we drilling in 5,000 feet of water in the first place?”–but then deviated into his usual nonsense: “because environmentalists have succeeded in rendering the Pacific and nearly all the Atlantic coast off-limits to oil production. (President Obama’s tentative, selective opening of some Atlantic and offshore Alaska sites is now dead.) And of course, in the safest of all places, on land, we’ve had a 30-year ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

    Read it here, but grab a cyanide tablet first.

  2. The volatile worldwide financial travails and now this oil “leak”/ “spill” spectacle are a clear example of the dysfunctional siamese twins of our intertwined government and commercial interests. Both have slid blithely into a role whose principle aim is to satisfy any and all wants while encouraging the idea that one’s many wants are the chief concern of existence. The public, of course, has a chief employment venue called “service” in support of the “consumer”. Their government and its commercial cohort switch hit in the role of pimp and street-walker. The edifice of packaged opinion will be increasingly busy herding the nervous public like sheep-dogs.

    In a Menkenesque manner, the subterranean source of oil…that ancient product of sunlight is giving us what we want…”good and hard”.

    Gluttony never has been very pretty, nor forgiving.

    Brooks may be near-correct in his observations but he is a long-time member of the Sunbeams For the Unitary Executive….that school of thought which loves a military parade and seeks to promote the Nation State as Top Dog Consumer, “providing for” the expectant public.

    The reason we will see this incoherence rise to higher pitch is because we are anti-cohere. We are paranoid of the idea that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We have a continuing lust to disect…to cannibalize the world like the scavenger.

  3. Nice essay and quite right all around. There is a fairly simple response to our immediate dependency on oil that doesnt include war or amazing technological feats. I m hesitant to mention for fear that it is horribly stupid and dumb. Still I d like to know why so maybe you can help. It is a solution that does not bring into question the constitution nor does it infringe upon a fundamental liberty in any significant way. Moreover this solution not only addresses our dependency on oil but reduces pollutants, preserves our infrastructure, aides and creates small business opportunities and local communities, reduces the cost and perhaps the necessity of auto insurance, reduces urban sprawl, would save countless american lives and horrific injuries each year and stimulate the developement of mass transit and make rail travel possible again across america. It is pretty simple but I havent heard it which must mean I havent thought of something here except that it literally places a limit on something. The idea is to reduce the speed limit to 45 mph. Assuming the ability to enforce the limit, something that I dont doubt would be difficult, it doesnt require giving up much. Just a little time. Granted we would have to suffer with the same car much longer since they would last quite a while and would not get to buy new tires as often. We would suffer a bit I suppose from having to talk to our wives and children more on long trips. We would of course have to spend more time in motels I suppose while on vacation but the cost should be offset a bit by better gas milage.
    I know that this will sound horribly simplistic and that everyone will say why this cant be done but for the life of me it makes more sense than all the solutions I ve heard over the last five years.

  4. A chief component of the Mastery of the Universe is primacy of management. Individuals deemed competent in this practical science can command princely salaries and bonuses in the corporate world, and the highest offices in the governmental sphere. Organizations pyramid themselves into bureaucratic managerial structures in the hope that concentrated power at the top can overcome poor communications and butt covering from the lower levels. It is a structure that works reasonably well in isolation from any sort of environmental change. However, when reality rudely interrupts the serene beauty of meetings and golf outings, things get ugly.

    I am not so sure that what we are seeing here in reaction to the BP disaster is necessarily incoherence. My view is that the negative feedback function of a number of these bureaucratic pyramids failed when a series of probabilities and resultant poor decisions led to a collapse of the status quo. Superior management is supposed to prevent these sorts of things from happening, but it cannot. Management, despite its aura of self assured importance, and mastery of all events is not omniscient nor omni-competent. Yet, the cry will go up for senior management, most definitely President Obama, to “do something!”.

    In my former days of project management we had a bit of sardonic humor posted in my office. It detailed the stages of a project:

    1. Wild enthusiasm

    2. Deep despair.

    4. Panic.

    5. The search for the guilty.

    6. The punishment of the innocent.

    7. Honors and distinction for the uninvolved.

    My take is that we are still in stage 4.

    People tend to expect far too much from management. Managers are hardly immune to arrogance and hubris, and eventually nemesis rears its just but ugly head. The Enlightenment project of conquering nature runs a similar risk to that which plagues Machiavellian princes. A brave and strong man can have his way with Fortuna, but she, like her sister Nature, always has the last word.

  5. Jason, I want to step out from my silence to commend and to thank you for what has to be the best personalized epithet that I’ve encountered in some time, to wit, ‘Clusterchuck’. Well done!

  6. They say that money “talks” but it doesn’t really. In practice individuals seek to make more of it by dominating others. The individuals responsible for this are doing so to reward ego cravings that are more emotional than rational. These addictive individuals can often be people like you and I through consumption and stock investment.

    The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) letter referenced in Charles Krauthammer’s article indicates, however, that there are individuals around who were trying to do some useful “talking”. They were trying hard to be rational and warn of the dangers of allowing sea oil drilling in tough and sensitive environments before identifying adequately assessed fail-safe methods. The issue before us, therefore, is how to have a productive dialogue between emotional and rational thinking that allows each voice to be fairly heard bearing in mind the “emotional” component of our thinking often doesn’t want to finance the “rational” thinking component because it costs and consequently reduces the “money take”.

    Historically in hunter-gatherer times the tribe would meet together and discuss any important change to their daily lives before implementing it. Today we use the work-around of government legislation tempered by electoral and court challenge. In practice this has now become a matter of “buying” the money-making environment including government and it clearly isn’t working very well for us both in terms of environmental disaster and social dysfunction. The “wise” ones within the NOAA clearly won’t get their voice heard let alone prevail without democratically approved legislation and that legislation isn’t likely to make much progress when money is allowed to dominate the electoral process. So what can we do?

    Firstly, we can spread the word that we can count on continuing environmental disaster both locally and globally as long as we allow “emotional dominated” thinking to dictate how we live. This means for starters electoral reform that removes the “emotional money-making” domination of our governments.

    Secondly, “forewarned is forearmed” or “information is power”, therefore, a massive extension of publicly accessible “rational” thinking (an information bank) has to be made available through tax payer subsidy utilizing high speed broadband network that is easily digestible and will help us avoid future disastrous decisions. This is the alternative work-around to the wisdom of the tribal meeting and the supplement to the hit-and-miss effectiveness of government inspection and money-making dominated private media.

    Thirdly, in conjunction with these approaches has to be a distributist dispersal of capital control that allows more individuals a voice at the table and increases the chance of hearing the argument that “hell-bent” money making shouldn’t be the main priority. It should be balanced decision making between emotional and rational thinking. This in turn increases the chances that the current emphasis on “irrational” capitalist efficiency is controlled more wisely at the point of business decision making as well as by a better-informed society as a whole.

  7. David Brooks explored the incoherence of America’s response to the oil spew in the gulf. Boiled down to its essentials, the populace at once wants a limited government – one that will concentrate on the few things that it can do with some competence – and, at the same time, one that will DO SOMETHING to solve our myriad problems.

    The only incoherence is inside your head. Self-organizing markets have a certain competence which has limits. The limits in question concern the generation of valued things which cannot be intermediated by terms of commercial exchange. These things are produced not by firms but by philanthropies or by families or by the state.

    The state is useful when coercion and the capacity to mobilize capital and labor in pursuit of a task are necessary or when unfettered economic activity produces suboptimal outcomes. One realm of human endeavour which requires public power is the management of common property resources. Whether it is the commons of an open field village in early modern Austria, the air in Los Angeles, or the sea bed in the Gulf of Mexico, unfettered use of the commons leaves the collective worse off because the costs of economic activity are socialized while benefits accrue to the swift. The ocean is a common property resource and containing this particular problem requires the large scale assembly of physical capital and skilled labor. People expect the state to attack this sort of problem for the same reason people expect the state (and not Focus on the Family or Time Warner Cable or the Ford Foundation) to fight the country’s wars: THAT IS WHAT THE STATE IS THERE FOR (among certain other objects).

    If the state is there to manage the commons and produce public goods and provide law and order and see to common provision of subsistence, it does not follow that the state is there to sluice income to the United Auto Workers and the Service Employees, or construct and maintain run down apartment buildings, or to buy and sell mortgages in the secondary market, or to increase the number of people employed in experimental theatre, or to fix price floors for agricultural goods, or to replace mothers and fathers as the moral tutors of the young by salaried school teachers and social workers.

  8. “we call for more control over the consequences of mastery, yet vaguely recognize that this very response is the source of our deepest troubles”

    Yes. Thank you for writing this.

    You’ve also helped me understand a bit better why I find it so repulsive that people are demanding that MLB institute instant replay and/or award an official Perfect Game to Armanda Galarraga. They are demanding a mastery over circumstances that is probably unattainable, but to the extent that it is attainable, destructive of what it seeks to master.

    We need research in human psychology to verify that these are all one and the same phenomenon, though.

  9. I believe you have overlooked a rather large deviation from the “norm” with this accident. Yes, as usual the oily by-products are ending up in the environment. However we got no useful work, energy, or product from this oil.It did not pass GO. It did not collect 200 dollars. Seems like a rather large oversight, getting larger by the minute.

  10. Art deco@ 1:04PM The state (us) is there to do whatever we (us) decide it should do.

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