06 June 2010

The oil spill is a mirror

Chris Reid | Special to the Times

The oil spill crossed the Rubicon on Friday.

At sundown Thursday, families frolicked in the crashing surf at Pensacola Beach. A few surfers tried to find a wave. The beach bar troubadours played Neil Young and Eagles tunes as college kids knocked back beers. A skinny guy with a metal detector shuffled along looking for treasure.

All was as it should be, the classic chamber of commerce picture of Florida beach life.

On Friday everything was different. The families were still there, splashing around. The beach bars still sold brewskis to thirsty college kids. But in the surf line, mingled with the broken sand dollars and the calico shells, lay an army of invaders straight out of a science-fiction movie:

Thousands of shiny, reddish-brown globs, glistening in the sun — signs that the Deepwater Horizon disaster had at last stained Florida's sugar-white beaches.

Tar balls washed ashore along more than 40 miles of the Panhandle coast, from Perdido Key State Park on the western end of Escambia County to Navarre Beach in Santa Rosa County. Boats snared big tar mats floating in Pensacola Pass, and a dozen more mats were spotted late Friday in the gulf about 6 miles south of the Navarre Beach pier, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The St. Petersburg Times, 5 June 2010

The oil reached Florida and so the waiting's over in the Panhandle. Now the waiting takes on more urgency to those of us farther down the coast. It's no longer a matter of will it get here, now it's a matter of when.

This spill didn't have to happen of course, but the unholy union of our culture, our government, our society and our economy made it an inevitability. As a Gulf Coast resident, this effects me personally and I want to blame someone. I want to blame BP of course. I want to blame Ronald Reagan for birthing a bankrupt school of governance that says that industries should be free to write their own regulations. I want to blame Haliburton. I want to blame globalization. I want to blame who ever it's politically expedient to blame.

But if I want to level blame with any degree of integrity, I need to blame myself for buying a tank of gas yesterday. I paid around $2.65 a gallon when I filled up my tank, a fraction of the actual cost to bring it to me. Despite its bargain price, I still groaned when I saw the total price go over $30.

According to a 1998 paper written by the International Center for Technology Assessment, the actual cost of that gallon was somewhere between $5.60 and $15.37. Mind you, that was based on a retail price of $1.25 and before the costs of invading and occupying Iraq are figured in. Part of me doesn't want to know what that number is now. Gasoline and petroleum prices are kept artificially low by the oil companies' practice of externalizing their costs. Most of these externalized costs are absorbed by federal, state and local governments. The costs to find the oil, drill for the oil, ship the oil, keep the shipping lanes secure for the safe passage of the oil, refine the oil, transport the refined oil, market the refined oil, discover new uses for the refined oil, etc. are either paid by governments directly, or indirectly through a series of subsidies and paybacks.

It's not just gasoline either. Crude oil gets made into the stuff that makes up life in 2010. Look around you, if you need a reminder of oil's omnipresence, here's a partial list: nylon zippers, ballet tights, plastic hangers, pantyhose, flip flops, fake fur, polyester, ball point pens, ink, computers, copiers, magic markers, telephones, microfilm, cameras, earphones, footballs, knitting needles, tennis racquets, golf balls, baby aspirin, stuffed animals, Band aids, Vaseline, Pepto-Bismol, hair coloring, soap, cough syrup, hair spray, lipstick and on and on. Oil subsidies and externalized costs keep these things and the raw materials that make them artificially cheap.

This is not some dark conspiracy or nefarious plan. My spending habits and my need for speed and convenience created the whole mess. Every time I buy a dollar bottle of shampoo or a $4 T-shirt I give my consent to the whole system. I vote with my money and so does everybody else. Calling for the head of Tony Hayward, BP's Chief Executive, won't stop any of this. It won't clean up the Gulf and it won't stop the world's dependence on (artificially) cheap oil. Boycotting BP won't help either. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is their fault and their problem, of that there can be no doubt. But this disaster could have happened at any offshore platform anywhere in the world.

Exxon Valdez groundings and Deepwater Horizon explosions will continue to happen in a world where consumerism reigns supreme. All of the talk about energy independence and alternative energy sources don't amount to a hill of beans when most of what I touch, buy, own and use starts out in an oil well and is sold to me at an artificially low price.

Oil disasters and oil-related world instability will continue so long as oil subsidies continue. Deep water oil drilling Russian roulette will continue without back up safety plans so long as the oil industry continues to call the shots. But oil subsidies won't go away and a functioning regulatory environment will never come to be in a world where you and I demand $2.65 a gallon gasoline and $4 T-shirts.

Thinking about this stuff is of zero comfort as I wait for the tar balls to arrive at the beach down the street or in my beloved Pass-a-Grille. This monster's awake and I don't think anything can stop it at this point. The oiled wildlife will suffer and die, the fishing fleets will stay in port and our already shaky economy will suffer a blow this summer that hurts to think about too much.

The road out of this can't stop with addressing the Deepwater Horizon disaster. We have a lesson to learn here, as a society. The newly fouled Gulf is a mirror and in its iridescent sheen anybody can see the gruesome reflection of a world gone mad. The oiled pelicans in the news this week are the result of a society that will go to any length to keep energy and consumer goods as cheap as possible. When you look at those birds, think about your role in how they got that way. Then vote with your dollars or pounds or euros or pesos. How you spend your money will determine what's next. Let's face it, at this stage of the game, it's the only meaningful vote you have.


  1. Paul

    Straight to the heart - my heart and the rest of the co-perpetrators in this downward spiralling sordid tale (where else can it go but down, way down?). We have dug ourselves a very deep hole, filled it with the ugly black stickiness of greed and selfishness, and now we are sitting right smack in the middle of the bed we have made. Will we ever change? I am heartsick, and I am implicated. I'm sorry. I hope I can follow through on the resolve that will be needed so desperately to turn this mad plunge around, to learn and live in our proper place on this bruised planet. May we be granted the grace and strength to change.

  2. Rich: The move away from oil is an inevitability. We can either keep going 'til it runs out and then face the grim reality that our way of life just ended abruptly or we can start planning a graceful exit now. Either way, life will change pretty radically. Not planning guarantees a transition marked by civil unrest and starving masses, and planning guarantees an end to cheap consumer goods with a chance of civil unrest. I hate to be such a fatalist about it, but large societies never deal with change well and I'm not real optimistic about what's coming.

  3. AMEN Paul! So very well said. -Brenda-

  4. Nice piece Paul...and great comment Richard,

    You're spot-on in redirecting culpability to every individual rather than taking the simple, more comforting and direct route of blaming BP, Halliburton, the government and usual list of suspects. Yes, BP (and many others) failed to protect in favor of greater profitability and for that they should be held responsible.

    Your argument to recognize that we all get a vote through our purchasing habits is one that has escaped most mainstream media and reflects a deeper problem we have throughout...it's never our own fault, is it?

    In this case we all voted...and now the hidden costs will come to light. And pay again ,many times over, we will.

    Change is possible...whether it's deciding to ride the bike instead of driving...even short trips add up if enough people participate. Using windows, fans and daily hot/cool cycles rather than defaulting to AC...it does take thought, planning and effort...but it works remarkably well. Lots can be done to begin the rewind. Choices.

    Great post, Paul. Thanks!

  5. I've been on an anti-plastic kick for a couple of years, but that video I posted on my website really made me get nuts about it. I look around and feel like we're screwed. Everything is plastic. How on earth can a person get away from it? I try my hardest to avoid it, but it seems futile and then I get so down in the dumps about it...especially when I see that the majority of people don't care a whit about it.
    This is a fabulous post. Can I reprint it on my website?

  6. Melody: I'd be honored.

    Mike: Riding a bicycle rather than driving is a good start but when you stop to think about the bike being made from petroleum products and window fans being made from petroleum products, and this laptop I'm writing on being made from petroleum products the scope of what needs to change becomes almost overwhelming. Out of the 42 gallons in a barrel of crude oil, only 19 of them get turned into fuel.

    Brenda: Thank you!

  7. Paul: I agree, embodied energy is the real culprit and ridding ourselves of fossil-based products is impractical.

    Perhaps this is a better way to make my point:

    If only a single person used petroleum-based products the planet and our existence would not be jeopardized...but billions of individuals rely upon it.

    If only a single person chose to substitute bike riding for driving, turn off AC, plant native grasses instead of lawns needing to be mown,reduce, reuse, recycle etc....no difference would result. But, if the billions who use petroleum-based products (all of us) deliberately chose to reduce consumption of them by a reasonable amount, collectively, huge improvements would result.

    Every day, as I look into my children's optimistic eyes I think of these issues and they remind me that I not only have a choice, but an imperative to do what is right for them.

    We all get a vote in the form of dollars (pesos, rupees, euros, yen, and renminbi) and we all need to begin voting.

    Thanks again for a great post...right on!


  8. well, it is sad day here in Pville. The smell is acrid and you acclimate to it quickly which is kind of sad. I live right on the beach so can walk over and see the tar balls....will say there are quite a few workers picking them up along the coast but how can they possibly keep up? Jimmy Buffet says he is going forth with scheduled opening of his first Margaritaville Hotel. I hope so because we need the jobs. The whole thing is so depressing, it is hard to harness any energy for day to day life. ~~Cheryl

  9. Thanks Mike, weaning ourselves from the petroleum teat is not going to be easy or fun but it is possible. But wow is there an adjustment coming.

    Cheryl: Thanks for the updates from the front. I've been wondering how you guys are faring now that the oil's in your back yard. Literally. This will be a summer to remember, that's for sure.

  10. you've hit the nail on the head with this one. great, great post.

  11. Thanks Christian and thanks for popping it up on your Facebook page. I spent most of yesterday writing that and I've never written anything that took such a toll on me in my life. I am wiped out from it.

  12. Love you, Paul. Thank you. Thank you.

  13. Paul - I have always been impressed with your blog, but you have truly astonished me at your ability to put as much emotion in your writing and still be able to express your point in a way that does not chose sides or pick a political battle. Especially with this topic. Sadly I have read others that do and that pains me. Thank you for your updates and your thoughts as all of this unfolds.

  14. Thanks Shannon. A month ago I still saw this as politics. Every time Sarah Palin put her foot in her mouth I would rage and rage. Last week though, the scope of this disaster started to hit home and I saw that this is bigger than politics. The take away lesson from this can't involve a continued reliance on petroleum or we're doomed. This is so much bigger than politics it's frightening, truly frightening.

  15. Attacking oil subsides and consumption gets right at the real problem, Paul. Along with developing a less energy intensive culture - in what we build and our actions. Yr right, much bigger than politics, it's all of us and what we do every day. It will take a generation or two for us to shed the 20th century. Well said, Paul!

  16. Great post Paul, and excellent comments as well (howdy Mike!).

    I riffed off you and quoted you yesterday:


  17. Cindy: Thanks and keep spreading this around.

    Tim: I saw that on Twitter this morning, thank you. Mike started RTing you as soon as he found your post. It can't be repeated often enough.

  18. The problem with saying that “all of us are responsible,” is that it ends up with no one really doing much about it. Oh, there are a few who will now ride a bicycle forevermore, but not enough to really matter. In the main, people are just trying to get through the day as best they can, making a living for themselves and their families. But there are things that could be done, I think, if only those in a position to make these changes did not always worship a dollar. The Exxon Valdez should have been double-hulled, and if it had been, that disaster never would have happened. I understand, too, that there are things BP could have done to either prevent the current disaster or mitigate it once it occurred, things that were not done because they did not consider them cost-effective. And those who are to regulate these things did not do so, because the Free Market must be permitted untrammeled freedom—so they say. And maybe, too, regulators should have simply denied an application to drill at that depth. I don’t know. I do know that those of us who continue to insist that things would be just fine if only the blankety-blank government would get out of the way are deluding themselves. And us. In an unregulated world, this sort of thing would be a commonplace.

  19. But all of us are responsible. "Getting through the day as best they can" props up a system utterly dependent on oil. Wal-Mart wouldn't sell a $1 bottle of shampoo if no one bought it. Similarly, all tankers would be double hulled if people didn't scream every time gasoline went up a dime. Cheap gas and cheap consumer goods get politicians re-elected and it doesn't take too long to figure out ways to rig the market so that The People keep getting their $1 bottles of shampoo and $2.50 a gallon gasoline. There is a rigged market at work here, not a free market anything. The price of gasoline is kept artificially low and because of that skewed price, we have an entire economic system that's utterly dependent on oil. That quest for cheap oil at any cost is what drives a lack of double hulls and a lack of redundant safety systems in deep water rigs. The people in a position to change this system are you and me, not a government agency or an oil company. People need to stop getting through life the best they can and start paying attention to what they're agreeing to when they buy something. Plastic will never be pulled off the market until people stop buying it. The oil industry will continue down its self-regulating path so long as people continue to vote in incumbents and know-nothing Republicans. The fix is going to be difficult and it won't be quick, but it can't start anywhere but on the bottom and work its way up. It starts with a demand to be told what you're exchanging your money for and then acting accordingly. Just as no one's blameless, no one's helpless.


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