Will The BP Oil Spill Be Our Collective Zen Slap Into Eco-Realization? Let's Hope So

deepwater horizon oil rig on fire photo
The BP Deepwater Horzon oil rig, ablaze on April 22nd. Photo: US Coast Guard via flickr.

Is this synchronicity or what? In the span of a several weeks we have not one, not two, not three, but four disasters (disruptions, accidents, call them what you will) that really ought to be a big old cosmic Zen slap on the back jolting us into eco-realization. We even have an vision of the way forward plopped right into the middle of it all. The question that remains: Will the slap be hard enough to make us see what future is right in front of us, if we want it?Coal is Dirty Business All Around
First we had the accident at the Massey Energy coal mine in West Virginia, the biggest in US history for the past 40 years. Today it comes out that there's a federal investigation into whether Massey bribed mine safety regulators. For a company with an unsavory record all around. Shocked, shocked I am.

Despite the propaganda to the contrary from the likes of Massey CEO Don Blankenship, and the ongoing hand outs to the coal industry more broadly from the Obama administration (no change we can believe in there...), coal is not the future. More coal is just staying mired in a dirty, dangerous and deluded past.

Coal may be with us in a transition period longer than we'd like, but to talk about a future for the coal industry and tackling global warming and reducing environmental pollution is utter nonsense.

Oh, and just today, overshadowed by the events in the Gulf of Mexico, there was another fatal coal mine accident, this time in Kentucky. That's number two.

Volcano Eruption Provides Glimpse of Slower Possible Future (and Pre-Flying Past)
In the midst of this we have the volcanic eruption in Iceland crippling air traffic into and out of most of Europe for a week or so. All of a sudden the world gets much bigger, with not only travelers stranded, but export-driven businesses throughout the world, dependent on the European market, up the proverbial creek both without a paddle and without a boat at all, having sold it for an airplane.

A slower vision of the future presents itself. Londoners remark that the sky is bluer, without contrails from hundreds of flights from multiple airports absent. You can both see and hear nature again--strange in the middle of a giant city, but compared to some cities, London has a good deal of trees and open space.

But apart from passing remarks on green blogs, and from the UK poet laureate, the focus is largely on the economic cost to the airlines.

Right On Cue, Earth Day & Offshore Oil Drilling Come Together
Then comes the week of Earth Day--a holiday whose origins are intimately tied with opposition to offshore oil drilling, its 40th anniversary coming three weeks to the day after the Obama administration opened up vast new areas of ocean for oil exploration. And seemingly on cue an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico explodes and shortly thereafter begins leaking oil from a mile underwater. A mile underwater.

This is what our collective addiction to oil has come to: Expensive, risky exploration at great depths to recover less and less oil.

After a week the oil leak--it's not really a spill when it's pouring out of the ground and not from a container or ship--continues largely unabated, has now hit the Louisiana coast, and by most accounts could develop into a bigger spill than the Exxon Valdez. Wildlife killed, wetlands destroyed, fishing and shrimping economically crippled.

All this is made more tragic when you realize that the Exxon Valdez spill isn't even among the top 10 largest oil spills. In fact number 10, the Odyssey Oil Spill in 1998 off Nova Scotia was four times larger. The point being, since the late 1970s there have been plenty of spills of gargantuan size. This is part and parcel of the oil industry, even if thankfully it's not an everyday occurrence.

The BP oil spill--let's make sure to call it that, despite BP trying to pass the responsibility buck a bit--could be a turning point. Indeed, poignantly right in the middle of it all the Department of the Interior gave the green light to the Cape Wind offshore wind farm in Massachusetts.

But as of Friday morning, the Obama administration has only pledged to halt new offshore oil drilling pending a full investigation. According to quotes in Reuters, the President seems to remain committed to offshore drilling, but with the caveat that stronger safety measures are put in place.

If the consequences of an accident are so dire, even if those events are rare, why do we permit it at all? Talk of energy independence, when fossil fuels are part of the mix is just populist pandering, appealing to the lowest xenophobic us-versus-them aspects of the intellect and emotion.

offshore oil drilling compared to US oil demand graph
It seems appropriate to resurrect this graphic, via Architecture 2030, to remind everyone just how little new offshore oil drilling would subtract from US oil demand.
Two Possible Eco-Realizations: One Big, One Small
When it comes down to it, it's at least partially because we simply don't recognize the inherent right of species other than our own to exist. The value of the Gulf of Mexico is only calculated in monetary terms, in relation to the utility to humans. That perspective simple has got to change. We can no longer act in the world like homo sapiens is the only species that matters, that has inherent rights.

That's the big eco-realization that could happen out of all these events. It's the one that has to happen (and truth be told I'm convinced it will eventually...) if we are to live in an ecologically sustainable way, one which doesn't consume resources equal to multiple planets while living on one. But I don't expect us to collectively wake up right now.

The smaller eco-realization, the one which really could happen because of the events of March/April 2010, the one potential possibility realistically brought about by this cosmic slap, is that we truly turn away from fossil fuel addiction, admit we have a problem and embark on a green twelve step program. Check ourselves into rehab and reassess the path we're on.

In the realm of energy that means first and foremost reducing energy usage both through energy efficiency and most importantly radical conservation. We as environmentalists return to our roots of decentralization and right scale. It's simply insane to assume that the energy usage levels in the United States are sustainable, both domestically and even more so if extended to every area of the world. It may be true that we could replace all of the US' current electricity demand with renewable sources, but the question we need to ask is whether that demand itself is sustainable.

Then, demand reduction underway, we leave behind continued handouts to fossil fuel industries whose seeming only responsibility is to make more money for stockholders, consequences both social and environmental be damned. We abandon the drill, baby, drill mentality which has infected our politicians. We step towards the cracked doorway, the one providing a glimpse of the future, Cape Wind's approval and the volcano-induced world slowdown just premonitions, and step outside.

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More on the BP Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill:
BP Gulf Oil Spill Cheat Sheet: A Timeline of Unfortunate Events
BP Oil Spill: Videos to Catch UpBurn It?! Coast Guard Now Considering Setting Oil Slick On Fire. What Are The Pros & Cons?

Tags: Energy | Gulf Oil Spill | Oil | Oil Spill | Pollution | Renewable Energy | United States

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