Ignoring the Dangers – and the Lessons

Psychologists have started to comment on the emotional impact of the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  They note its uncanny, nightmarish qualities as well as its resonance with other vital issues we are facing.

The images haunt us:  a huge rig toppling in flames, oil gushing from a broken pipe, pushing up inexorably from deep beneath the surface.  The black gold is toxic to wildlife, to our fragile ecology as well as thousands of livelihoods.  And, until last week, we were powerless to stop it.  As The New York Times put it on Sunday:  “the imagery insinuated itself into our collective consciousness — gnawing evidence that something enormous and confounding was still operative, despite the labors of our brightest engineers and our most expensive machinery.”  We are not in control.

It evokes other problems as well, noted The Times:  “The deepest damage of the spill may be the loss of confidence in institutions. . . .  Combine that with public exhaustion over two wars, economic insecurity and disgust over the return of bonuses on Wall Street.”

I would add to that list our experience of the disastrous credit bubble, despite sophisticated “risk management” systems designed to prevent such things from happening, and the failure of regulatory agencies to manage it effectively.  Moreover, unemployment is not responding well to government efforts to contain it.

“All of these things work together.  The national psyche is very depressed” said Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist at Emory University.  “The spill has been going on for so long and there have been so many attempted fixes that people become less trusting that things will really improve. So this becomes a little less front-page news, if this really works, but there’s some sense that some other disaster will take its place.”  (See, “A Spill Into the Psyche, and a Respite.”)

Conventional wisdom suggests that we should discount such emotional parallels.  Yes, they may work together in the national psyche, but we are trained to think each problem should be dealt with on its own.

The danger, though, is that our emotional unconscious may well be detecting real connections.  If we discount the parallels and neglect what we know but don’t know we know, we will under-react.  And there are real links among these issues:  Overconfidence in technology, inadequate controls for risk, and Groupthink that suppresses dissident or non-conforming point of view – particularly under the pressure of corporate competition and the drive for profits.

Maybe people are right to be skeptical about the solutions that are proposed and to have nightmarish thoughts.  As we aggressively assert our control over nature though technology, like Dr. Frankenstein, we neglect our own limitations and latent desires – and all too easily create the lethal messes it will take us years to recover from.