Spills, subterfuge and comfort: reflections on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

May 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

The recent disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is referred to in the press as an oil ‘spill’. We spill milk and wipe it up. Children spill out of school. A spill is an accident, easily rectified or exuberance that shouldn’t be contained. The language suggests that we should not be too worried. A spill is a mild occurrence. There is no need to cry over it.

The use of language to disguise is well-known in the military where ‘collateral damage’ means dead civilians, ‘body count’ stands in for the number of people killed and ‘neutralise’ is a euphemism for kill. The bland bureaucratic words provide distance from the reality and a screen for those responsible to hide behind.

Euphemisms allow taboo subjects – death, bodily functions, sex – to be spoken of but hide the true import. In environmental matters many of the typical euphemisms are also comforting. They speak to our need to feel that all will be well, and that someone is taking care. The ‘change’ in climate change suggests not disaster but something natural or even positive. The ‘warming’ in global warming, has connotations of comfort rather than drought and hardship.

The idea that we should not cry over spilt milk or in this case spilt oil is mistaken. We should weep. Not because there is nothing else to be done, but for the loss of precious habitat and ecosystem. And because collectively, as members of Western society, we are implicated in the accident. The oil that was being extracted from increasingly dangerous depths was being extracted for us. Without grief and sorrow there can be no reparation and no change. Weep with me. And then, order the insulation, write that letter to BP, leave the car at home…


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