When you gaze into the abyss


Like most people, I’m horrified by the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. I hate BP for their half-hearted response to the crisis. I think the Obama administration has limited options for what they can do to stop the crisis (nuking the hole, while cathartic, would almost certainly make matters worse), but they have been too willing to defer to BP so far. To some extent, they have to – the oil companies have the technology to manage the well, while the federal government does not. But the government has not inflicted nearly the amount of pain on BP that they deserve, nor have they begun the process of preventing another disaster such as this from occurring in the future.

But while I’ve laughed along with everyone at the @BPGlobalPR Twitter feed, I’ve tried very hard not to forget the real villain in this story. The real culprit. The true bad guy. The person who is most at fault for the blowout of the well in the Gulf of Mexico, and even worse environmental disasters around the world.

That person is sitting at my keyboard, writing my post. He is me.

Oh, not just me. He’s also my friends. My family. Your friends. Your family. You. And everyone else in the developed world, a world that runs on energy, energy that is more often than not pulled from the ground, rock by rock, and siphoned from the ground, drop by drop.

We have had over thirty years since the OPEC oil embargo first woke America up to the critical role that oil plays in our national existence. Thirty years to find alternate ways to fuel our cars and trucks and boats. And in that time, we’ve developed ethanol, and…well, that’s about it. Oh, we’ve increased wind power a bit. Tightened up CAFE standards a touch (but not too much – Michigan’s a swing state, after all). But that’s peanuts. In 2007, petroleum provided 39 percent of America’s energy. Natural and coal tied for second, at 23 percent each. That’s 85 percent of all the energy consumed in America provided by three greenhouse-gas producers that are either mined or pumped, with the concurrent human costs. Another eight percent of our energy comes from nuclear power, which has its own environmental problems. Just seven percent of American energy is renewable, and a significant percentage of that is in corn-based ethanol, which is at best energy-neutral to produce.

In short, we have done nothing of significance for thirty-odd years while the crisis stared us right in the face. We knew that American oil supplies were in decline – and we did nothing to reduce our demand. We did nothing to develop alternative energy sources. We did nothing but drill, baby, drill and buy, baby, buy – the source didn’t matter. We took most of the easy oil from the ground, and so we’ve moved to the continental shelf, drilling a mile deep, to a well we literally can’t get at, because we have no choice.

And don’t tell me you’re different. You’re better. You’re environmentally aware. Since you’re almost certainly not Amish, living on the land and making your own clothes, you’ve been to a grocery store. You’ve bought fruit from Brazil in the winter. You’ve bought clothes stitched in Indonesia. You buy things from Amazon and Ebay, that are shipped by truck or by airplane, delivered directly to your house. Hell, you’re on a computer, which, like mine, is probably powered mostly by coal.

We cannot be angry at BP without being angry at ourselves. We cannot be disgusted with the oil spill without being disgusted at our unwillingness to push for alternative forms of energy. We power our cars and our homes with the blood of the men who died on the Deepwater Horizon, with the blood of the men who have died in mining accidents and refinery accidents. Not to mention with the money robbed from men and women who made their living off the Gulf Coast. And the men and women in the Niger River delta, and the men and women in northeastern Alberta.

Oh, there are things we can do to lessen the damage. We can force oil companies to dig relief wells right from the start of investigatory drilling, shore up our enforcement of environmental regulations. But it’s just a stopgap. Unless we lessen our dependence on oil, we’ll keep drilling the deep water, and eventually, ANWR. We don’t have a choice. We can’t replace 39 percent of our energy overnight. And we haven’t done anything to plan for the day we can.

And that is the problem. For all our righteous anger at BP, they’re just the pushers. We’re the junkies. And until we find a way to get clean, BP’s going to do what they’ve been doing. After all, they’re just working at our behest. No, we have to do far more than we have to end our dependence on fossil fuels. And until we do, disasters of this magnitude are inevitable. It’s nobody’s fault but our own.