Saturday, June 12, 2010

54 Days of the Wrath of God

54 days. That’s how long it’s been since the Deepwater Horizon exploded and set off the largest oil spill in the history of the USA. Americans are shocked and appalled. Millions of barrels of oil are floating through the Gulf, coating wildlife, washing up on beaches and shutting down a substantial portion of the Gulf economy. The drilling moratorium is shutting down much of the rest. We never noticed Nigeria's agony because it was out of sight and thus out of mind. Now, in the midst of our own agony, we still fail to see the connection to Nigeria’s. We have regulations and expectations that are not in place in Africa. Nigeria’s oil constitutes about 8% of our total imports. Every drop counts right now and who among us is going to stand up for fellow humans who have long lived with the environmental and health consequences of oil production that is poorly regulated and continually under physical attack by those who demand a share of the revenues? And, most importantly, are not Americans like us?

The wailing and gnashing of teeth is understandable, but myopic. Senator Landrieu, among others, wants the moratorium lifted because of the impact on oil jobs, while at the same time wanting financial compensation for the Gulf businesses being hammered by the spill. Business As Usual (BAU), and a clean Gulf too. Right. When will we realize that our dependence on fossil fuels is taking us to the limits of technology and the consequence is a whole new level of risk? The technology is not there to fully mitigate that risk yet human nature results in risky behavior in the pursuit of profit. Why do we do this? Because we believe we can have it all.

We are Americans. We won WWII, put a man on the moon and outlasted the Soviet Union, which finally collapsed. We have the coolest cars, the nicest homes, and the freedom to do whatever we want to because we are the new Chosen of God and the envy of the world. Everyone wants to be like us, even the Chinese who are giving up their bicycles for cars. We don’t have to change, or so we tell ourselves.

Why are we unable to face the facts? To be sure, there is oil out there in the ocean, and it will help maintain BAU for some period of time if we can produce it. But it is not an infinite resource. We know it will come to an end, but we behave as though we don’t need to prepare for that. We will find a substitute and technology will get us there. That’s what we tell ourselves. We take a similar approach to the national debt and the multi-trillion dollar deficit staring us in the face. The economy will ultimately improve or we’ll just tax the hell out of everyone making over X in income to get the revenue. BAU is the ultimate priority and that is what we must maintain in the face of a reality suggesting otherwise. But if we don’t take action now, who will, when, and will they have enough time? The possible consequences if we fail to act are frightening, to be charitable.

Now, confronted by an ecological disaster whose roots are found in human behavior and the desire for BAU, we demonize BP for doing exactly what we expected them to do. Had there been no explosion, and thus no disaster, they could have continued doing what they do best; providing the fuel to fill our gas tanks. Now, confronted by the limits of technology we demonize BP rather than come to grips with the implications of those limits. Of course if the regulators had done their job, perhaps this would never have happened. This assumes the regulators are knowledgeable, fully capable of carrying out their mission, and the appropriate management structure is in place to enforce the firewall separating regulator from the regulated. At the end of the day we want the well shut in NOW so the nightmare will end, and BP should spare no expense. Surely ‘someone’ knows how to fix this! If BP can’t then surely the government can. So the President is criticized for not ‘doing something’ because we all know the President is able to marshal all the resources needed and make it happen. In the meantime, we’ll boycott BP gas stations, regardless of the fact that their gas comes from many sources, not just BP. Who really cares? We are going to make an example of BP.

Never in any of this noise is there an acknowledgement of our own culpability in demanding and expecting that we be provided with liquid fuel at a price we are willing to live with. We are Americans and we can live as we choose. We are the new Chosen of God. We don’t have to change. One wonders what wrath must God visit upon us before we get the message to change our ways?

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