06/19/2010 06:05 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Giving disaster a name

My students generally enjoy discussing current events, but they have been noticeably subdued when talk has turned to the expanding pool of oil in the Gulf. They get tired of looking helplessly at satellite images and pictures of oil-soaked birds. They want to do something.

We happened to have been talking about the importance of names lately, so we decided that the spill should have an official one.

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 their locations. 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, at least to some degree. Given the stakes, we should treat man-made environmental disasters with the same respect.

Earlier this year, the class learned about the pioneering work of the American ecologist Aldo Leopold. He grasped 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.

Politicians have always understood the potential power in a name. We 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 recognized that by stretching for this acronym, the bill's sponsors had made it harder to vote against.

Since Congress will certainly produce legislation to encourage alternative energy development in the wake of the Great Gulf Oil Disaster, we propose they call it the USA PATRIOT Act II: Uniting and Strengthening America in the Process of Attaining Total Release from Insidious Oil Tyranny.

The new patriotism!