Risk and Consequences: Wrecking the Gulf

Deepwater Horizon represents the first instant, large-scale defeat in the era of climate change hopelessness. Capitulations to come will bring far deeper misery and chaos; a real-time slaughter of the lambs. I’m not sure what to do with this despondent news, but I am not inclined to rousing speeches about national character and sacrifice. Not with so many thieves running loose.

Today’s disaster arises from pursuit of oil under conditions of risk illuminated by common sense but overshadowed by politics and profit. Yes, we can drill under a mile of water, five miles or more into the earth, but should we? The surrender of logic in the modern age began when Americans rejected President Carter’s appeal to address the moral weakness of the nation by breaking our dependency on oil.

The Reagan revolution followed, spurred in no small part by corporations swinging right back in response. They brought the stamp of the Wise Use Movement to environmentalism, the Sagebrush Rebellion funded by energy corporations support by conservative think tanks, and caravans of protestors infiltrating Florida, funded by Big Sugar that tagged along under the banner of property rights.

The Green Groups quickly calibrated to the new reality: of “win-win” solutions wherever they could be invented and funded. The surrender accelerated during the Bush terms in the White House when energy industries provided cover for politicians and lobbyists to hijack the operation of environmental regulatory agencies, including the federal Minerals Management Service whose mission under Bush turned into a sex and drug fueled happy hour for which no one went to jail. No one ever says, “just say, no” when it comes to limiting profits by stopping the riskiest forms of technology.

“Filaments of the (Gulf) Loop Current are within tens of kilometers of the oil spill,” said Robert H. Weisberg, an oceanographer at the University of South Florida who has been modeling the movement of the spill. Once the current catches the spill, he said, “the speed of the current is such that it only takes a week before oil will be at entrance of the Florida straits and another week until it gets as far as Miami.… Whether the oil gets into the Florida Bay or the Everglades depends on what local winds are doing when oil is flowing past.” (LA Times, May 4, 2010) It is horrible to imagine an oil slick sloshing back and forth, in and out of Florida Bay.

Environmentalists have worked for decades– as volunteers and civic activists– trying to turn agencies of state, federal and local governments to the tasks of moving more fresh water into the Bay, in the right formula of cleanliness, to give nature a chance to heal the injuries and chronic assaults of management regimes designed to protect suburbs from flooding and Big Sugar prerogative to pollute the Everglades.

“The Everglades is a test. If we pass, we may get to keep the planet,” said Joe Podgor, former director of Friends of the Everglades. The small grass roots group was founded by Marjory Stoneman Douglas who was given the Congressional Medal of Freedom by President Clinton at age 103 for a lifetime of dedication to the environment. Ms. Douglas, a year later, rejected the state’s attempt to name a landmark 1994 act after her because she believed– correctly– that far from curing, it memorialized Big Sugar’s pollution of the Everglades.

There is so much oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, that the idea of oil slicks drifting for months and months at the edges, seeping onto Florida’s beaches, coastal mangroves, and into Florida Bay — poisoning for decades into the future– is sickening.

We don’t need proof this will happen. It did happen.

“For third-generation fisherman John Platt, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill is a financial and psychological nightmare that won’t end. Three years after the 11 million-gallon spill in Prince William Sound blackened 1,500 miles of Alaska coastline, the herring on which he and other Cordova fishermen heavily relied disappeared from the area. Platt and some others stuck around, fishing for salmon and hoping things would improve. The herring never returned to Cordova. Platt’s income plummeted, severely straining his marriage and psyche. He dipped into his sons’ college funds to support his family. “People’s lives were ruined,” Platt said. “There were damn good fishermen here in the Sound, and they just said, ‘Screw it’ and left, and tried to make a living elsewhere.” As for Platt, who stayed: “I wasted 20 years of my life,” he said. Platt and other people in the Alaskan village of about 2,500 people say they still are suffering economically and emotionally 21 years after the oil disaster. About 3,400 miles away, an oil leak that started last month in the Gulf of Mexico is threatening the Gulf Coast. “Here we go again,” Platt said of the oil leak in the Gulf. “I feel real bad for the people who are going to potentially go through what we did here.” (CNN, May 9, 2010)

We shouldn’t be allowing deep water oil exploration. The reason you don’t do it, is because there is no control in place to fix the results of disaster if it occurs. The same is true of a thousand environmental insults. There’s the pesticide, “Roundup” by Monsanto, that is pushing a massive wave of new superbugs. The exploitation of Florida’s underground aquifers by rock miners. Billions of gallons per day of scarcely treated municipal wastewater injected, legally, through underground wells so that it “disappears”.

We don’t learn these lessons because the benefits of technology caused a gaping breach between consumer expectations and logic favoring restrictions and meaningful prohibitions to protect people from harm we cause, ourselves. This is where Karl Rove put deranged optimism to words in an interview with journalist Ron Suskind (“Without a Doubt”, October 17, 2004, NY Times): “… that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

In light of Deepwater Horizon and repetitive failures of government to manage risk– whether in finance, insurance or natural resources we depend on for civilization– Americans must reassess what we believe in and not just as a matter of faith but judiciously in this life: what fair and just punishments should be meeted to outcomes and actors that wrecked the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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