The country's worst coal mining disaster in four decades, in Upper Big Branch, West Virginia occurred on April 5, killing twenty nine miners. The company, Massey Energy, had been cited for 1342 safety violations in the previous five years.
Fifteen days, later, on April 20, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico. Over the past 26 days, the government's estimate is that 130,000 barrels of oil have leaked into the waters, although some estimates are much higher (NPR, for example, has the leakage at ten times this figure).
The CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, insisted as late as May 14 that the oil spill in the gulf was "relatively tiny" compared to a "very big ocean", and the corporation has blamed its other co-conspirators, Transocean and Halliburton, for the environmental degradation and loss of life.
The strongest and clearest prophetic voice of our time may very well be that of the agrarian Wendell Berry. He writes, "We have lived by the assumption that what is good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us." (The Art of The Common Place)
Berry's wisdom is in contrast not only to an economic system that reaps rewards when consumption is unchecked, but depends on a governmental safety net when there is failure: who funds the cleanup in the gulf, or the costs of black lung disease? But neither is Berry in sympathy with the positions of President Obama, who spoke in his campaign about "clean coal", and, more recently, about the merits of off-shore drilling.
We may be approaching the time when a conversion of our assumptions is a moral necessity. Two catastrophic environmental events in the span of fifteen days should get our attention. Appalachia has never been at the center of the media's attention, and the history of mining disasters is a recurring series of tragic events, far from the elite centers of education and influence. The Gulf may be a different story, although the political will of deep south politicians has always aligned with the sentiments of "drill, baby, drill" than a long time interest in the well-being of the land, the wetlands and the waters that sustain life, undergird economies and protect from wind currents.
What is good for the world is ultimately the basis of what must be good for us, and not vice versa. We can assign the blame with two highly profitable corporations plagued with consistent safety violations, and this is appropriate. We must also ask if governing officials, who should be motivated not by cost benefit analysis but the common good, will find the will to privilege the sacredness of human life, in this generation and those to come, over other concerns, not matter how powerful. And, Berry would insist, we must take some personal and local responsibility for the coal that supplies our energy and the gasoline that fuels our automobiles.
"We must change our lives", the prophet cries out to us, in this ecological wilderness that is twenty-first century North America. We must change the way we vote and the products we purchase, but mostly, we must change the way we imagine the present and the future.