Friday, June 04, 2010


In the summer of 1816, to pass the time during a rainy vacation in Switzerland, an English teenager sat down to write a spooky story. When she finished, she had composed one of the seminal texts of the Industrial Revolution. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Godwin (later Shelley), is the story of a technological marvel which cannot be controlled by its creator, or by anyone else. Remember? Victor Frankenstein is an obsessed medical student about Mary's own age who stitches body parts together and brings them to life with the miracle drug electricity. He is repelled by the creature's ugliness (a remarkably shallow response, but after all, this is a book by a teenage girl) and runs away. Rejected by his "father," the nameless creature kills Victor's brother, his wife, his best friend, and several other people before vanishing into the Arctic wastes. The dying Frankenstein narrates the story to an explorer named Walton who is seeking the Northwest Passage (or something), and he gets it: Weigh the value of progress against the cost in human life. He bows to the wishes of his crew and sails for home.

"You are my creator, but I am your master; -- obey!" The creature who utters those chilling words prefigures all the wonders which have enslaved us: the internal-combustion engine, nuclear weapons, intercontinental missiles, television, the Internet, and our ever-increasing heap of non-biodegradable garbage (but I repeat myself). To that list now add Deepwater Horizon, which sounds like an O'Neill play but is really the worst man-made environmental disaster since overgrazing turned the pastoral uplands of North Africa into the Sahara Desert. There is nothing to compare it to, no way to calculate the damage or imagine when, or if, it can be repaired. The latest projections have the Gulf sludge circling Florida and entering the Atlantic -- sorry, Bermuda!-- while the politicians posture, and the BP executives bitch about their disordered schedules, and the seabirds perish in quiet, heartbreaking agony.

"If an oil well is too far beneath the sea to be plugged when something goes wrong, it's too deep to be drilled in the first place," Bob Herbert wrote in the New York Times of May 31. It seems like common sense, but we humans don't work and play well with others. We are the only species which kills for sport, and the only one to develop the interesting concept of profit. In the years after Frankenstein, the Industrial Revolution would produce some of the greatest fortunes known to history, while blighting the lives of millions. As Dickens would remind us, the comfort of every Josiah Bounderby requires the degradation of thousands of Stephen Blackpools. Tony Hayward may find a few million less in his bonus this year, but the real suffering will be done by fishermen, restauranteurs, tour boat operators, vacationers, and the millions of nurses, carpenters and teachers from Dundee to Darwin whose pension funds are invested in BP stock.

The talking heads are calling this Obama's Katrina, and it surely will be unless he shows some leadership. Even after the explosion, his Interior Department went on mindlessly issuing drilling permits and safety waivers. Republicans may roar when their cheerleader screeches "Drill, baby, drill!" in her distinctive broken-glass-on-a-chalkboard voice, but Democrats have nothing to be proud of. When Americans, brought up to believe that science can do anything, demand that "something" be done, I'm reminded of the AIDS disaster of twenty-five years ago. It's hard to wrap our minds around the idea that some problems have no solutions, and some diseases no cures. As Mr. Herbert says, the point is not to create the problem in the first place. The President needs to point out that no ecosystem has ever been destroyed by solar panels. Then he needs to start acting more like FDR.

When a Democrat becomes president, it's usually because the country wants someone to clean up the astounding mess created by Republicans. Franklin Roosevelt took the Hercules approach, re-routing a river through the Augean Stable of the Hoover administration. Barack Obama seems to think he can do the job one forkful at a time, while politely asking the Republicans not to shit on the floor. Won't work, but the Gulf disaster can also be an opportunity. When Roosevelt took office, his problems included mass unemployment and a neglected environment. He faced both by creating the Civilian Conservation Corps, which hired young men to plant trees, dredge rivers, build roads, and otherwise improve the landscape. The same critics who had called him a socialist (for setting up Social Security) immediately began calling him a fascist who was organizing a private army for sinister purposes. They got a patrician middle finger in response. Cleaning tar off beaches -- as of this morning, it had reached the Florida panhandle -- is mostly a matter of backbreaking work. There must be thousands of young men and women who need work this summer and would love to do something more useful than serving burgers. The Cheney-Bush regime has left the country far more deeply in debt than it could have imagined being in 1933, but I'm sure a few million dollars could be found -- ideally, in the pockets of BP -- and what sane person could object? When Obama deplanes in Louisiana today, I hope he will announce such a program. I'm not holding my breath.

What have we learned? Last I heard, the cybernetics boys were still trying to make a computer which would become self-aware. Haven't writers and filmmakers been warning us about such things since Capek wrote R.U.R.? And really, since that strange girl dreamed of a monster? The more we learn, the less we learn.



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