Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why Are We Still Talking About This?

Actually, the title ought to read, "Why are we still talking about this?" Rather than doing something about it? Because we're getting stupider and stupider; that's why. Stupider (I know my grammar's off, but that's the result of getting stupider) in the sense that we aren't ignorant (the answers are out there and we know about them), but we collectively, and willfully, seem to be making really uninformed, unwise choices about very important problems.

For the last couple of weeks the news from the Gulf of Mexico has gone from horrific to potentially disastrous. The economies of all Gulf coast states--not to mention the economies of nations to the south, west, and east of the spill--are at risk of collapse as the mess inches toward vital fisheries, oyster beds, wetlands, and beaches. The coverage from the New York Times alone demonstrates the seriousness of the situation, and the potential for environmental apocalypse.

Back in March, President Obama caved into Big Oil in a compromise effort to convince bidness-folk that he isn't a tree-hugger, and so they should come on board with his pragmatic energy policy that will use oil, natural gas, and nukes to wean ourselves from foreign oil dependence and give us a chance to build alternative energy sources.

Trouble is, what makes the compromise necessary at all is that the United States is so mired in fossil fuel dependence we're like oil junkies who can't bring themselves to go into treatment. Withdrawal is too scary, and we're afraid to even try.

The oil industry is, as Joe Romm points out on his Climate Progress blog, one of those "too big to fail" operations--and BP is rather like the Goldman Sachs of fossil fuel production.

The reason we need to wean ourselves from this who approach to energy now is precisely because it's too big to manage, it's too destructive to the environment, and it's completely unsustainable.

People who scream at anti-Obama rallies that we're leaving our grandchildren trillions of dollars of debt don't seem to mind that we're also leaving them a substantially damaged planet and atmosphere, and we're failing to educate our kids well enough for them to be able to solve the problems we're bequeathing them.

Just this morning I read in the Daily Poop about Neil Armstrong's claim that President Obama's new space policy will remove us from our position as the leader in space exploration, and we'll end up taking a back seat to foreign countries' efforts in the development of big space-related projects. But as much as I love the space program, I don't particularly see why we have to be the biggest players. If the Russians, the Chinese, the European Space Agency, or private investors can do the job, I don't have a problem with that. We're not exactly preparing our own kids to go mine asteroids or visit Mars, anyway, so why not let somebody who can steer take the helm.

Where we should be striving to be first and best is in the area of energy policy, innovation, and transformation. We use huge amounts of energy (take a look at the World Bank's data to see how we compare to others, using several indicators), and we emit pollutants of all varieties at an alarming rate, so we should be the ones who focus our remaining big brains on this issue. If this country can't properly manage offshore oil wells, I'm not really all that confident that we won't screw up something in space.

Alternative energy sources already exist, and the technological means to design, manufacture, and distribute non-petroleum-based power is available. There are still smart scientists and engineers out there perfectly capable of coming up with ways to fix things. But we, as a voting populace, lack the political will to loosen the hold oil companies and related businesses have on the national economy.

Perhaps the gulf spill will open some eyes. The oil execs sitting in their posh office towers and lounging by the pristine pools in their mansions aren't really the ones being hurt here. BP will end up shelling out a huge chunk of change to help mitigate what it's unleashed, but the fisherman, the tourist industry, the retirement communities, the beach lovers, the shrimpers, the oystermen, the brown pelicans, the wetlands, the estuaries, and the cities all along the perimeter of the Gulf will suffer the impact of this mess for years.

Forty years ago, Earth Day was born in part as a result of an oil spill near Santa Barbara. We should have really learned our lesson after the Exxon Valdez disaster, and after several decades of fighting oil-related wars in the Middle East. We know what oil dependence costs. But in spite of all this, the word out today is that the problems in the Gulf notwithstanding, gasoline prices will be going down over the summer, encouraging more and more people to drive their Hummers around town.

Even if going cold turkey isn't an option, we should now be doing everything we can to wean ourselves not only from oil itself, but from an economy that is clearly doing more harm than good. If alternatives did not exist, the situation would be different; but they do, and investors need to start pulling their money out of petroleum and using it to build a home-grown, future-conscious alternative to messy gobs of crud, toxic fumes, dead birds, ruined lives, and environmental degradation.

One doesn't have to be a Peak Oil "believer" to see that we're in trouble. I'm not naive enough to think that choosing a 100% wind-based source of electricity is going to change the world. But the more subscribers sign up companies like Green Mountain, or with "green plans" through other local distributors, the faster distributors and politicians get the idea that we want out of the oil business.

What really saddens me about the whole situation is that it takes an actual or potential disaster to make us change our ways. We should be altering our way of life significantly because it's the right thing to do, and because it makes moral and practical sense--not just because the economy collapses or because the oil slick is lapping at our front door.

Image sources: Both shots are from NASA; go to the Image Gallery page on the oil spill for more.

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