Friday, May 7, 2010

Oil Spills, Greek Debts

The Right Kind of Reaction to Ecological Disasters

Like most of the civilized world, I was troubled to see oil gushing out of an exploded oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and threatening to become yet another catastrophe for beleaguered gulf residents. It's just too much.

The knee jerk reaction was to condemn BP, formerly known as British Petroleum. BP sports green and yellow gas stations that give the impression they are on the side of nature somehow. As many sources have discovered, BP has not only used its incredible economic power to soften safety regulations, it can pay for lots of lobbyists to make Congress look the other way. The recent wretched Supreme Court decision opening up the spigot for campaign contributions from corporations didn't help.

While BP deserved public revulsion for its safety and environmental practices, excoriating the company is a bit like shooting the messengers. It brings to mind that lyric in the Rolling Stones's "Sympathy for the Devil." Who shot the Kennedys? It was you and me.

We're the ultimate enablers of BP and the entire resource depletion system behind them. That includes coal, natural gas, metals and uranium mining corporations. If we -- and most of the developing world -- didn't want oil and its hundreds of by-products, they wouldn't be drilling in 5,000 feet of water.

It takes a tremendous amount of energy to run a modern, industrialized state. Less than 1 percent comes from clean sources such as wind and solar, which are not yet competitive with oil, gas and coal on an economic basis. Ever been to eastern Wyoming? They can scoop coal out of the ground with giant bulldozers. Nearly all of the coal in Australia goes to China, which is burning more of it than any country.

And petroleum? It's the feedstock for fertilizers, plastics, pesticides and pharmaceuticals. How do you think farmers can plow, seed and harvest their megafarms? There are no solar-powered combines yet. How did you get to the mall?

Even if you sit around a room with devoted conservationists -- as I did the other night -- most just don't get the big picture. The ecology of our society is based on economic benefits and fossil fuels are still providing them.

Until we find cheap ways of making fuel cells, solar panels and other forms of alternative energy, we will be drilling deep into the gulf and elsewhere. Even if we discover some technological breakthroughs in clean energy, China, India, Brazil and the rest of the developing world will want big, energy-consuming homes and vehicles.

In the interim, the scenario is bleak. In E.O. Wilson's "The Future of Life," he lays out what's happening to the natural world as we carve up the planet:

* Diseases related to lifestyle and environmental hazards of our own making are on the rise since 1980. They include cancer, asthma, melanoma, obesity, diabetes, hip fractures and depression.

* There are more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals in the environment and few of them have been tested for toxicity. Many of them cause cancer.

* There are from 3.6 million to 100 million species on the planet that exist but haven't been discovered or named. We are killing them off every day.

Wilson estimates that $30 billion of of $30 trillion in world gross domestic product could be used to preserve land for conservation purposes. If every cup of coffee served across the globe were taxed one cent, that would cover this fund. Only about 10 percent of the world's surface is protected at present.

In addition to conserving land, we need to take a good, hard look at changing Western lifestyles. Do we need to deplete resources to produce clothes that are ultimately thrown away? Do we need petroleum for chemicals that are killing us? What about making our homes more efficient? They account for 30 percent of global warming gases and use incredible amounts of water and energy.

While not connected to energy consumption, the Greek debt crisis works with the same metaphor. When money -- in this case from the rest of Europe and US -- was cheap, they gorged on debt, ballooned their public sector and skimped on taxes. Europe is bailing them out, but Spain, Portugal and Ireland may be next. It's the buffet effect: When any commodity is offered in large quantities at a relatively low cost, we consume too much of it. Oil is still cheaper to extract from the earth than energy is from photons. I hope that formula will change soon, but the economic reality is that we're addicted to oil because it's still relatively plentiful, well distributed and easily transformed into something else.

If you want to take away anything from an ecological world view, look at it this way: If we changed the economics of energy production, we'll change our relationship with fossil fuels. We need new technologies to transform biomass (waste and living things) into energy. We need better, more efficient ways of tapping the energy from the sun and moving it around. This will all take money and, more importantly, political will.

Here's where you come in: Contact your Senator now to push for climate change/energy legislation that taxes carbon and provides incentives for clean energy production. I'm not talking about tax breaks that expire in a year. We need a long-range plan to create a clean-energy system that will displace fossil fuels in an economic and cultural movement. This is our space race, our call to change.

Yes, it's still cool to be green, but you need to be politically active to walk the talk.

While walking to the train in Chicago (I use public transportation whenever possible), I stopped by to talk to a homeless woman selling newspapers. I have always heard her on the same corner, standing there most of the day, yet I've never stopped to acknowledge her, as most of the thousands who walk by her every day fail to do.

What captivated me about this woman is that she is always singing and you can hear her a block away. When I stopped to buy a paper from her, I told her how much I enjoyed her singing. I suspect it did little to improve her life, although it halted me in my thinking and made me pay attention to an ignored songbird in my midst.

Sometimes we can't see the birds in the forest, even in the midst of a natural disaster. But we shouldn't stop listening or looking for them. They can save us from ourselves.