BP Oil Spill – why we care

A beach after an oil spill.

Image via Wikipedia

Behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely’s interesting website has a question about why we seem to care so much about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, when we don’t seem to care as much about other big environmental disasters such as the ongoing destruction of the Amazonian rainforest.

Some good points are raised, including some fairly obvious ones

  • the Gulf is nearer to the US,
  • there was a definite starting point for the oil spill,
  • there are clearly defined bad guys,
  • etc.

All of these kinds of explanation lend themselves very well to analysis on the basis of bounded rationality – we make use of cognitive biases to organise ourselves and these biases aren’t very rational, or are rational only in a limited way. For example, it is somewhat rational to be concerned about environmental problems close to home, but it would be more rational (if that’s possible) to be concerned also about distant problems since they may still have a local impact. Indeed, even for a resident of Louisiana it’s possible that the destruction of the Amazon could be more significant than the oil spill – not in terms of column inches perhaps but in many other ways.

But here I want to put concern about the oil spill in anthropological context and suggest it’s about pollution.

What is pollution? It can be defined simply as matter out of place. But though the word pollution has a modern-sounding technical meaning to it that sits quite at home in the terminology of, say, the Environmental Protection Agency, it also has a much older set of meanings. These relate to religious concepts of ritual purity and contamination.

People make sense of the world by categorising it into areas of relative purity and impurity, cleanliness and uncleanliness. The Gulf of Mexico, along with all oceans and seas, is supposed to be clean. Even if it isn’t really clean (in the modern, EPA sense), we still tend to regard large bodies of water as being somehow pristine, pure, safe, wholesome untouched by the contaminating influences of human activity. Cities, on the other hand, are safely unclean. That is to say, few people see them as pure, pristine, safe, untouched by humans, nor do they want them to be. In fact, a big part of the reason we like cities is that they are edgy, risky and dangerous, places where established categories mix and reform in strange combinations. In the city impurity can be deeply attractive (although cities themselves are subdivided into areas of relative purity and impurity – the safe suburbs, the mean streets, the right side and wrong side of the tracks and so on). The great danger faced by pure places is that they will become impure by a process of contamination. Impure places face no such danger since they are already, by definition, impure.

In our dominant worldview, nature can easily become polluted and we need to guard carefully against this (actually we might characterise nature itself as ‘that which can easily become polluted’). However, the city is already polluted and the only real question is how much pollution it is physically and politically possible to put up with. The latter was the inspiration, for example, of Britain’s 1956 Clean Air Act. This was the political response to London’s great smog of 1952, after which the population said ‘enough is enough’.

Now think about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Sure it is a good example of matter out of place, but what would be the proper place for the oil now washing up on beaches and causing pollution? For matter to be out of place, we have to already have an imlicit concept of where the right place would be. What is the right place for BP’s oil?

Well, it was being moved out of the Gulf in order to fuel the automobiles that get people around cities. It was being pumped out of the ground in order to burn it in millions of portable internal combustion engines, their exhausts going straight into the air in and around the places we live. Either way we get pollution in the sense meant by the EPA, but in only one of these cases do we get ritual impurity. The pictures of oil-soaked sea birds are very emotive, but then so too are pictures of young children with asthma. What makes the difference is that an oil spill in the Gulf fits with a religious or ritual understanding of impurity and contamination, whereas the output of a million exhaust pipes in rush hour is just business as usual in the dirty city.

One of the great contributions of modernist anthropology in the mid-Twentieth Century was the recognition that it isn’t just ‘primitive’ societies that persist with these deeply religious categories of social life. It turns out that the most secular, rational, ‘advanced’ societies are just as much caught up with them and driven by them. Unless we take this understanding on board, we haven’t seen the whole picture.

The Gulf oil spill has a wider context, in which established social categories are under pressure.

In her classic work Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas writes:

‘…a challenge to the established classification is brought under control by some theory of attendant harm.’ (Douglas 2002: xi)

This nicely upends received wisdom on pollution. In the received wisdom it is the established harm which needs to be brought under control by some theory of classification. In other words the dangerous oil spill needs to be put right with a big clean-up. On Douglas’s account, though, it is the very concept of clean and dirty that is under assault, and the danger can be reduced by focussing on the harm threatened by this breakdown in categories. Hence the oil spill is seen not as a technical matter for oil engineers and ecologists to sort out between them but as as a social crisis of monumental proportions. No doubt somewhere someone is touting it as the worst spill in American history or the costliest.

Douglas writes:

‘We may well ask why is it necessary to protect the primary distinctions in the universe…?’

She answers her own question by noting that ambiguity can appear threatening, and that it causes ‘cognitive discomfort’.

However I find this answer tantalisingly incomplete. For sure, a beach with breaking waves of oil causes ambiguity leading to cognitive discomfort, but why doesn’t a street with air made out of particulates? And why doesn’t the clearing of the Amazon?

One way forward might be to foreground the nature/culture distinction which seems so important to us. The supposed breakdown of this distinction is what the writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben has focussed on in books like No Nature and more recently Eaarth. He has claimed there is now no part of nature that has not been affected (infected?) by human activity. All nature is now ‘contaminated’ by culture. In McKibben’s writing, a nature/culture ambiguity is ubiquitous.  ‘Behaviour that blurs the great classifications of the universe’, to use Douglas’s phrase, is now what goes on all the time.

The ‘great classifications of the universe’ are themselves contested. Why do some people and institutions worry about the oil spill and others hardly at all? That’s where the four cultures come into play, organising our understanding of which classifications matter or can be threatened and which don’t matter or remain secure.

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One thought on “BP Oil Spill – why we care

  1. I wouldn’t say nature is pure and culture is impure. It might be, in many ways, for people with certain worldviews. But not in any dominating way. There are plenty of people who consider the cleanliness of civilisation. As well as the wild and untamed nature. That’s why womens’ menstruation is considered impure in many cultures, and why lower castes in India are seen as closer to the dangerous nature, and why non-islamic people are viewed as barbaric for eating pigs. Nature is chaotic, wild, untamed, barbaric, impure, devoid of order/structure/categories. Culture is the opposite.

    The symbol itself changes though. Nowadays it’s not uncommon to hear men being referred to as apes/neanderthals/brutes. This is especially evident in Sweden, where it is illegal to buy sex but not sell sex. The state is trying to protect the women from the wild and uncontrollable men. This is in total opposition to what is traditionally happening in the middle east, where the use of heavy clothing on women is for the purpose of protecting the men from the womens uncontrollable sexual power 😀

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