“The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to (Lao Tsu, The Water Way)”
A key is turned in an ignition, a switch is flipped, a cord from a whining weed whacker is pulled, a fishing boat chug, chug, chugs down a murky river, a family stays warm, a farmer plows a dusty field, a plastic bag floats on the wind. For almost every seemingly innocuous occurrence, drops in a bucket added up to 18.7 million barrels of crude oil every single day (1) in the United States of America.
The average life in America is entirely dependant upon crude oil for the simplest of daily chores. We have abandoned our city centers and settled in suburbs that were once agricultural belts, our migration necessitating both long commutes into said cities for work each day and transportation of food stuffs from agricultural lands further afield. Liquid fossil fuels heat our homes, power our tools and enable our leisure activities of choice. Our manufacturing sector is powered by oil, and much of what is produced is a manipulation of the versatile chain of carbon atoms that form the black elixir. Plastics, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers and a broad array of chemical compounds are cleverly crafted from the coveted black gold.
In what was probably the only intelligent sentence uttered from the former president Bush II’s mouth, he stated, “America is addicted to oil (2).” On that single point, President Bush was correct.
Just as a drug provides its user with an instantaneous feel-good fix to a multiplicity of perceived woes, crude oil supplies the quick and easy energetic rush American’s crave in their economy and daily lives. In our frenetic hurry of the day to day American reality, there is no time to walk to work, plant a garden or even remember to carry a reusable shopping bag to the grocery store. Crude enables our adrenalin-pumped existence. Oil is like crack cocaine, and like addicts, we are in denial about the consequences of our abuse, while the ecosystems of earth are crashing down around us.
Unlike the water of Lao Tsu, crude oil is a black cancer. Every aspect of its harvest and use causes harm. Each drop of oil we consume has myriad consequences that remain completely ignored or conveniently beyond the intellectual grasp of the average citizen. Then, disaster strikes, and we all point fingers at our government and private corporations for their complicity and neglect in the resultant quagmire, while simultaneously denying our own culpability. We continue to drive our SUV’s to work every day, cruise through the corner fast food drive through on our way home and chill out in front of our wide screen TVs with a brewsky, while we suck our teeth in judgment of those we deem to be responsible.
The rapidly unfolding calamity in the Gulf of Mexico is potentially an environmental catastrophe unparalleled in human history. An ecosystem that predates the human organism lays in ruin at our guilty feet.
300 million years ago, as continental plates shifted, the Gulf of Mexico formed as the North American continental plate pulled apart from what is now Africa. As the continents separated, terrestrial crust settled under sediments sinking deeper and deeper underwater until a body of water, the earth’s 9th largest, formed. The contemporary Gulf has a surface area of 1.5 million square kilometers with 27,000 linear miles of U.S. Shoreline. The Gulf is not just a homogenous body of water. Along its continental borders, vital shallow wetland estuaries teem with birds, shrimp, oysters and a plethora of diverse flora and fauna, providing a livelihood to creature and human alike. Sandy beaches form the heart of a vibrant tourism industry across several state lines. At the geographical center, the Gulf plunges to depths of up to 5,000 meters, with sapphire waters lapping above yet to be discovered mysteries of the deep (3). All is in peril.
Sadly, the Gulf of Mexico is not alone in its demise in the name of our energetic drug of choice. Prudhoe Bay, Prince William Sound, The Bay of Campeche, The fragile desert sands of Kuwait, The Scilly Islands, Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts, Stavanger, Norway, Genoa, Italy and numerous other localities across the globe have been permanently altered as a result of crude oil spills. 20 years after the Exxon Valdez catastrophe, toxic crude oil persists in the fragile ecosystems of the Alaskan coastline, and experts believe the area will be poisoned for hundreds of years to come (4). Each of these ecological losses is another drop in a finite bucket. The drops are adding up.
A drop here, a drop there, and Americans keep sucking down the fix while choosing to be oblivious to the environmental cataclysm they are perpetrating. Now our spigot of excess and destruction has taken on a form that can no longer be ignored. One of earth’s richest ecosystems, home to myriad marine mammals, seabirds, rare sea turtles, mollusks and fishes is poisoned and dying in effigy for our addiction. The multitude of innocent organism bystanders, who gained nothing from our oil gluttony, have now lost everything. The Gulf, mere resource to Homo sapiens, was their only home, providing nurturance, sustenance, spawning and nesting areas and shelter. As the grim, slicked casualties wash up on the shores, their death tolls mounting at alarming rates, we can blame BP for this colossal mess, but in truth, we are all to blame.
Crude oil will never become a clean, beneficial source of energy. We can continue to indulge our addiction, live in denial and sacrifice the earth one drop at a time, or we can go through rehab, suffer the pangs of withdrawal and begin new, more meaningful lives with clean energy that like water, will nourish rather than destroy.
1- U.S. Energy Information Administration, April 6, 2010. Short Term Energy and Summer Fuels Outlook. On the world wide web at: http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/steo/pub/#US_Crude_Oil_And_Liquid_Fuels
2- George W. Bush, January 31st, 2006. State of the Union Address.
3- Gulf Coast Preservation Society on the world wide web at http://www.gulfpreserve.org/gulf_mexico.htm
4- The Washington Post at http://blog.washingtonpost.com/story-lab/2010/05/story_pick_the_lasting_effects.html