Lesley Hazelton has another excellent post on what will turn out to be the greatest environmental disaster in history:
Yes, I am aware that ‘evil’ is a religious term. How can a proud agnostic use such a word? I trust my guts. As I look at this, I am sickened. The feeling starts in my throat, travels down to the pit of my stomach, then makes its way up again into my throat, leaving me with such a deep disgust that I feel dirty, degraded.I want to take this idea or thought a step further: The theological implications of this disaster are becoming more and more apparent. Now, let me take two steps back: Two weeks ago, I argued that the disaster would not only bring death to offshore drilling but shake the foundations of American oil culture. Now, let me take three steps forward: My present belief is that American oil culture is finished (it will not survive this mess) and what is next to be shaken and possibly destroyed is the foundation of something even larger: American Christianity.
I think this visceral reaction is simply a human response to evil.
Americans have long had an unswerving belief that technology will save us — it is the cavalry coming over the hill, just as we are about to lose the battle. And yet, as Americans watched scientists struggle to plug the undersea well over the past month, it became apparent that our great belief in technology was perhaps misplaced.
This "great belief in technology" is not secular but closely linked with a great belief in American awesomeness. And American awesomeness has always been sustained by the foundations of American Christianity, a form of religion that is humble not toward nature but toward a God who has power over everything and punishes His enemies and rewards His followers. With American Christianity, prosperity is a God-given right, and this frame of thinking has established and reinforced a relationship with nature that is essentially identical with the one that exists between a master and slave.
It is precisely this kind of thinking that in Europe began to crumble in the period that followed the scientific revolution. In Origin of Species (1859), for example, Darwin essentially dethrones humans and pleads, again and again, that this dethronement, this diminishing, decentering is not the end of the world—humans can happily (if not proudly) live as animals among other animals.
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
The end of the 19th century was not only the end of British awesomeness but also the emergence of a scientific sense of human littleness and limitations. It is a mistake to read the late-19th century books of H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, and many others without this understanding. What Darwin saw as a grand "view of life," many saw as either "The horror! The horror!" (be it in the direction of the deep past—Heart of Darkness) or "A horror of this great darkness" (be it in the direction of the deep future—The Time Machine). Near the end of The Time Machine:
A horror of this great darkness came on me. The cold, that smote to my marrow, and the pain I felt in breathing, overcame me. I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me. Then like a red-hot bow in the sky appeared the edge of the sun. I got off the machine to recover myself. I felt giddy and incapable of facing the return journey. As I stood sick and confused I saw again the moving thing upon the shoal—there was no mistake now that it was a moving thing—against the red water of the sea. It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about. Then I felt I was fainting. But a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight sustained me while I clambered upon the saddle.
True, we find dethroned humans in so many American novels (Earth Abides, for example) and movies (The War of the Worlds), but, culturally speaking, this sense of dethronement is far from universal. The certainty of American awesomeness that led to the war in Iraq or to the current destruction of the Gulf of Mexico, has been rooted in one, politically powerful branch of American Christianity. And what has feed much of this overrepresented group's tireless (and often comical) resistance to the hard facts of, say, Darwinism, has been the belief that American greatness cannot be separated from divine providence, from supernatural agency. What they do best (or famously) is to refuse to register American military power and technological mastery as anything but direct gifts from (and reflecting the power of—and also obedience to) the creator of the universe.
What the spill has made clear is that American awesomeness (technology) has a sure limit. It can only go so far and do so much. Operation "top kill" could not overwhelm that thing that God (technology) is imagined to completely master—nature. But if American awesomeness has a limit, then the God who supports and reinforces it (technology) is also limited. And if God is limited, then He is not a He but only a he, a man, a mere human being (technology).
Not all American Christians have the kind of relationship with nature that has placed this country in such deep waters. And the more the oil spill poisons the gulf, we can expect to see, on the one hand, the steady belittling of the believers of American awesomeness, and, on the other hand, a corresponding increase in the number of Americans whose view of things is much more down to earth.