It might just be the feeds that I follow in Google Reader, but I have been inundated with blow-by-blow posts, articles, pictures and video of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. I don’t want this to be yet another post on the oil spill, and although it is seriously enough to put the average pro-oil man in his place for a while, I think the majority of what I have (admittedly skim) read of these articles missed the bigger picture facing us. These articles seem to chronicle the loss of lives, the environmental damage, the drama of failed attempts to find solutions, and the blame game that is bouncing around the halls of Washington D.C. and Louisiana.
A Bit of History
The Exxon Valdez spill happened when I was a kid, just 13 years old, on March 24, 1989. Living in Australia at the time, the news had limited coverage and impact on what was happening in our country – sure the Greenies were pointing out the risks and doom and gloom scenarios, but for the average person, it was just a bad thing that happened in a far off land. Since then, the world has become a smaller place, both from a communication perspective, and from our realization of common issues and causes.And now, the media has potentially an even greater reach due to the fact that people really only care about the soundbite, not the whole story – (I raise my hand as guilty of that too).
At the time of writing, there are already about 6.1 million results for the search “Deepwater Horizon”, and Obama has signed an executive order for an official inquiry into what happened and how the industry can be regulated to ensure such an event does not happen again. We need to step back away from the media circus and on demand news coverage and assess the real risks, not those that industry reps, the government, or environmentalists with a mission tell us exist. Unfortunately, that’s about all we will hear from in any detail in the media.
Short-term Memory Loss
My first issue with how we respond to this type of problem is that we as humans have a very short memory, and we tend to believe that things that happened longer ago that last week were actually much longer ago than that. For instance, while, March 24, 1989 sounds like a long time ago, in fact it was only 7731 days ago, which is recent history in terms of oil extraction, and distinctly modern history compared with the age of humanity or even the earth. We take a lot for granted when we turn the ignition in our cars, or hop on a plane, or pick up a pound of bananas in the middle of a Canadian winter, in particular, we take oil for granted. And stories like Exxon Valdez or Deepwater Horizon are almost mere inconveniences for western society in the race to drain this resource to the bottom of the barrel.
As a society, we’ve discovered this windfall resource that has transformed the entire structure of our world, socially, economically, and environmentally. And since getting over the wondrous nature of the stuff, we’ve become immune to any understanding of it’s unique nature. The oil we are so freely burning today represents 500 million years of sunlight stored as energy in plants through photosynthesis – and at the rate we are going, we are consuming somewhere in the order of 5 million years worth of stored solar energy every year .(via Dave Hughes on EcoShock New’s clip from the DeGrowth Conference in Vancouver).
Technology is not the Answer – (and Neither is the Mainstream Media)
Our persistent belief in technology as the answer to all of our problems fails to recognize the limitations and diminishing returns from many of the technologies that we’ve developed thus far in recent history. Our experiments have often been at the expense of the environment or a group of people, (whether in a class or a location). Relying on the marketplace to fix problems puts the solution in the hands of a corporation who’s primary motive is to maximize the profits for shareholders. Profit in itself is not a bad thing, but profit at the expense of human scaled emotions and localized understanding will almost certainly be at the expense of something valued by people.
The media on the other hand is enamored with any technology that appears to make for a good story, their primary motive is encouraging people to choose their outlet as a source of news or information to justify the selling of advertisements to corporations. Even seemingly independent media outlets are often reliant on advertisements, and may actually be more biased toward reporting only positive stories about local issues, after all, so the thinking goes – people don’t want to read “bad stuff” all the time.
Over the past few years, bio-diesel , algae, corn based ethanol, wind, solar, hydrogen, geothermal, and microhydro systems have been touted as “the solution” to our energy problem. But rarely is it suggested that these systems may only be able to provide an offset for a fraction of the current fossil fuel based supply, and at a much lower return on investment.
Simply put, while we’ve been enjoying this fiesta of fossil fueled consumerist lifestyles, we’ve been setting ourselves up for poverty in the future. Our soil is depleted, our oceans are losing diversity, we are destroying old growth forests to produce toilet paper and make way for more beef production, we are tearing up the Boreal forest in Alberta for one of the poorest sources of oil available in the Tar Sands, and we’ve destroyed a whole ecosystem and the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen and their families along the coast of Louisiana.
We’ve gone into overshoot as a society, financially things are bad, environmentally things are possibly worse, and socially our governments are trying to juggle these issues while keeping the middle class as passified as possible.
The way forward, out of this mess, is not in carbon taxes and new “green” products, these are minuscule solutions to massive problems. We need to transition to a lower energy society. This means different things in different communities. But almost universally across North America, it means:
- driving less (a lot less),
- eating less meat (a lot less),
- growing food locally, and
- providing incentives for strong local economies.
This is not a solution that the media is going to promote on a regular basis, sure, some papers such as the Guardian have writers such as George Monbiot on staff, but it is more likely that they have a climate-denier on staff than a realist.
Meanwhile, we wait with bated breath to see whether BP and the various levels of American government will actually be able to stop the flow of oil from the failed Deepwater Horizon drill rig; here in Canada, this even may have put the nail in the coffin of offshore drilling in the waters off British Columbia, at least until the next change of government or some energy crisis occurs.