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Giving disaster a name

What we call the oil spill - and our response to it - can make a difference.

By Grant Calder

My students generally enjoy discussing current events, but they are noticeably subdued when talk turns to the expanding pool of oil in the Gulf. They want to forget about it - not because they don't care, but because they do. They feel helpless in the face of the immensity of the slick and the inability of BP and the U.S. government to deal with it.

What can we do? For a start, let's name it.

In the first few weeks after the oil started to flow, we got used to hearing it referred to as a "leak." Certainly BP and the government would prefer a term that brings to mind a dripping faucet or a soft tire. A "leak" does not sound like an environmental disaster that has eclipsed the Exxon Valdez spill and whose repercussions probably will be felt for decades.

How about making better use of the language? We came up with the "Great Gulf Oil Disaster of 2010."

Looking back at other man-made disasters, we noticed they tend to be known only by place names. Chernobyl and Bhopal bring back plenty of memories for me, but they mean little to 10th graders; even Three Mile Island carries only vaguely unsettling associations for their generation. It's hard to feel the weight of an event in the disembodied name of a power plant, town, or ship, such as the Valdez.

On the other hand, disasters involving great loss of human life, especially from intentional acts, often carry more descriptive labels. The Katyn massacre and the Rwandan genocide are names that force us to confront the tragedies to some degree. Given the stakes, we should treat man-made environmental disasters with the same respect.

Earlier this year, the class discussed the pioneering American ecologist Aldo Leopold. He understood before most that if we are to survive as a species, we need to develop what he called a "land ethic" - a set of rules governing how we interact with the rest of the planet.

More than 60 years ago, Leopold wrote that human beings were still treating the natural environment as property. As he put it, the relationship "entailed privileges but no obligations." We plowed. We sprayed. We burned. We dug. We drilled. We blasted. We took what we wanted and left the rest.

Leopold believed an environmental ethic was both "an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity."

Let's make sure today's first graders grow up hearing about the Great Gulf Oil Disaster of 2010. By the time they become high school sophomores, they might be that much closer to accepting the necessity of an environmental ethic - not just willing to put their cans and bottles in recycling containers, but to reconceive the way we live on Earth.

The class recently read through the index of the U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act of 2001: the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act! The kids immediately realized that by stretching for this acronym, the bill's sponsors had made it harder to vote against.

Since Congress will certainly produce legislation to improve the safety of oil extraction in the wake of the Great Gulf Oil Disaster, we propose they name it the USA PATRIOT Act II: Uniting and Strengthening America in the Process of Attaining Total Release from Insidious Oil Tyranny.

Politicians are always talking about energy independence. Neither side of the aisle should have a problem with calling the effort patriotic.