Monday, June 7, 2010

Common Sense Part 4 of 4: Oggy Draws The Line

All Merchant Vessels have a bilge reservoir where leaking engine oil and fuel collect in the engine compartment. The bilge is periodically pumped to waste disposal tanks on shore. I saw the bilge during my six nightly inspections of the engine room. Because the engine is always idling a fire could conceivably start and be undetected unless a deckhand ventures into the bowels of the boat to look for flames and alert the rest of the crew. Anyway, it was a way to break up a monotonous 6 hours of star gazing. I wore ear protection against the throbbing engine in a confined room as I checked the oil pressure gauges, but still suffered permanent hearing damage. The bilge, washing below the steel grate floor, was a foul cocktail of oil, diesel fuel, seawater and coolant. I did not see the bilge in the perspective of a potentially tiny drop of pollution in a giant ocean. I saw the bilge in the perspective of a gigantic aquarium full of dead fish, all of my childhood pets awash in tar, meowing for relief only death can bring. Furthermore, all around the boat were red signs promising jail time and a huge fine for dumping anything but water and useless Yankee deckhands overboard. The coast guard took pollution seriously and, as a lover of wildlife, I did too. That set the stage for a confrontation that would seal my fate forever.
I forget exactly what engine maintenance produced two five gallon buckets full of oil and gasoline. Was it an auxiliary generator that needed service or a piece of machinery on deck? I can’t remember, but it was definitely essential to the dispatch of our duties because no one did casual machine maintenance in ten-foot waves. And so, there were ten gallons that needed to be disposed of.
“Dump it overboard,” said the Engineer.
“Overboard? But…”
“I stutter?”
“What about…”
“Either you dump it overboard or you’re going overboard.”
“Alright. Jesus Christ.”
So, the Engineer vanished and I grabbed the two buckets of oil. At the door to the deck I paused. Though we would never get caught, I knew it was prohibited. And I knew why it was prohibited. I saw myself as personally executing the wildlife of the Gulf. I couldn’t do it. But what was I going to do with the buckets? The First Mate ambled in to refill his coffee cup.
“Hey, the Engineer just said…”
“Wait! When I have an empty coffee mug I want to punch someone in the face.”
I waited silently while the Engineer filled his cup. After he added a tablespoon of sugar he turned to me. He sighed with pleasure.
“What is it?”
“The Engineer told me to…”
“Do as the Engineer orders.”
“But…”
The Mate walked away and repeated, “Do as the Engineer says.” And he was gone.
The Able Seaman exited the head, scratching his ass through his boxer shorts and yawning.
“Could I asked you a question?”
The Able Seaman squinted at me down the corridor.
“Do I look like I’m on duty?”
“I know, but, the Engineer asked me…”
“I don’t get paid enough to think,” he said and shuffled to his cabin.
That left the Captain, who I dreaded talking to. This was a different captain from the racist machete wielding monster of my first assignment, but he was a captain nonetheless and loved pulling practical jokes on me like sounding the fire alarm an hour after my shift ended or making me hunt for my tofu burgers on the radio tower.
I quickly sprinted up the stairs to the wheelhouse and found the Captain leaned back in his chair steering the boat with his feet as he eyed a radar console. A cigarette dangled from his lips.
“Captain, I got a quick question,” I muttered.
“Have you cleaned out the walk-in refrigerator?” He asked.
“I’m just starting,” I lied.
“You better be. Next time I see you I want it to be done. Now get out of my sight.”
“Ok. Listen, the Engineer told me to…”
“Then do what you're told.”
“I know, but I asked the Mate and he…”
“Oggy, I don’t want to hear it.”
“But, listen, they want me to dump…”
“No! You listen. You were given an order. I don’t care what the order was. I DON’T CARE! You don’t ask questions, Oggy, you do as your told. So whatever the Engineer told you to do is what you should be doing right now. You’re dismissed.”
I walked back down the stairs thinking I had learned a valuable lesson in the chain of command. Then I heard the Captain’s voice from above.
“Oggy?”
I sprinted back up. Maybe he had come to his senses. Maybe I wouldn’t have to commit a terrible crime against the environment.
“Yes?”
“Where do you think you would be if I hadn’t called you back here?”
This was one of his practical jokes.
“Near the galley.”
“And what would you be doing if you were there?”
“Cleaning the walk-in refrigerator.”
“That’s all. And bring me some coffee next time you’re headed in this direction. Fresh coffee.”
“Aye aye, captain.”
I left again, dreading my destiny with the buckets of oil and gas. I’d debated this problem with the Engineer on my first boat. Oil spills were atrocious, was my contention, no matter what the size. He had looked at it more broadly.
“Sun’ll burn it off it an hour. Boats sink out here every week and spill shit.”
“But what about acid rain. It evaporates and then ends up in the clouds and then you’re on the beach in Florida and the rain burns through your umbrella because it’s caustic.”
“That’s complete bullshit. It would take one or two hundred thousand gallons of oil leaking every day for an effect like that.” He looked over the Gulf and added, “and if you’ve got one or two hundred thousand gallons of oil leaking then acid rain is going to be the least of your worries.”
But in principle, what I was being asked to do was contributing to the destruction of the water. In practice, it was a crime and in theory it was a death sentence for every living thing in the Gulf of Mexico including the dolphins and the hammerhead sharks and the Marlins and shrimp and crab and pelicans. They live in the water and can not escape what I dump there. What authority do I have to destroy that if I can help it?
At that point in the debate I had exited the Common Sense arena and entered Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which states that one should, "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." I had read Kant’s work Metaphysics of Morals back when I was an aspiring philosopher and pretended I understood terms like “analytic-synthetic distinction” and words like “noumenon”. Kant’s scientific investigation into the moral jungle was as confounding as his vocabulary. Still, the categorical imperative stood out as a guiding light of moral justification. The term Common Sense never appears in Kant’s work mainly because in the course of modern human action nothing is common. Kant proved the theory that you can over-think anything. Furthermore, deontological philosophers like Kant believed Sense is the slow second cousin of Reason. The Categorical Imperative is a fancy variation of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But it is more applicable to all realms of life and less tied to the unpromising fate of a doomed messiah.
As I reconvened with my buckets of oil and gas I tried to apply Kant’s Imperative to my conundrum and arrived at the following syllogism: If a universal law deemed it acceptable to dump buckets of oil into the ocean then everyone would do it. If everyone did it then the ocean would be hopelessly polluted. The Maxim “Act with only short term goals in mind and ignore long term consequences,” could not become a universal law so I was not morally justified to dump the oil in the ocean.
But what about disobeying an order? If the universal law allowed for everyone to disobey orders, including ignorant deckhands, then the universe would be ruled by chaos. Hadn’t I admitted that I was merely trying to get a free ride to China and found myself in the offshore oil industry? What responsibility did I have to my own misguided judgment?
I decided that I might lack common sense but something uncommon was required to make the right decision. I could not obey the order I was given and even though it would risk my job and maybe my safety I decided to dispose of the oil in the bilge, reasoning that more oil in the bilge wouldn’t hurt anything and there was a chance it would get pumped into a container on shore.
Acting quickly, I grabbed the buckets and made my way into the tight corridor leading to the engineer. There was no way to explain my insubordination, the crew had already violently dismissed my pleas for a vegetarian entrĂ©e at every meal, so getting caught was not an option. I tip-toed past the Able Seaman’s cabin and around the corner to the Engine Room door. I listened for any advancing foot steps, trying to calm my heart rate. I knew I would be fired if anyone caught me with the buckets of oil in the middle of the living quarters. Hearing nothing, I quickly unlocked the door to the engine room and opened it. I had forgotten how deafening the roar of the engine was. It was like breaking glass in a church service. But there was no turning back. I had to get that oil to the bilge. So I placed the buckets inside the door, taking care not to spill any on the steps, and closed the door after me. I was so wracked with anxiety that I forgot to put any ear protection on and picked up both buckets and proceeded to walk down the steep, nearly vertical, metal stairs. The boat lurched and rocked and since both hands were full I had to lean against the hot metal walls to steady myself; a fall from this height with the buckets would be certain death. Step by step I descended into the roaring heat until finally I reached the floor and stared at the engine. It was so loud that if you screamed at the top of your lungs you could not hear yourself. You could feel your vocal chords vibrating and the air leaving your mouth but the sound would never reach your ears. I knew my brain would ring for days after this operation but I didn’t suspect it would never stop ringing.
Remembering the time I helped the Engineer change the oil in the giant motor, I lifted a loose steel plate. It was heavy but adrenalin helped me until the oily slick metal slipped from my fingers and the plate fell soundlessly down, nearly chopping off the fingers of my left hand that were centimeters from the edge. I knew the crash must’ve been tremendous but the engine was so loud I could not hear it. My heart was pounding in my chest. Again, I lifted the grate and steadied the grate with my left hand while I dragged one bucket over to the lip and tipped it over, watching the black syrup pour into the toxic soup below. One more bucket to go. I reached for the bucket that was just out of reach. If I adjusted my body I could probe with my hand while I made sure the plate was secure. Then I felt something that felt like rubber touch my fingers. Was it the bucket? I turned around and saw I was touching a rubber boot. Inside that rubber boot was a foot that was not my own. With my eyes I scanned the boot and then up the leg and the body until my eyes were locked with the homicidal black irises of the Chief Engineer. He had been in the bow thruster compartment and upon his return to top side had decided to check on the main engine water temperature. We stared at each other as the engine throbbed with the indifference of Kant’s categorical imperative.
At least I prevented that oil from getting dumped in the Gulf of Mexico. Har har har!

Epilogue:
I never sailed to Hong Kong and I made just enough money to pay off my debt to the employment agency and drive to Kentucky for a job planting trees in coal country. I started all over again, reforesting the stripped hillsides of Floyd County, home of the coal miner’s daughter, Loretta Lynn. Like cash-strapped shrimp fishermen in the Gulf, growing up poor in Floyd County might make you immune to the industrial wasteland. You might even grow to love it for the promise of a better life for someone somewhere. While planting white pine saplings and bird attracting black locust trees, I pondered my short career as an offshore Merchant Marine. As I moved from furthering the gains and losses of one major energy industry to healing the consequences of a more dated one, I decided we can’t have it all. That’s why I recommend being slow to judge British Petroleum for the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Offshore drilling has the defacto approval of every car driving American just like the flattening of hills in Floyd County has your vote every time you turn on a light. Along with these energy sources come dangers both immediate and long term. Common Sense will tell you that no complicated system is fool proof. You can die during a routine tooth extraction. And yes, a pipeline can burst in such a way that we can’t plug it. Universal Laws have taken a backseat to instant downloads and streaming morality. We are flying faster than our angels and that’s a wonderful thing for everyone who needs an emergency heart bypass surgery, but it has ominous consequences for the future. Mankind isn’t especially adept at acting with the good of another generation in mind. We are donating amazing inventions to the future and they will need all of them to repair the damage caused by our amazing carelessness.
Before the oil spill I lived in Los Angeles, the most car dependent city in the United States and probably the world. It is not only immediately dangerous and frustrating to travel in Los Angeles, but only a population of celebrity obsessed fashion whores would be blind to the obvious destructive nature of that lifestyle. The car has completely run amok in Los Angeles. Common Sense would tell you that if you lived there. The city has 30 million cars driven by 10 million residents and not one person has enough common sense to realize that’s unacceptable. If they do realize it then they soon see the alternatives are also impractical. Demand for oil like that translates into an oil industry that has cost analysis breakdowns to the level of the minute but that ignores the twenty year impact of their work on the environment. Where is the common sense?
That’s it. That’s all I ask of anyone: Have some common sense. Have the common sense of the $2/hour deckhand whose actions imperil the entire southern coastline. Our lifestyle will change one way or another so we can either act on our own behalf or react to the backlash of the environment. It won’t be easy but it’s not easy scooping oil off the beach either. You don’t have to study Kant’s treatise on morality to know not to shit where you sleep.

Common Sense: Part 1 of 4
Common Sense: Part 2 of 4
Common Sense: Part 3 of 4
Common Sense: Part 4 of 4
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.