The BP oil spill: Shocking, but will it lead to change?

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The BP oil spill has galvanized much of the nation.  Concern about its human and environmental impact combines almost seamlessly with speculation on the political and policy effects of the cataclysm.

Will the graphic images of the oily carnage ignite a movement for new limits on deep water drilling?  More effective regulation of oil? Increased support for renewable energy?  Will the Gulf disaster be Obama’s Katrina?

Students of social movements have a term for a dramatic event that shakes up the body politic: moral shock.  A moral shock occurs when dramatic events cause a critical mass of citizens to question beliefs previously taken for granted and move from the civic side lines to social engagement. 

In 1966, the major news networks broadcast a Vietnamese military official casually pulling out his pistol and shooting an unarmed Viet Cong prisoner in the head.  As the blood spurted from the young soldier’s temple, one could almost feel support for the war draining from the American public as well.   The cruelty and apparent nonchalance of the act shocked many into joining the emerging anti-war movement. 

Seven years later, the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade shocked millions of Americans who found their moral universe upended with the sudden news that abortion was legal. The resulting movement changed the dynamic of American politics and continues to be a powerful force to this day.

In 1979, the nuclear meltdown at Ten Mile Island awakened millions of Americans to the dangers of nuclear power and put a dramatic halt to the licensing of new nuclear power plants in the U.S.

More recently, images of breached sea walls and marooned citizens transformed  Hurricane Katrina from  a natural disaster to a political tsunami for the Bush administration.

Readers of this column can add their own examples of moral shocks to this list.  But not all shocking events lead to dramatic social or political change.  And even when significant changes do occur, the power of the precipitating event often fades over time.  The stock market crash of 1929 was a moral shock that led to strong financial reform; the financial crash of 2008 was caused in part by the dismantling of those reforms generations later.  In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, thousands of volunteers responded to the crises in New Orleans and billions of dollars were invested in the rebuilding effort. Yet, four years later, large parts of New Orleans remain, metaphorically speaking, still under water.

So what will be the social and political response to the BP oil spill?  That depends on how citizens interpret the events.  And those interpretations will be influenced by the stake people have in the issue and the preconceptions they bring to the issues.

Here another sociological concept comes in handy, cognitive dissonance. Put simply, we human beings often resist changing beliefs in which we have a stake.  The same gulf resident who is heart- broken over the destruction of his habitat, may also resist a moratorium on the deep sea drilling that caused it.  After all, he or his community depends on those jobs. Better to interpret the oil spill as a one- time disaster than support measures that lead to loss of one’s job.

But cognitive dissonance can also occur when there is no direct material interest at stake.  The millions of Americans who drink deeply at the well of free markets and limited government will vigorously resist public efforts toward a renewable energy economy or tough regulations on the oil business. Just because there is one bad apple, doesn’t mean we should throw out the whole barrel!

For environmentalists, on the other hand, no cognitive gymnastics are necessary.  The BP disaster fits snugly into their master narrative: proof positive that we must kick the oil addiction, NOW!  Their job is to use this moment to bring new members into action, and that will require contact and conversation with those who up until now haven’t had a stake in the argument.

So, what changes are most likely to come from this latest shock?  History suggests that there will be some immediate support for additional regulation of deep sea drilling (with gradual back-sliding once the crisis has passed).  Whether the oil spill results in a truly significant movement toward renewable energy, however, depends on a combination of old fashioned political leadership, grass-roots organizing and effective civic persuasion.

Some shocks, after all, are just…shocking. It is the response that makes the difference.