"The Scream" with planet in backgroundThe BP Gulf oil disaster is reaching an interesting phase. People’s gut instinct, their first reaction, is to find someone to blame. They blame BP for negligence; the Obama administration for its tepid response; the Bush administration for lax regulatory enforcement. People have been casting about for some way to compartmentalize this thing, some way to cast it as an anomaly, an “accident,” the kind of screwup that can be meliorated or avoided in the future.

We are, however, drifting toward a whole different kind of place. Tomorrow BP is attempting the “top kill” maneuver — pumping mud into the well. If it doesn’t work, well … then what? Junk shot? Top hat? Loony stuff like nukes? Relief wells will take months to drill and no one’s sure if they’ll work to relieve pressure. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that we’re going to be stuck helplessly watching as this well spews oil into the Gulf for years. Even if the flow were stopped tomorrow, the damage to marshes, coral, and marine life is done. The Gulf of Mexico will become an ecological and economic dead zone. There’s no real way to undo it, no matter who’s in charge.

I’m curious to see how the public’s mood shifts once it becomes clear that we are powerless in the face of this thing. What if there’s just nothing we can do? That’s not a feeling to which Americans are accustomed.

Once we know that accidents can be catastrophic and irreversible, it becomes clear that there is no margin of error. We’re operating a brittle system, unable to contain failure and unable to recover from it. Consider how deepwater drilling will look in that new light.

The thing is, we’re already operating in those circumstances in a thousand different ways — it’s just that the risks and the damages tend to be distributed and obscured from view. They’re not thrust in our face like they are in the Gulf. We don’t get back the land we destroy by mining. We don’t get back the species lost from deforestation and development. We don’t get back islands lost to rising seas. We don’t get back the coral lost to bleaching or the marine food chains lost to nitrogen runoff. Once we lose the climatic conditions in which our species evolved, we won’t get them back either.

We’re doing damage as big as the Gulf oil spill every day, and there’s no fixing it. Humanity has grown in power, wealth, and appetite to the point that there is no more margin of error anywhere. We’re on a knife’s edge, facing the very real possibility that for our children, all the world may be one big Gulf of Mexico, inexorably and irreversibly deteriorating.

Perhaps if the public gets a clear taste of this, they’ll step back and contemplate whether the kind of energy we use is really as “cheap” as it looks. Maybe they’ll stop thinking about how to drill better and start thinking about how to avoid drilling altogether. Because some mistakes just can’t be undone.