Posted by: Bill Tracy | June 30, 2010

BP Is Us

The time has come to make a choice

To give the people…give ’em back their voice

Will we leave this land in the hands of greed?

Or will we answer this planet’s need?

Young and old, rich and poor, black and white can rhyme

Wake up America, it’s been a long, long time.

Young and old, rich and poor, black and white can rhyme

Bring back America, it’s been a long, long time.

We got our children breathing poison air

The planet’s dying and we don’t care

Come Home America

-Johnny Rivers

-Michael Georgiades

There is much anger in the land now. The huge multinational energy corporation, BP has transformed our magnificent Gulf of Mexico into its personal toilet, and many people want retribution. BP, like all the big oil companies, has a dirty history full of immorality and plain old criminality. It’s a tough and dirty business. Nice guys really do finish last in the old “oil patch.” The sad truth though is that these vicious corporate monsters are our proxies; all they’re doing is what we want them to do. They’re giving us what we want. They do not stand apart from us.

BP aviation fuel

Aviation fuel is one thing BP does with oil it does not put into the Gulf of Mexico.

We, all of us, are BP – and Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips and Chevron and Total and ExxonMobil. That apparently inept guy who runs BP is guilty, as the lawyers might say, of contributory negligence. We the people own the majority of that negligence. We filled up our tank, drove down the road and simply let it happen. Now we have to face the consequences, all of us together. And unless we find a way to change, there will be more, and probably harsher, consequences.

Speaking of oil I had the oil changed in my car last week. The days of doing it myself are long past, and I know a good, dependable shop. I shared a cramped waiting room with two other customers as our vehicles were serviced. The owner of this small business, more interesting and gregarious than the typical car repair guy, chatted with us about his vacation. Last month he and his wife had mounted a motorcycle and toured the National Parks of southern Utah, survived tornado warnings in Memphis, avoided ubiquitous road construction, even had a snow day at a higher elevation stop. In his enthusiasm, he opened up his laptop computer to show us pictures taken on the trip. As he talked about Arches National Park or Bryce Canyon or Canyonlands, he popped up the corresponding picture and passed the laptop around so we could all see.

Comments were made, questions were asked, and details of the trip and the family emerged. Many of the pictures showed a small garden gnome named Norm, a gift from the man’s son when he reached adulthood and left home. The son said the gnome was going to have to watch out for the Dad since the son wouldn’t be living with him anymore. So Dad takes the gnome on his trips and inserts it into his pictures, an enduring and endearing connection with his son. This spontaneous social event was the best time I’ve ever had in any waiting room. It was as good as it gets for spontaneous human social interaction (at least at my age!). And it was made possible by technological achievement, an achievement fueled by carbon-based energy, most of it oil.

Ford F150

The 5000-pound behemoth that hauls my tubby rear-end around. Entirely dependent on Chevron and Shell, etc., it has never exceeded 18 mpg. I'm part of the problem!

Before the time of digital cameras and laptop computers such an experience was hardly possible. This gathering would be at home and limited to a more intimate crowd – I sure wouldn’t have been invited. It would not have been spontaneous. The technology would have been a projector and “home movies,” or a slide show. At worst, albums of photographic prints would be passed around. Passing around a deck of photo prints in that waiting room would not have been the same. It was the second time that day I’d thought about the carbon-energy world we’ve created for ourselves – and how we depend on it.

As I was driving to the service shop I passed a house with an old plow placed decoratively in the front yard. For the next few miles I pondered the life of a man who depended on the plow for survival. Unlike me he did not rise in the morning and brew fresh coffee from beans he had just ground in an electric grinder. He didn’t walk into a shower streaming with propane-heated hot water. His shampoo was not “Refreshing Waterfall Mist,” infused with watermint extract and vitamin E (clearance, 87-cents at Rite Aid). He didn’t put on clothes washed effortlessly in an automatic washing machine.

Plow

This is the decorative plow that prompted my reverie on the differences between 19th and 21st century living. This particular one was meant to be pulled by a mechanized vehicle, yes, but it did get the thinking started.

Most telling, this plowman did not step into a comfortable, 5000-pound vehicle powered by a 260-horsepower engine that would easily move him many miles down the road at 60 mile-per-hour or faster while listening to ZZ Top through a “sound system.” Compared to my life, his was one of drudgery, backbreaking physical labor, and the combination of boredom and terror watching crops grow; hoping and praying no calamity would cause a winter of starvation. For him, there were no big-screen TVs or Super Bowls, no ice-cold beer in the refrigerator and no jetting off to Paris for the holidays. His good times probably came at the barn dance with a couple of guys doing their best to scratch out fiddle tunes.

The world we have created rests solidly on a foundation of carbon-based energy, much of it oil and natural gas from wells we drill into the earth. (And for the persnickety, yes, I know that coal is a huge factor too.) That energy is there for the taking. We know how to convert it into usable power and products. There seems no end to our creativity and cleverness in making carbon dance to our tunes. Virtually our entire lives now depend on carbon-based energy. There is no stopping us.

Shampoo

Nothing like a hot shower in the morning -- and 87-cent shampoo from Rite Aid.

The price we pay for this dependence on carbon-based energy is high, but we hardly notice. In this country, it’s been easy to avoid or ignore the toll it takes. In 1989, ship captain Joe Hazelwood drank himself to sleep and left subordinates to steer the Exxon Valdez (known today as the Dong Fang Ocean and now owned by Hong Kong Bloom Shipping Ltd.) through treacherous Alaskan waters. They steered it onto a reef and dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. A few “environmentalists” screeched and yelped for a while. The media made a big show of birds drenched in oil. The government pretended to intervene and makes things right again. Before long, it was all but forgotten. The lawyers moved it into the courts and Exxon puckered up its purse like an old Yankee widow. We still have no idea what the real cost was to the environment. We simply move on. Please pass me another of those Alaskan king crab legs!

Millions of humans have died in wars over oil. They are remembered not for their sacrifice to carbon-based energy, but in other more subtle and devious ways. World War II was at bottom a struggle for energy independence and dominance among nations, but we don’t say that. Most people don’t even realize it. We focus on how our heroes “liberated Europe” and saved us from the scourge of Japanese imperialism and domination. Believing we no longer possess the natural resources to fuel our country and it’s “defense needs,” today we project a military presence worldwide. The point is to protect our current access to oil.

We have around 750 military bases in 40 countries, and if the flow of energy toward the U.S. is threatened any place on earth, we are somewhere nearby and ready to confront the threat instantly. That kind of military reality costs many dollars that could (should) be used to care for our own people in this country. Whole families are homeless, children go hungry, veterans sleep under bridges, people with mental illnesses are sent to prisons rather than being humanely cared for. We push this reality into the background, fill the tank again and motor on down the road. Hey, road trip, anyone??

Car Dealer

The closed up car dealership near Jackson, CA. Is this the future?

As  Johnny Rivers sings, “…We got our children breathing poison air.” Everything from cars to buses to trucks to power plants and trains and ships and lawnmowers and leaf blowers are fouling the atmosphere and the seas. There are people who don’t want to believe it, but we really are altering the planet – call it global warming or climate change or whatever, it’s happening and it’s certainly because of what we’re doing with carbon-based energy. I’m not sure this is the potential catastrophe some people would have us believe, and even “poison air” may be a touch hyperbolic. The planet has changed for many reasons over it’s billions of years; we humans are simply part of that continuing process. However, we do now have the power to make the planet uninhabitable for us – literally committing a common suicide of the human race.

As demand for oil grows and it gets harder to find and extract, the price we pay goes higher. As the old “developing countries” mature into industrial societies (China, India, etc.) and more and more people pile onto the planet, the demand for energy swells. The price goes ever higher. This price now includes our traumatically and dangerously wounding the planet we live on. So far, we’ve dumped 10 or 20 times as much BP oil into the water as the Exxon Valdez did 21 years ago – and it keeps on gushing, maddeningly so. The Gulf of Mexico will not return to the way it was the afternoon of April 20, 2010 for many years, if ever.

This wound is probably not a mortal one for us, not this time, but one may be coming. I think it’s simply our nature. We will not go back. Humanity does not retreat, at least not of our own will. Carbon is our tantalizing forbidden fruit. Now that we’ve taken the big bite, there is no going back into our innocence. As long as there’s a gas station on the corner and I have a few dollars in the bank, I’m not about to take up the plow and walk behind a smelly mule all day long.

Digger Pine

The classic Digger Pine, atop a hill near Paloma, CA in Calaveras County. Perhaps we can learn from this tenacious tree.

Are we on a certain path to annihilation? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure we humans can’t survive if we don’t make some changes. I hope a plausible collective vision emerges before we go the way of dinosaurs and passenger pigeons. The planet doesn’t owe us anything, and that really can happen. Kiss your kiddies goodbye.

I’ve always taken comfort in the work of people who take the long view. Anthropologist Loren Eiseley was one of the best at depicting the unsympathetic pace of planetary evolution. “There are days when I find myself unduly pessimistic about the future of man,” he says in his book, The Immense Journey. He even talks about a human forebear who had a brain bigger than ours and the features of modern man; the bones of this evolutionary strain now sit in museums. That ancestor, so much like us, failed.

“For at the very moment in which students of humanity have been sketching their concept of the man of the future, that being has already come, and lived, and passed away,” Eiseley writes. He refers to Boskop man, remains of which come from southern Africa. Eiseley seems pessimistic, given that a type of man with our brain and physical capacities did not survive, literally went extinct. Yet, in the long view, that human has returned, and he is us. That suggests that our current human incarnation could die out, and yet, in time, a new and better bunch of us would return. Eiselsey suggests an answer to our survival may depend on our willingness to care for and about one another:

“The need is not really for more brains, the need is now for a gentler, a more tolerant people than those who won for us against the ice, the tiger and the bear. The hand that hefted the ax, out of some blind allegiance to the past fondles the machine gun as lovingly. It is a habit man will have to break to survive, but the roots go very deep.”

Yes, the roots do go very deep. Yet it makes me think of my favorite tree, the digger pine. Its roots go deep so in spite of growing alone on exposed hillsides and tops, it does not get uprooted. It will bend. It will even allow a limb to break away if the stress is too great. But, it abides. Perhaps we will too. Perhaps.

And finally, an appropriate little ditty from journalist Andrew Revkin:

LIBERATED CARBON

(© 2010 Andrew Revkin)

It took a thousand generations for our species to rise.

But gathering and hunting was no way to get by.

We yearned to burn more than dung and sticks.

Then someone came along and said, “Hey, try lighting this.”

He opened up the ground and showed us coal and oil.

He said, “Come liberate some carbon. It’ll make your blood boil.”

Liberated carbon, it’ll spin your wheels.

Liberated carbon it’ll nuke your meals.

Liberated carbon, it’ll turn your night to day.

Come on and liberate some carbon, babe, it’s the American way.

Now I got peat swamp fossils running my TV.

BP’s black label burns in my S.U.V.

We can light up the planet like a Christmas tree.

They say that things are getting hot but, hey, we’ve got A.C.

Liberated carbon, it’ll spin your wheels.

Liberated carbon it’ll nuke your meals.

Liberated carbon, it’ll turn your night to day.

Come on and liberate some carbon, babe, it’s the American way.

Pump those electrons and that gasoline.

No sweat or hurry, just turn on a machine.

We sent an army to the desert to keep this country free,

And to liberate some carbon, baby, for you and me…

Liberated carbon it’ll spin your wheels.

Liberated carbon, it’ll nuke your meals.

Liberated carbon, it’ll turn your night to day.

Come on and liberate some carbon, babe, it’s the American way.

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Responses

  1. So much going on in the world reminds me of the Saturday Night Live satire of the therapist whose entire approach was to hold up a mirror and insist that you “Look at yourself!” Are we fully sick of ourselves yet?

    Another beautiful piece Bill.

  2. Yup, it stinks. Yup, we screwed it up and a bunch of other stuff up too. What should we do about it? Absolutely nothing. We deserve everything that’s coming to us.


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