Photo via Boston
In 1969, an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California released a few million gallons of oil into marine ecosystems -- eight months later, it was among the primary catalysts for the biggest pro-environmental movement in the nation's history, starting with the first Earth Day. That 'national teach-in' day in turn lead to some of the strongest and most effective environmental laws and regulations ever created, it yielded the founding of the EPA. Fast forward to 2010, where we're still in the midst of the biggest oil catastrophe in our history, with an incomparable 100-180 million gallons of oil fouling the water. And yet, there's no sense of focused national outrage (discontent is probably a better word), no movement gaining momentum to address the roots of the problem that lead to the BP spill, and the government has shown that it feels no pressure to take significant action on behalf of the environment. What gives? Why the Gulf Spill Lacks 'Societal Punch'
The AP has a story today, "Gulf spill lacks societal punch of Santa Barbara" that seeks to answer that question. The piece collects the opinions of such figures as Lois Capps, the congresswoman who was elected into office during the era of the Santa Barabara spill, spokespeople from NGOs like the Natural Resources Defense Council, and activists old enough to remember both spills.
It also draws parallels between the two spills -- both featured calls from the oil industry and its allies to not let one accident halt the offshore drilling industry, and both had bumbling CEOs who kept shoving their feet in their mouths. Both saw pictures of devastated wildlife and habitats take center stage. Essentially, there's plenty to get mad about both. So how come the US only seemed really mad about the earlier one?
The pervading opinion of those cited in the AP story seems to be that it's still too soon to expect the anger over the spill to be channeled productively. It was a full 8 months after the SB spill that Sen. Gaylord Neslon organized Earth Day, after all. And it took about a year after that for Nixon to sign the Clean Air Act into law, and to create the EPA. With the BP Gulf spill, many have been focusing primarily on getting the geyser capped -- that had been the center of the drama for many. Now that the leak is plugged, the reasoning goes, perhaps a more organized effort to address the environmental ills the spill brought to light -- oil dependence, the dangers of deep water drilling, etc -- can indeed capture the public's attention.
No Earth Day Redux
But I wonder. The cynic in me says we're unlikely to see anything near the public outpouring of support for the environment we did 40 years ago, for a few simple reasons. Primarily, the sentiment behind the movement then was new, it was bold, pioneering -- participating in the movement was exhilarating. Knowledge of the extent by which American industry was destroying our natural habitats and resources was just then bubbling to the surface of the public consciousness. Joining the green movement was sort of like Beatlemania -- few had seen, heard, or done anything like that before. And just like we're unlikely to see a pop act command that kind of attention again, I think the same goes for an environmental movement encompassing many of the same ideals.
Also contributing is the fact that corporations were far less prepared to cope with the charges leveled at them -- they had little course of action but to complain how insignificant the environment was in comparison to businesses' contribution to society. Now, every self-respecting oil company channels money into front groups, lobbying campaigns, and PR efforts, not just during a spill, but all the time to keep public opinion in check, and to hedge against such disasters.
Finally, the culture of special interests has grown so pervasive that many Americans feel like it's a hopeless situation in Congress -- there's a sense that it's impossible for the common man to get heard through the thicket of lobbyists and campaign financiers. A perfect example of this is the recently deceased climate legislation -- polls found majorities supported climate and clean energy action time and again, and yet the Senate had no qualms giving it up because it's too touchy a subject for an election year. The gulf has widened between civilians and our elected officials to the point that few expect much from them at all.
The Environmental Movement 2.0
So what's to be done? There's clearly an opportunity in a crisis of this magnitude to rethink, to recalibrate, and to find fresh ways to spread the message that our dependence on oil has lead us into dangerous territory. So it may be time for the established green movement to step aside on the matter, and let a new entity, perhaps a pointedly 'anti-oil' movement gain ground. Something that's new, unprecedented, and less easily lumped in with the traditions of environmentalism's past.
Our best shot at passing a law to reign in carbon emissions and curb fossil fuel use has failed in Congress. The Gulf has been soiled by the biggest environmental disaster in American history, and no one seems to know how to react to it. Now is the time for the green movement to be absolutely open to new ideas.