The tragic oil well blowout and subsequent ongoing spill off the Louisiana coast has me depressed and angry. But not at BP, no. And I’m not going to take up the banner to ban offshore oil and gas exploration either. I see this disaster as a natural consequence of my own behavior, and that of all my friends, neighbors and coworkers, a consequence that isn’t going to be well-managed with short-term reactionary policy.
Here’s some perspective. My first job after college – circa mid 1980s – involved environmental review of oil developments offshore Santa Barbara, CA. Fifteen years earlier, an offshore well just off the SB coast blew out during drilling, much like what’s just happened in the Gulf. Though the environmental effects of the large nearshore spill were enormous, by the time I arrived, its impact on Santa Barbara’s collective psyche was the most prominent remnant. Vehement anti-oil advocates had become part of the city’s identity. What rankles me today is that these advocates weren’t protesting the need for oil. They were protesting the need to get the oil so close to Santa Barbara, a community which prides itself in its beauty and its tourists, and whose ecosystems are special and sensitive.
OK. Can anyone point me to an ecosystem that isn’t special or sensitive; an economy that will tolerate an industrial accident unscathed; or a life that’s worth sacrificing in the pursuit of fuel resources or their economic protection?
We are an industrial society, with industrial-sized needs for fuel. Every kind of fuel necessitates a cascade of industrial-sized production, distribution and use tradeoffs that impact us (as people) and affect parts of our planet unequally. We are going to have horrible accidents – fuels are notoriously flammable and subject to horrible accidents – and we need to prevent them as well as we can. We are going to lose some habitat in our quest for solar panels. This is not an equation with a solution waiting to be found. It’s an equation where we do our best, we fallible humans, to provide for our needs without damaging ourselves and our future too much. I create the demand which sets the wheels in motion as much as the next person. Polarized policy reactions in response to tragedies won’t prevent the next tragedy and aren’t usually sensible policy, either.
I mourn the recent losses of coal miners and rig workers. I hope people respond with caring and thoughtful conservation.