By the end of last week, media attention to the massive oil slick growing in the Gulf of Mexico was beginning to focus on the usual story lines: on corporate culprits (accusing or defending companies like Haliburton or BP), on government inaction, on failed technology, and on the first bird victim to turn up (a lonely, oily Northern Gannett seemingly looking for assistance).
As usual, the media have the wrong end of the stick. They should be featuring you and me in their stories, not to get a man-in-the-street perspective, but to berate us as the real culprits.
The blame for the unfolding tragedy, which will affect people as well as animals, economies and ecosystems, resides with all energy users. We are driven to drill in ecologically sensitive areas because people like me and you demand cheap electricity and gasoline. It is at our implicit and anoymous direction that the proximate culprits undertake known risks to the healthy functioning of productive oceans, marshes, and beaches, not to mention the danger posed to oil rig workers (like the 11 workers whose deaths are now barely mentioned by the media).
We don’t chant “drill, baby, drill,” but we might as well.
Such disasters are not “inconceivable,” as BP PLC Chairman Lamar McKay said on Sunday. They are to be expected if we continue using energy the way we have in the past. It is more than conceivable that more drilling in more dangerous places and difficult environments will lead to more accidents. Oil companies are willing to take those risks with their workers’ lives and with other people’s livelihoods. We do more than permit them to do so; we demand that they do so.
In last month’s energy atrocity in the Appalachians, there was a similar unwillingness to admit that we are all culpable, with some notable exceptions. Most attention focused on Massey Energy Company and it larger-than-life, bad-as-he-wants-to-be chief Don Blankenship. As villainous as the CEO appears, he can claim his company is, like the tobacco companies, merely delivering a legal product that people want to use. It’s true. And there were lax federal regulators to share the blame in that tragedy as well.
The side effects of coal use are underground mine disasters, and aboveground ecological disasters, and they are only about as inconceivable as lung cancer and emphysema.
We have permitted those disasters, pretended that they are accidents, and failed to recognize that we actually call them into being through our use of energy. We simply don’t holistic vision of the costly side-effects of our consumption decisions. When we use energy and demand the extraction of fossil fuels on the scale our economy requires, we cannot call these disasters and tragedies accidents.
Even more worrisome is the fatalistic reaction to the big picture. Having learned that the unavoidable costs of cheap energy are certain deaths of coal miners and oil rig workers, the certain catastrophe of mountaintop removal mining, and the certain destruction of oil spills, we too often adopt a faux courage, a resolute acceptance that these side-effects are simply inevitable. We forget that we have choices.
We can choose to develop our energy economy differently. Cleaner, renewable energies are more costly than oil and coal, but only marginally so. Events of the last few months should remind us that there are human and ecologocial costs that aren’t included in the prices of gasoline and electricity. Even nuclear energy is, on average, safer and cleaner. [There are risks, but they have to be compared with the certainties of fossil fuel extraction and use, like the 24,000 excess American deaths caused every year by coal power plant pollution, or the 1 in 6 babies born to mothers with toxic levels of mercury in their bloodstream.]
A recent report shows that the American South, depauperate in some forms of renewable energy, is actually the “Saudi Arabia of energy efficiency,” according to Dr. Marilyn Brown, who helped write the report.
Choices we make at the margin, to conserve or to consume, are incredibly important. Each increment energy we demand drives workers into riskier situations in ever more sensitive ecological areas. In contrast, each increment of energy we save or replace with renewable alternatives reduces the need for workers and creation to undergo these high risks. The payoff, even for small changes, is disproportionate to the costs.
It’s too bad our wake-up call must come in the form of disappearing mountains and expanding oil slicks.