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Regulating the disaster

We still don't have the faintest idea how much oil is spewing out of the well in the Gulf. Nor do we have the faintest idea what the full environmental consequence of what may well be the biggest single-event human-caused. ecological disaster of all time (the very fact that I have to add the word "single-event" to that statement should tell you something). We know that it is almost certainly more than all the low estimates to date, and we know that the ecological consequences will be huge, lasting and we do not understand them.

That is, we know some of the potential effects, we know they will be horrible and devastating to oceans, wildlife, people, communities and the nation, that they will play out in ecologies both human and wild, in politics, economics, in day to day life in thousands and thousands of ways, all of them horrible. We know that the costs will be unendurable and we know that they will play out not over weeks, but over years and decades. And we also know that we don't know what many of them will be. Consider this AP report:

The loop current could carry oil from the spill east and spread it about 450 miles to the Florida Keys, while the Louisiana coastal current could move the oil as far west as central Texas.

The depth of the gushing leaks and the use of more than 560,000 gallons of chemicals to disperse the oil, including unprecedented injections deep in the sea, have helped keep the crude beneath the sea surface. Marine scientists say diffusing and sinking the oil helps protect the surface species and the Gulf Coast shoreline but increases the chance of harming deep-sea reefs.

"At first we had a lot of concern about surface animals like turtles, whales and dolphins," said Paul Montagna, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi who studies Gulf reefs. "Now we're concerned about everything."

On Sunday, researchers said computer models show oil has already entered the loop current that could carry the toxic goo toward the Keys, the third-longest barrier reef in the world.

"Now we're concerned about everything" is a pretty good summary. And we should be - the unintended consequences of a whole host of things - our lax regulatory strategies, our desire to let industries supervise themselves, and most of all, our endless and insatiable desire for liquid fuel - will be coming back to haunt us in both predictable and unpredictable ways.

Now when such disasters strike, our first question is always "how could this be prevented." Except that we don't actually ask that question. Right now, the public is fixated on greater regulation of British Petroleum, which would always be and have been a good thing. The public is fixated on an automatic shut-off switch that might or might not have worked to prevent the oil spill (one has never been used at these depths) were it mandated. But they are not focused on the real and honest fact that while it is possible that some changes in policy might well change this situation, ultimately the only one that would have absolutely prevented this disaster was to leave the oil under the ground.

Barack Obama spoke about his real frustration with the situation last week - and I believe he is sincerely frustrated. Presidents can't come out and say "well, part of the problem is my own fixation on off-shore drilling, and the culture it creates, and on re-establishing economic growth and the oil consumption it requires" so you can't really blame him for this, or for pointing his frustration at BP. The words "hearings" and "regulation" are being thrown around.

And there will be hearings and there will be new regulations and there almost certainly will be automatic shut off valves on wells deep off the coast, and there probably will be a good long delay in developing new offshore drilling, since California and Maryland and the rest are all probably thinking that they don't really want this. And this will almost certainly last until some kind of oil price crisis comes along and makes people decide that this probably won't happen again and it wasn't really that awful, because after all, it wasn't in their neighborhood.

But the regulations don't really deal with the problem, and that, of course, is the real difficulty. The regulations being proposed after the economic crisis don't actually address the crisis, or really prevent such a thing from happening again - they can't because every single one of the political figures proposing them knows that they depend on those very unsustainable economic structures to keep the economy going - and that when their consituents lose jobs, they lose their jobs. They can regulate, but only in such a way as to permit the vast unsustainable structure of debt to keep going forwards.

And the people can vote them in or out, can demand regulation or not, but what they can ask for is finally limited by their own dependence on it - they cannot ask for a full opening of the books and closing of the derivatives market because that would mean bearing the full costs of real losses - and the people can't handle that either. They can't retire or send their kids to school without a functioning stock market. They can't eat or pay their housing costs without the false accounting of our economy. We can clamor for regulation, but not honest regulation - and it can be proposed and voted on, but not honestly.

The same is true with the Gulf oil spill. Ultimately, its enormous harms cannot be fully redressed because redressing them involves addressing our deep investment in making them happen. It was not just BP that caused this disaster, not just the failure to regulate, not just the valve, not just the President, not just you, it is me and my vehicle and my family - and yours too. As long as we desperately need oil to run our economy - and we have done virtually nothing to meaningfully transition off oil - we can clamor for regulation that will keep us safe, but cannot actually propose the measures that would work. We are too deeply invested in the cause.

It is common among environmentalists to wonder what the man who chopped down the last tree on Easter Island was wondering. I'm pretty sure I know the answer - it was probably "I have no choice. I need it." All of us always have such good reasons for our choices - we need to get to work, we need to take the kids to school, we need a vacation, we can't walk long distances - all our reasons are so good. And I do not say that with any sarcasm at all - they are good reasons.

The aggregate of our reasons leave us so deeply invested in maintaining a system headed rapidly towards disaster that in the end, the only hope we have is to stop needing so very much and so very often. And that can and will happen eventually - we need only remind ourselves where the strongest American regulations of the financial markets came from. They were results of the Great Depression, of precisely the point at which most people had stopped, horribly, forcibly, needing to give a damn about the financial industry and were able to take regulatory steps that actually mattered.

We will shut the barn door after the horses escape, we will regulate the petroleum industry. But only to the point where regulation does not interfere with our need. We will regulate teh financial industry, but only to the point where regulation does not interfere with our need - and thus, does not interfere with the next step in the crash. Only when we've lost our dependency will we be able to shift the balance of regulation to what is actually needed to forestall the worst consequences. It is a faint hope to imagine we might do so because we have voluntarily and freely shrugged off our dependency, rather than because we have lost so much that our ties are broken.

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