Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Gulf Disaster: A Time for Truth?

The volcano still erupting from BP’s exploded oil well in the Gulf would appear to be enough—after two months and millions of barrels of crude fouling the waters and wetlands—to stimulate an awakening in the U.S. Congress and around the world: The human dependence on fossil fuels is leading to an unlivable planet. Species are dying. The planet is warming in an unprecedented way. The climate that humans have depended on for 10,000 years, the climate that made possible what we call “civilization,” is changing, has changed, threatens to change further and so fundamentally that life as we have known it will be impossible. So the oil fouling one of the most important waters in our hemisphere would seem to be enough to do the trick; no more lies, no more half-truths or untruths, this is serious, folks.

And on the surface, one might suppose it’s working. News reports on June 19 discussed the possibility that the environmental disaster may well give Obama and the Democrats the leverage they need to pass some form of clean-energy legislation. Obama talked about the legislation now in the House—a cap and trade bill which, by making carbon emissions and thus fossil fuels more expensive, “finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America’s businesses.” (“Gulf Spill Could Swing Obama’s Power Play on Energy Policy,” Yahoo News, 6/19/10). The idea here, and in the Senate, is that a deal could be engineered whereby progressives get a cap on carbon (cap and trade), while conservatives get the White House’s permission to allow both more offshore drilling and a revitalized nuclear power industry.

And suddenly, with the realization that these idiots are talking about MORE oil drilling, MORE nuclear waste, the whole thing begins to totter. Because not only are the odds for such an agreement dubious at best (Republicans are already complaining that Obama is trying to “exploit” the oil spill for his own political advantage), but the measures that are being discussed fall far short of both the scale of the disaster still unfolding in the Gulf, and of the environmental disaster unfolding all over the planet. Indeed, one might have thought that Obama, in his Oval Office Speech, would have taken the opportunity to really ram home this truth. The planet is in trouble. Humans as a species are in trouble. All species, because of human activities, are in trouble. And the trouble is caused, in the first instance, by corporate greed of the kind that BP has displayed. A pair of officials from the Louisiana coast, in fact, made exactly this connection. Complaining about the pace of remediation efforts to clean up the oil already reaching the beaches and the wetlands, these officials made no bones about the fact that BP has acted not in the interest of humans or the environment, but in the interest of their corporate bottom line; they’ve continuously taken shortcuts to preserve their profits, their corporate bottom line, their dominance as a corporation. And it was clear, these officials said, that this corporate attitude was inimical to preventing, stopping, and cleaning up the mess they’d made. This is why we need government, they insisted; because only government can act in the people’s interest, in the interest of the common good.

Obama said nothing of the kind. As quoted above, he continues to try to adhere to the reigning conservative economic line: we can fix this, we can institute clean energy policies and products that will be profitable for America’s businesses. No one will have to sacrifice. No one will have to pay more. We can continue to have it all, continue to grow our economy and put people back to work, all nice and clean and with the maintenance of our comfortable American lifestyle—the envy of the world. And it’s all bullshit. What this kind of political doubletalk depends on is the maintenance of the American myth: we’re the best, we’re the biggest, we’re the baddest, and we can continue being that way, can get even more and bigger that way for our best days are yet to come. It’s amazing really. American conservatives are fond of trotting out their mantra: there’s no free lunch. And yet, where profit-making is concerned, where fossil fuels are concerned, they continue to parrot the need for policies that require precisely that: a free lunch. No accounting for the damage done to mountains and rivers and oceans. No accounting for the free minerals and oils and fuels and soils we’ve been burning through as if they were infinite. No accounting for the clear natural law that dictates that nothing can grow infinitely, not even cancer. Sooner or later, the host is overcome and dies. But we have not absorbed that yet, not where our precious way of life is concerned. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that our politicians and leaders have not absorbed that yet because they fear that what happened to President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s when he admonished the nation about a new era of limits, and was crucified for it, will happen to them.

So here’s the deal. Unless and until we find a politician, a leader who is willing to take the heat for telling Americans and the world the truth—that global warming is already upon us, that we have already overshot the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that most scientists believe is the limit, i.e. 350 parts per million (we are now at 390 ppm)—we will go on trying to grow bigger and better and more dominant and more wasteful, and continue destroying our planet. We will make the overshoot even more catastrophic. Because, according to Bill McKibben, even were we to stop burning fossil fuel tomorrow, completely, it would still take 1,000 years to reverse the damage already well under way. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said this specifically, on January 26, 2009, i.e., that ocean physics prove that “changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than a thousand years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped” (McKibben, Eaarth, p. 17). And we’re not stopping. Given the policies that most governments, including our own, are now pursuing, we will be at a carbon dioxide level that is doubled in a few years: 700 parts per million. Indeed, we may have already passed the point of no return. And Obama is hoping to get a few measly carbon caps into place. Is he kidding? Is he, are all of us, out of our minds?

It appears that way. Because what it will take, now, to even preserve the damaged planet that we have left, will be a complete change in the way we live. The mantras about growth have to be reversed. The bumper sticker a friend of mine has on her car has to be taken seriously: “growing the economy is shrinking the ecology”. One would think humans, by now, would realize that. We know about cancer. We know that cancer cells grow as if demented, out of control, overwhelming the body’s capacity to contain them. So we know that runaway growth—and the growth that has been killing us for nearly a century is the cancer known as “consumerism,” a cancerous growth to be sure for it has been artificially induced by the masters of production who saw that oil-based industry could produce far more than people needed, and so invented such things as planned obsolescence and “shop-till-you- drop” cultures equating material possessions with well-being, with the good life itself—is equally demented, literally “cancerous.” We know it, that is, and we don’t know it, we refuse to know it. But we had better learn soon. As the monster in the gulf is trying to tell us: there is simply not much time left.

(NB: to see how consumerism arose shortly after WWI, take a look at Adam Curtis’ documentary, The Century of the Self:

Lawrence DiStasi

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