Last week I watched the spectacle of US Senators behaving very righteously, as they scrambled over each other to shoot BP chief executive Tony Hayward, with Hayward clumsily dodging their bullets.
The culpability for the Gulf Oil spill is being laid at Hayward’s door, as an example of individual corporate irresponsibility in the drive for ever increasing profits.
There is some truth to that, of course. Cutting corners oN safety for profit is essentially the daily bread of corporate life. The banking industry and ongoing world financial crisis immediately come to mind.
Nevertheless, to believe that the entire problem stems from a single corporation’s negligence is to miss the entire lesson of this experience and its important role in our evolution.
AN OILY WORLD
BP is being demonized at the sole villain of the piece here, but the fact is that BP, like every other petroleum company, is simply doing what any corporation does, which is responding to demand.
The modern industrial world is created from oil. Oil doesn’t just power our automobiles and heat our houses. Most everything manufactured these days, in some way, derives from oil. Virtually all plastics are made from petroleum. Most prescription and over-the-counter drugs have some form of petroleum at their base, as do most cosmetics.
As I write this, the lipstick and mascara I’m wearing contain petroleum. The Apple computer I’m writing on is made of petroleum-based plastic. Even if I were to leave my car at home and bike to my office, I’d I’ll be driving over petroleum-based asphalt. I could try to save oil by eating by candlelight tonight, but I’d still be using a petroleum product. If I need to call my husband or children later I’ll be speaking to them via an instrument made of petroleum. We eat organic food and use eco-products in this house, but we, like everyone else, are drowning in petroleum.
Detergents, soaps, rubber bands, almost all cosmetics, perfumes, most of what we clean our houses with, flooring, sports equipment, contact lenses, disposable diapers, paints and paint thinners, garden hoses, many components of automobiles like batteries, most modern boats, virtually every toilet seat, balloons, shower curtains, crayons, golf balls, dental floss and toothbrushes, sunglasses, condoms — all this and much more are made of oil.
Every aspect of our modern-day food production and consumption requires petroleum, from the fertilizer used to grow it, to the mechanized processing used to produce it, the trucks used to distribute it, the refrigerators and plastic packaging required to keep it fresh, and the ovens used to cook it.
Given the fact that oil has been so interwoven with modern mod-con life, it is not surprising that the earth is running out of it. All Western petroleum companies know this. Big Oil only owns some 10 per cent of global oil and gas reserves. All the rest is in the hands of the state-owned oil companies of Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela and Iran. That is why they are having to look deeper and deeper into the earth to find whatever stores are left.
All the petroleum companies are moving out further into the sea and drilling deeper to get oil. There are 12 deepwater oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico deeper than 40m, and 15 off the coast of Brazil. Besides BP’s Deepwater Horizon, 31 other rigs drill in deep water in the Gulf, seven of them just set up in 2008. About a third of our oil is now being obtained offshore, with a marginal amount from shallow waters.
Deep water drilling is inherently risky. The difference in temperature between the water (at 41 degrees Fahrenheit) and the boiling oil puts enormous stress on all equipment used. The platform itself is unstable. But the biggest problem of all is the extraordinary pressure in the underground reservoirs, in which every square centimeter contains the weight of an ordinary-sized car.
Every time you drill into the rock layers of the seabed you risk a Deepwater Horizon type explosion, in which the fuel shoots out of the ground and cannot be contained. Deepwater drilling is an accident waiting to happen.
No matter how careful an individual company, there is no plan B if something goes wrong. Containment of an explosion requires cutting-edge measures that essentially haven’t been invented yet.
The point here is that as tragic as this explosion was, for the animals, for the Gulf residents whose livelihood is destroyed, and for all of us watching helplessly as the oil slick grows the size of a small country, it was necessary and important to our evolution. Giant ecological disaster seems to be the only way to wake up human beings to the need to do things differently.
In a sense, it was also necessary that it happen in America — and I say this as an American myself. The world consumes 85 million barrels of oil per day, and America consumes nearly one-quarter of that. America is the sole country in the world that refused to sign the Kyoto Agreement. It is one of the few developed countries to spend almost none of its public money on alternatives to the automobile, such as high rail travel. Unlike Europe, the US continues to eschew high taxes on gasoline as
a disincentive to drive.
Many of the Senators who were so highhanded about Tony Hayward have consistently opposed a Clean Energy Bill and attempted to pass a bill preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing pollution standards against greenhouse emissions. In fact, the petroleum industry oils a fair portion of their campaigns.
BIGGER THAN SUV'S
Lately, we Americans have cut back on their reliance on big SUVs and cars in general, but the problem is far greater than driving a little less.
We must all realize that this is no one company’s or country’s problem. We don’t just have to drive differently. The Gulf disaster signals the end of a petroleum-based world. What this requires is that we come to terms with the fact that that we have to live differently, produce things differently, consume things differently.
It’s time for us all to take responsibility for Deepwater Horizons by doing whatever we can, individually and collectively, to evolve a society that does not depend on oil at every turn.
Since the Gulf of Mexico explosion, words from an old Rolling Stone song keep rattling around in my head. The song is Sympathy for the Devil, and the line goes like this:
I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’
Well, after all, it was you and me.
I have an intention that we heal the area, but mostly that we heal ourselves and our division from the natural world. It is important to view the Gulf disaster, however painful, as something positive — nature’s early warning signal to make changes in our lives now before it is too late.