'/> Uncommon Hours: Memorial Day, BP, and us
Blogging on culture, politics, and the environment since 2008.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day, BP, and us

Memorial Day, BP, and us

Bob Sommer
Uncommon Hours

Today, Memorial Day, is also day 42 of the BP oil leak. Tens of thousands of barrels of oil have washed up onto the Gulf shores and infiltrated the fragile wetlands. The much anticipated (and over-hyped) “Top Kill” effort to stanch the flow has failed. Massive underwater plumes, comparable in size to the combined states of Delaware and Maryland, threaten to destroy undersea life and the seabed for generations to come, and may soon enter the tidal loop that will carry oil into the Keys, around the Florida peninsula, and up the East Coast.

We’re choking on our addiction to this stuff.

And the tragedy in the Gulf bears a direct connection to the most recent of the military deaths that we commemorate today.

Over 5,500 American service men and women have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since the inception of these wars. Memorial Day honors them, but not the uncounted lives of Iraqis and Afghans who’ve also died as a result of our presence in these countries, perhaps as many as a million, most certainly in the hundreds of thousands.

Additionally, as of Sunday, May 30th, the financial cost of these wars now exceeds 1 trillion dollars.

There’s no mistaking the reason we’re in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s the same reason the Gulf of Mexico has been blighted for generations to come: our unrelenting demand for cheap oil. If we had taken seriously Jimmy Carter’s plea for conservation over thirty years ago, it’s unlikely that either these wars or the Gulf disaster would have happened.

But to address just the recent past, since 9/11, what’s always been missing is the sense of complicity that we bear, the personal responsibility we all have to use less oil—which we can accomplish by using less of everything. Americans were told to shop after 9/11. A weird, serpentine logic convinced us that we’d fight “the terrorists” by spending and shopping and driving our way to victory; by not changing anything about our lives; indeed, by pursuing these activities in the extreme—a frontal assault of sorts in “the war on terror.” Car commercials unrelentingly taunted us with the style and power of vehicles. Trucks are manly (“like a rock”); four-wheel-drive will allow us to tear through pristine forests and “enjoy” the outdoors; we need luxury vehicles because we don’t need them—they’re luxuries, after all. All of this carried off by unsustainable and dangerously easy credit. How easy, and how dangerous, we soon found out.

We also eat out-of-season fruit and vegetables that appear cheaply and miraculously on our store shelves without wondering what the energy (and human) cost of producing and transporting them was, only what they’ll cost us. And we must have green lawns, no matter the petroleum-based chemicals we need to pour on them to make them green, or the fact that we spill on average about 17 million gallons of fuel annually gassing up our gas-powered lawn mowers (that’s more than the Exxon Valdez spilled into Prince William Sound), and these gas-powered mowers in turn spew into the atmosphere in one hour about the same amount of carbon emissions as driving a car for twelve hours. Consider that statistic collectively for your street, your neighborhood, your suburb, your city, our country.

Where leadership gets the blame, including Obama as well as Bush, is its failure to lead on the issue of conservation. Why isn’t it patriotic to lighten our feet on the pedals, to drive less and more efficiently, to take the bus, to eat local, to use a push mower on lots of a quarter acre or less, and to make the job easier by displacing some or all of that grass with flowers and vegetables; quite simply, by just downsizing everything we do? Why aren’t the auto factories in Detroit running at full capacity to manufacture light rail cars and fuel-efficient buses—and wind turbines? If anything, all of that would be unpatriotic—just ask Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh. Their views get much more play than the voices of sanity. We haven’t heard otherwise from all but a view isolated voices in Congress, like Dennis Kucinich and Alan Grayson.

Conservation has not been a significant part of the national conversation since the Arab embargo of the late 70s. That’s when the 55 MPH law was enacted. That odd number was chosen because it was the speed at which cars of that era operated most efficiently.

There’s no sense of urgency among our current leadership to promote conservation. Rather, the push is not to use less oil, but different oil—the oil in the Gulf, off our shores, even in remote places like the Arctic Wildlife Refuge (imagine the logistics of dealing with the Gulf tragedy there!).

But the cheapest and most accessible oil is the oil we don’t use.

If we want to honor the dead of our most recent wars, the best way to do it is not to cut our dependency on foreign oil, but simply our dependency on oil altogether. If the massive oil spill in the Gulf and the numbers associated with our recent wars should tell us anything, it’s that we want too much of everything—and what we’re doing to get it will kill us all in the end, and a lot of wildlife along with us.

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