Thursday, May 06, 2010

Disaster and Responsibility

At the beginning of this week, Paul Krugman wrote about the Gulf's oil spill as an old-fashioned, photogenic environmental disaster, one that might finally spur America's leaders to grow a backbone and fight for clean energy:
Environmentalism began as a response to pollution that everyone could see. The spill in the gulf recalls the 1969 blowout that coated the beaches of Santa Barbara in oil. But 1969 was also the year the Cuyahoga River, which flows through Cleveland, caught fire. Meanwhile, Lake Erie was widely declared “dead,” its waters contaminated by algal blooms. And major U.S. cities — especially, but by no means only, Los Angeles — were often cloaked in thick, acrid smog.

It wasn’t that hard, under the circumstances, to mobilize political support for action... [yet] as visible pollution has diminished, so has public concern over environmental issues. According to a recent Gallup survey, “Americans are now less worried about a series of environmental problems than at any time in the past 20 years.”

This decline in concern would be fine if visible pollution were all that mattered — but it isn’t, of course. In particular, greenhouse gases pose a greater threat than smog or burning rivers ever did. But it’s hard to get the public focused on a form of pollution that’s invisible, and whose effects unfold over decades rather than days.
So suddenly we have a very visible reminder of why we need alternatives to oil. Some good could come of this, right?

But there's a big problem with this line of reasoning. As terrible as this oil spill has been, and will be, the scale and impacts of this disaster don't come anywhere near the scale and impacts of global climate change. They are separate problems.

True, oil has been a trigger for both problems, and therefore, Krugman reasons, they might share a common solution: generate more clean energy, burn less oil.

Oil rigs under construction in Galveston, Texas in spring 2008.
These are huge, tremendously complex and expensive machines. BP may have been the organization responsible for the Deepwater Horizon rig, but we - the American motoring public - were the financiers.

But the fact that global warming and this oil spill are very different problems also means that they don't necessarily have to share the same solution. In fact, the dominating conclusion that people on the left have been jumping to is one that actually won't do a damn bit of good for the climate in the long term.

That knee-jerk "solution" is to ban offshore drilling, without doing much of anything to reduce our energy use or develop alternatives. This addresses the visible part of the disaster - the part that Krugman sees as the biggest opportunity. But it doesn't do anything to address the more insidious, less visible threat of climate change.

Attendant with this has been a lot of facile political mockery of the "drill baby drill" contingent. This may be fun, but it's not especially productive. The oil spill is creating a political spectacle as well as an environmental one:

Lisa Margonelli, an expert on oil supplies, explained one of the big problems with these reactions in a thoughtful New York Times op-ed last weekend:
Whether this spill turns out to be the result of a freakish accident or a cascade of negligence, the likely political outcome will be a moratorium on offshore drilling. Emotionally, I love this idea. Who wants an oil drill in his park or on his coastline? Who doesn’t want to punish Big Oil on behalf of the birds?

Moratoriums have a moral problem, though. All oil comes from someone’s backyard, and when we don’t reduce the amount of oil we consume, and refuse to drill at home, we end up getting people to drill for us in Kazakhstan, Angola and Nigeria — places without America’s strong environmental safeguards or the resources to enforce them.
It's worth noting that this disaster is happening in the Gulf Coast because the poorer states of the Deep South share a predilection for weak environmental laws, and therefore their coastlines are the only place in United States waters where drilling is allowed. Plenty of people who find drilling distasteful are only too happy to burn the fruits of the Gulf Coast's rigs and refineries: see "Exporting Pollution to Dixie," from December 2007.

Margonelli goes on to suggest that "we should throw our newfound political will behind a sweeping commitment to use less gas." But that, of course, would require more than political will: it would require environmentalists to set aside our Palin-bashing, "we told you so" grandstanding to actually accept our own personal responsibility for the oil we use, and do something foresighted and intelligent.

It would also require us all to share culpability for this oil spill, by acknowledging that everyone who burns gasoline shares responsibility for the thousands of oil rigs in the world's oceans, and the risks that those rigs create for our environment.

Personally, I'm not holding my breath for that outcome. Earlier in the same column, Margonelli notes that BP's ludicrous "Beyond Petroleum" slogan had been extremely successful, in part, because it "accurately reflect[s] drivers’ desire to buy unlimited gasoline while remaining 'beyond' all the mess" [side note: you may recall that BP was also the force behind Los Angeles's "green" gas station a few years ago].

The facile fantasies that banning offshore drilling will save our environment, or that it's all Sarah Palin's fault, are inextricably linked to the fantasy that driving hundreds of miles every week can ever be "sustainable" - the fantasy of the 20th-century American Dream.

Put another way: it's a lot easier to caricature evil corporations and score political points against stupid Republican slogans than to examine the lifestyle we take for granted, take personal responsibility for it, and work to change the economy that spends trillions of dollars to squeeze oil from our oceans.

It is "Commute Another Way" month, if anyone's interested in burning a little less oil.


1 comment:

Paul Burdick said...

Hm. For some of us, it is not a "told you so" moment. It is a rolling our eyes at politicians who come up with pithy slogans to counter movements that want to improve our energy policies. Their slogan showed their profound hubris about American's position in the world and our energy usage. Drilling is completely safe, they claimed. America needs energy, so it should do whatever it takes to get what it needs without looking at the other side of the equation.

For those who already examine our lifestyles on a regular basis and can go months without giving our car gas, every so often it feels nice to point how moronic others can be about our energy policies. Drilling is not completely safe. There will be consequences.

What would really be helpful about turning this conversation towards personal energy usage would be easy to understand graphs showing how much oil has leaked into the gulf and how that amount corresponds to one's usage. Example: X barrels = Y miles traveled. One can reduce Y by half by doing Z. I have yet to see anyone try that approach.