I had started out six weeks ago to write about Earth Day: how well I remembered that first one in 1970, and how far along we have come since those days. But then came the news of the oil spill in the Gulf — no, let us never again use BP‘s jargon and call it a mere ‘spill;’ this one is a catastrophe. I can hardly bear to read the daily news, much less view that 24-hour footage from the sea bottom; it hurts too much. Instead, I reflect on the irony of it all: was this Nature’s way of sending a message?
The accident which led to the catastrophe DID happen on Earth Day… but no one then had yet sensed the enormity of the tragedy as it was to unfold. So I cast away the Earth Day motif and started a rant about catastrophe and its likely consequences. Unsatisfied that I didn’t understand it well enough yet, and also because of a lot of traveling, I waited. I’m glad I did.
Now five more weeks have passed. Can anything good at all come out of all this? In the end, yes.
It sure doesn’t seem so at this moment. BP’s latest effort — that ‘junk shot’ (what a choice of words!) has failed, so in a few more days they’re gonna try another cap…. and in a few more days after that… well, who can say?
“We’re preparing for the worst,” says Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security. But what does that mean? To her it means they will finally have those ‘relief wells’ drilled by late August.
Late August? In the meantime, 10-40,000 barrels a day gushes from the seabed of one of the most wildlife-rich bodies of ocean anywhere on earth. In my darker moments I think other thoughts: hurricane season is almost upon us, and this year they are predicting over a dozen — even only one of which is certain to drive that oily mess far far up into marshes and bays all along the Gulf.
And beyond those places too, dreadful as that is to contemplate.
Oil rainstorms? Why hasn’t anyone mentioned that? Does anyone really believe that a strong hurricane won’t pick up at least some of that oil and rain it down on inland cities and towns, farms and forests? Since the tail ends of these hurricanes often sweep up well over a thousand miles into Ohio, New Jersey, Washington, DC, what about all the other places in its path? I myself have lived through the floodings and intensely stomy aftermaths of at least two dozen such Gulf Hurricanes in my own lifetime.
The worst? I give credit to BP for doing all it can now (after failing miserably to even consider a backup plan before they drilled); but the horrible fact is that no one really knows, not down this deep. One of the many anonymous phone calls I have received recently is from a person who says he worked out there on those deep-ocean rigs: “they’ve pierced the mantle,” he says. “They deliberately went farther that they were allowed, to get at a larger pool of oil…”
Well, I hope he’s wrong; but even if it’s not like that, it is an awful event already, and it is out of control.
In another darker thought, I envision a world about six-10 months from now where it is still not controlled, and at least half of the Gulf is now an oil lake, spreading across to the Carribean and already flooding up the Gulf Stream.
I read my history and science books, and in their pages there is much talk of seminal, earth-changing events and/or human-history changing events – phase transitions they are called… where the cumulative impact of human events (or accumulations of materials, like snow in an avalanche — or oil gushing into the ocean) is so huge, that a cascade of unforeseen consequences suddenly flows therefrom. And nothing is ever the same again.
Can this be us?
So, people ask me what — if any — good, can come out of all this, whether they finally stop it next week, or maybe not until next year?
I say yes — and in at least five different yet related ways, each of which can result in much good for our common future. They are:
1. The destruction of Big Oil’s credibility. They can still afford to hire all the lobbyists they want, and thanks to the Supreme Court’s holding allowing them to spend all they want influencing elections (see my last blog)… but few will believe them, no one will ever again easily accept their promises that they are so technologically advanced that oil drilling — on land or in the sea — is ‘safe.’
Which means that we have a breather, a pause, in industry’s headlong drive to grab all the public lands and waters they could and make them their private property, for all intents and purposes. Not only are fragile offshore areas now politically safe from exploitation for an indefinite period, but so also are beautiful and precious places on land — such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Canyonlands park region in Utah, for example.
Sure, Big Oil and its bought politicians will continue to argue that: ‘well, if we can’t go offshore, then let us do it next to or in (as in the case of the Arctic Refuge) protected Parks, because we promise it will be safe, this time.’
Yeah, sure. I don’t think the American people will buy that. The very least that will happen is some kind of indefinite moratorium on new oil leasing anywhere, and after that, a much stronger, safer (and more enforceable) regulatory structure and future leasing regimen.
2. It shuts up the “drill baby drill” crowd and all the politicians who supported them That phrase was mostly intended, anyway, as a contemptuous in-your-face slap at our environmental laws and the people who support them. Now it is a happy thing to savor their deafening silence — and total loss of credibility, loss of whatever political clout they may have thought they had, to give away & destroy the public’s natural treasures.
3. Best of all, these two political factors, stemming directly from this tragedy, gives our nation the time it needs to reassess: just where MUST (not can) we go from here? Already even some conservative politicians and pundits are slowly agreeing that we had to get away from our petroleum addiction, but they argue that would take many decades… so let’s keep drilling in the meantime.
Now we have all seen what a dirty and messy, life-destructive, toxic business, is this oil drilling, especially in places where we are trying to expand it in North America.
4. Thank God that this disaster did not occur in already leased areas in the stormy icy seas off of Alaska and in the Arctic Ocean itself. Can anyone imagine what that would be like?
If they cannot control a gusher in the relatively friendly waters and population centers of the Gulf of Mexico, what would be the consequences of a similar catastrophe near the North Pole, where most of our weather is made, and the climate already warming with an accelerated vengeance?
5. If this isn’t a teachable moment, I don’t know what is. For better or for worse, we humans seem to learn the most — and to react the best — to disasters like this. After all, it was only when the terrible dust storms of the Dust Bowl era blew the stuff right over New York and Washington in 1934-35, that the Congress took action to stop it — not before, despite all the warnings.
Now it is so obvious that we must have a real energy policy and program to implement it — a whole new way of dealing with the problem, one which at last really drastically reduces our dependence on petroleum… and just as drastically reduces our overall electricity consumption. That means a carbon tax, higher taxes per gallon of gasoline, a crash national program to invest in renewable energy sources, especially solar and wind — and NOT, for Pete’s sake, so-called “biomass” which will simply burn up more of the wood products which fertilize forests, and put even more CO2 into the atmosphere — the stupidest idea around in a long time.
These, and other non-coal and oil energy sources — will have have their controversies and tradeoffs too, but I have faith (born of long experience) that the good sense of the American people and our innate love for our land, will see to it that we will, now and forever after, have much stronger controls and a much more transparent decisionmaking process…so that whatever happens, it can never be as bad as this time, never again.
For President Obama, certain now to get the ‘blame’ for not doing enough (usually coming from those same Republicans and Libertarians who have told us for 30 years that the government is the problem, not the solution), this disaster has brought about a unique opportunity — and an eminently actionable one. In the scary depths of this disaster — which has exposed our national weakness and addictions like no other, yet has also muted the political opposition to strong and meaningful measures to kick our habit — we can see the seeds of rebirth, of something much much better, certainly much more sustainable for us and our national life together.
So on into the future — we CAN do it!