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Oil-Choked Spring

Stephanie MIlls is PCI's Biodiversity & Bioregionalism Fellow. Her new book, "On Gandhi's Path: Bob Swann's Work for Peace & Community Economics" was recently released on May 1.

Sunday morning May 2nd I drove about fifteen miles across my semi rural county to meet up with a regular group of birders. Our convener is Alice, a quiet, steady naturalist who knows hundreds of birds by sight and song. Alice has been working on piping plover recovery.  There’s a small breeding population of this endangered shorebird here on the Lake Michigan coast. Alice, with her extraordinary ability to sight birds, helps find the plover nests so that they can be protected within mesh cages that exclude predators.  Having banded or observed most of the adult plovers, Alice is acquainted with them as individuals. Some of them, like Rocky, do peculiar things, such as brooding on a clutch of stones. Some of the handful of plovers winter in the Gulf of Mexico. Thus the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout there was preying on her mind. Last Sunday the knowledgeable concern on Alice’s normally serene visage brought the impact of BP’s undersea gusher the thousand-plus miles up from southeastern Louisiana to northern Lake Michigan.

The map of the area threatened by the BP blowout, comprising nearly half of the US’s coastal wetlands, looks like tattered lace. It’s a realm of islands, shoals, estuaries, marshes, swamps, bayous, and creeks, land speckled across water, water twining across land, all of it in flux.  There appears to be an infinity of shoreline, with a near infinity of oil to be washed by tides and blown by hurricanes and carried by ocean currents into those wetlands to be caught in the reeds and sea grasses, to clog the silts and sands and choke the dwellings of the minuscule life forms that constitute the basis of the enormous banquet of life the Gulf of Mexico has immemorially provided.

It’s crucial habitat for countless species of birds and other animals, to say nothing of the gumbo of Southern Louisiana’s cultures. Much of the reporting on the blowout has rightly concerned the human economy of the Gulf, the peril spilt oil poses to place-based industries like the fishing and tourism.  Yet the damage to nature’s economy will be incalculable. No matter how sincerely or mediagenically our political leadership vows to fix things and hold the perpetrators to account, ecological disasters of this magnitude admit of no relief.

 “The Gulf of Mexico teems with life all year, and especially during spring days and nights when hundreds of millions of birds migrate northward across it,” writes John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  “A large proportion of these will stop to replenish themselves at the very shorelines likely to be blackened by oil over the coming weeks….we confront birds with burgeoning oil spews of unprecedented scale directly at the peak, and dead-center in the pathway, of their annual migrations.  Depending on wind directions over the coming weeks, breeding birds of Gulf Coast marshes and estuaries could end up paying the biggest price of all.”

Offshore oil extraction has always been a leaky proposition, a formidable technical challenge, an amazing accomplishment of industrial ingenuity, but not an activity whose hazards to biodiversity can be eliminated by any amount of engineering prowess, technological intervention, or regulation. Just last August there was a well leak in the Timor Sea spewing hundreds of barrels a day for ten weeks before it could be brought under control.

Excepting its magnitude, BP’s Deepwater Horizon gusher is an almost routine occurrence. Since 1996, reports Robert Kennedy, there have been 39 blowouts in wells in the Gulf of Mexico prior to this gargantuan event. An outright ban on offshore oil drilling is the only sure way to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.

While the responsibility for America’s abject dependence on oil is pervasive, including British Petroleum and the Cheneys and the Rockefellers and the US Chamber of Commerce and the plastics industry and agribusiness and the automakers and the highway lobby and little me driving fifteen miles in my compact car to go bird watching, it is as unevenly apportioned as are the resulting profits and casualties.

Vastly outnumbering the killed and injured workers, whose loss alone is infinitely grievous, the majority of the victims of this dependency—the wildlife, the landscapes, and the future generations of human beings—are voiceless. Bereft of clout, their claims are faint as compared to the din of PR, the white noise of the status quo, and our general human aversion to sacrifice and inability to defer gratification.

As with any addiction, though, continued use destroys self-esteem and deepens the plight.  How close could we the people come to quitting this stuff?  Could we snap out of the trance of powerlessness, embrace rationing along the lines of the oil depletion protocol and show the kind of ingenuity the Cubans did when their oil supplies were cut? (Or, for that matter, the kind of coping that Americans and Britons did to accommodate the fuel rationing demanded by the World War II effort.)

Could we care enough about ourselves and other beings trying to share the planet with us to mobilize a social movement to bring about the thoroughgoing and ultimately life-affirming change that breaking our fossil fuel addictions demands?

(Note: Although in this comment I confine myself to the subject of oil, and to the terrestrial consequences of its extraction and consumption.  I’m well aware that the exploitation of other fossil fuels, and our addiction to the electricity they are burned to generate, also are ruinous to Gaia.)

Editorial Notes: Also at Post Carbon. Stephanie Mills is a fellow with the Post Carbon Institute and is a renowned author and lecturer on bioregionalism, ecological restoration, community economics, and voluntary simplicity. Her books include Tough Little Beauties (2007), Epicurean Simplicity (2002), and Turning Away from Technology (1997). An ecological activist for over 30 years, she has written or edited six books and countless articles, and edited a number of publications including Earth Times and CoEvolution Quarterly. Stephanie has lectured at numerous institutions, including the E.F. Schumacher Society, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. In her 1969 college commencement address Stephanie decried overpopulation and natural resource exploitation, and vowed to never have children — a statement The New York Times called "perhaps the most anguished...of the year's crop of valedictory speeches." In 1996 she was named by Utne Reader as one of the world's leading visionaries. Stephanie lives in Northwest Lower Michigan. -BA

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