Catastrophes are, by definition, infrequent events, and can seem unique and unprecedented, but for veterans of the Exxon Valdez
oil spill, the outlines of the unfolding BP tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico are sickeningly familiar.
Cost-cutting appears to have been a cause: it was the same with the Exxon Valdez. Company and federal officials minimized and defended the situation at first, while state and local leaders cried for help and pointed to mounting damage: also the same. It took independent scientists to show the full scale of the disaster, while the company responsible hid or denied the evidence: the same. And the horror goes on and on, beyond the capacity of human efforts to contain or resolve: also the same as in Alaska.
As a life-long Alaskan who makes his home in the marine environment affected by the Exxon Valdez, I don't believe these similarities are a coincidence. My book The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth explores the patterns in our culture that produce this result, and the failures that follow when we rediscover for the nth time that we cannot fix nature.
Like gangrene on an untreated wound, oil on the shore and wildlife represents a hideous and incurable symptom of a deeper disease. Corporate and political officials' promises of more effective action amount to improved make-up to cover the rot.
As in the Exxon Valdez spill, the promises always offer more toughness, action, and logistics, frequently invoking metaphors of war. Those who hope to resume oil drilling as soon as possible need the illusion that enough money and manpower can fix anything. They're bent on making this the oil spill to end all oil spills, as World War I was supposed to end all war.
But wars start because of the relations between nations; returning to the status quo assures a repeat. We should use this opportunity to examine how to heal our relationship to the ecosystems we depend on rather than relying on the same system to produce a different result.
In The Fate of Nature I found human warfare against the Earth began long before oil. The environmental devastation happening now in the Gulf of Mexico reflects the style of the destruction of fur-bearing animals and wild-running fish in Alaska and across the west that began more than two centuries ago. In each case, the willingness to liquidate the environment for personal or corporate gain was built into the system of development.
Oil spills happen. As technology gets more complex and capable, the potential for damage from a single incident grows worse. But technology for preventing or mitigating the damage has changed little in decades, because it doesn't make money. Anyway, it's hard to imagine how one could truly protect an ocean and hundreds of miles of shoreline from millions of gallons of free-floating oil.
But I also show in the Fate of Nature that the habits of thought and action that brought us to this point can be changed, and that making such a change is much simpler than many think. One model that has worked successfully is to empower the local communities whose ecosystems are at stake in development.
Local people can be greedy, too, and they make mistakes as often as anyone else, but they have qualities found in no boardroom or federal regulator's office. They care about the places at risk. Caring goes deep for people whose lives are connected to nature: a place can mean as much as a loved one, a piece of the heart that's worth more than money. It's easy enough for executives and regulators to risk someone else's home for devastation.
If local communities demand protection — or can stop oil operations entirely in sensitive areas — that could make oil more expensive for the rest of us. We would then be paying a price closer to the true environmental cost of the product. And, if the market works, that increased price would then allow alternative energy to flourish.
First, we must awaken to this basic truth: the sea belongs to us, as communities and as human beings. If anything good can come of this moment of sadness and despair, as animals die and lifestyles and livelihoods suffocate under oil in the Gulf of Mexico — then let this be the moment we demand our birthright.