Yesterday was the 50th day of the oil crisis. Fifty days of increasingly horrifying images of oil slicked pelicans, tarred beaches and terrified communities. Sadly, it seems clear that cleanup from this crisis is going to continue for a very long time.
When we look back at this summer two years from now or even ten years from now will this horrific oil disaster be remembered as a breakthrough moment that heralded in change, or will the country have gone right back to our dirty and dangerous addiction to oil?
Thomas Friedman put it perfectly in a May 28 New York Times column:
"[President Obama's] most important job, though, is one he has yet to take on: shaping the long-term public reaction to the spill so that we can use it to generate the political will to break our addiction to oil."
At this point, many in the environmental movement have pivoted from talking about the problems of offshore drilling, which have become all too obvious, to the urgency for a transition away from dirty energy.
Carl Safina of the Blue Ocean Institute may have said it best in his June 4th interview with PBS:
"This is Big Oil's Chernobyl. I think it's a catastrophe that shows the enormous risk this industry poses to public health, and to the health of communities... Ever since we've lived in caves, every time we want energy we light something on fire. We're still doing that. I think it's time for us to get out of our caves and use the clean, eternal, renewable energy."Even President Obama said it recently: "The time has come, once and for all, for this nation to fully embrace a clean-energy future." I do believe that this crisis could be the moment when the country collectively realizes that our energy future needs to be and can be rewritten. But I also believe that we are at a crossroads. We have all seen the way crises are dealt with in this country; what can be the hottest front-page story for several months can fade from political view even before companies make good on their promises to communities or before politicians make their rhetorical commitments into reality. I don't think it's too early to wonder if when the media frenzy settles and the gusher is plugged this oil crisis will fade from political view? Or, will this be the beginning of the end for big oil's slimy influence on our energy future?
Many have compared the transition to a clean energy future to landing a man on the moon. Most recently Bill McKibben of 350.org and Michael Brune of the Sierra Club have both called on President Obama to turn this crisis into a leadership moment modeled on JFK's 1961 address to Congress urging America to pledge itself to the goal of reaching the moon.
This could be a paradigm-shifting moment for our country, but many crises come with that opportunity. For my part, I think the first step to ending our addiction to oil is for the country to believe we can. When JFK pledged to land a man on the moon it wasn't because he knew how we were going to it, it was because he believed we could. Similarly, in our own lives transformative change rarely happens until we believe it's possible.
For some reason, it is easier for us as a country to believe that the ocean's will rise and the climate will be irrevocably changed than it is for us to believe that 20 years from now we could be transitioning away from our addiction to oil.
We have all in this country, especially those working inside the beltway, become too realistic, even feeble, in our estimations of what is politically possible. President Obama and his constituents, us, need to dare to be optimists even now if we want to see a game-change on energy.