Aside from the occasional asteroid and volcanic outburst, human beings are responsible for the greatest messes on the planet. We've polluted the air and water, punched holes in the ozone, and pumped enough carbon into the atmosphere to overwhelm the global thermostat. Nor is this merely a modern attribute of homo sapiens. As Jared Diamond points out in his book Collapse, we've repeatedly taxed the limits of our environment, from the heart of the Mayan civilization to far-flung Easter Island. We've hunted countless species into extinction and exhausted the soil to feed burgeoning populations. And what we once did on a local basis, we are now applying on a global scale.
There is certainly an element of sadism in how humans have behaved toward other species. But the messes we have created throughout our relatively brief reign on Earth have also been self-inflicted. We are consummate sado-messochists: We specialize in inflicting messes on ourselves. Has any other species been so thoroughly successful in fouling its own nest?
Which brings me to BP and the latest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The pursuit of oil and the price paid in human suffering is well known to all those who saw the film There Will Be Blood, or read recent books by Peter Maass, Antonia Juhasz, and others. BP is no exception to this rule. It made its money on oil extracted -- stolen, really -- from what would later become Iran. These enormous profits sustained the British Empire in its dotage. When Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadegh threatened to nationalize Iranian oil in 1953, BP was a key reason behind the Anglo-American destabilization of his democratically elected government. Later, BP would make out like a bandit during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through its sales of bulk oil to the Pentagon.
Nor is BP a stranger to environmental disasters, considering its oil spills in 2000 and 2005, and the Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 workers in 2005. In the last three years, two BP refineries were alone responsible for 97 percent of the worst environmental and safety violations in the industry. And now BP is behind the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history. The gush in the Gulf sends the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez into the waters every four days.
There are many villains in this tragedy. BP executives promised "safety first" and instead pursued profits first. The Minerals Management Service granted exemptions for the environmental impact statements that should have been required for the Deepwater Horizon rig (among others). The Obama administration, attempting to curry favor with the "drill, baby, drill" faction, opened up previously off-limits waters along the East Coast and the Gulf Coast to offshore drilling only a few weeks before the disaster. The financial crisis was a result of a go-go spirit infecting Wall Street; the BP disaster was a result of a go-go spirit infecting Big Oil.
But really the biggest villain is us: our voracious desire for energy. We want energy to be like breakfast at Bob's Big Boy: lots of it at a rock-bottom price. Yes, Americans want an alternative energy future, but we also refuse to pay more at the pump to fund research into creating this future. This bottomless pit of need has pushed us into what Michael Klare calls an era of "extreme energy." We've already extracted the easy stuff. Now we're pushed to the margins -- the Arctic, the bottom of the ocean -- to get at what remains at the bottom of the bottle. We're pumping toxic cocktails deep into the ground to release natural gas from shale: a disaster in the making for our water supply. Our relentless pursuit of coal has already produced fly-ash spills that have done more damage to our environment than the Exxon Valdez. And of course we expend hundreds of billions of dollars to fight wars in energy-rich lands.
We believe, in our naïveté, that we can operate safely and effectively on the margins. "This Gulf coast crisis is about many things -- corruption, deregulation, the addiction to fossil fuels," writes Naomi Klein in The Guardian. "But underneath it all, it's about this: our culture's excruciatingly dangerous claim to have such complete understanding and command over nature that we can radically manipulate and re-engineer it with minimal risk to the natural systems that sustain us." The serial messes we've made do little to undermine this false confidence.
Those who made the messes are often quick to promise to make things whole again. But that rarely happens. The environmental movement, it's true, has worked long and hard to restore devastated areas like the Adirondacks and the Hudson River. We can plant trees and dredge rivers. But we can't magically bring back old-growth forests or remove all the PCBs from the river. The Gulf, meanwhile, was already compromised before the oil spill. To give only one example, agricultural and livestock industries along the Mississippi have been dumping nitrogen into the river that produce an oxygen-poor area known as a "dead zone," which stretches as much as 7,000 square miles along the Gulf Coast.
We are, in other words, piling messes on messes. Stricter regulations, a sustainable energy program, making an example of BP so that others toe the line: all of this is necessary to rid ourselves of these sado-messochistic tendencies. But we might have passed the point of no return.
According to folk wisdom, if you put a frog in a pot of water and gradually (and sadistically) increase the temperature, the frog will not notice and eventually boil to death. Frogs, it turns out, are not that stupid. We homo sapiens, on the other hand, will climb into the pot and jack up the temperature all by ourselves. Then, instead of climbing out, we argue among ourselves. "The water isn't getting hotter at all," says one group. "Great hot tub!" says another. "Don't worry," opines a third, "Mr. Market will come along eventually and turn down the temperature." And now BP has added tens of thousands of gallons of oil to the simmering soup that we find ourselves in.
At this point the great sage Oliver Hardy would look us in the eye and conclude, "Here's another fine mess you've gotten us into."
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