I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Who is to blame for the oil spill in the Gulf

BP has taken taken a lot of heat for the oil spill, and understandably so. Sarah Palin's approach seems to be a bit different: it's the fault of environmentalists. In a post to "Extreme Enviros" on Facebook, Palin said the following: "Extreme deep water drilling is not the preferred choice to meet our country's energy needs, but your protests and lawsuits and lies about onshore and shallow water drilling have locked up safer areas. It's catching up with you. The tragic, unprecedented deep water Gulf oil spill proved." (cited from PD)

The logic seems to go as follows: (1) We can't drill for oil on U.S. soil or in shallow water areas. (2) We have to have oil....so....(3) We must drill offshore. Given (1) and (2), then (3) seems to follow.

Of course it's completely illegitimate to suggest that conservationists and environmentalists are responsible for the oil spill. We all know this. It's political posturing. We live in an era where polarization is the normative response to any crisis. Only in the spin zone contexts of cable tv, talk radio, and internet social forums could a case be made that those who exist to conserve our earth are the people who are responsible for the oil spill.

No, BP is to blame; they are directly responsible, that is. What I want to say, however, is that BP is at fault only in a very narrow sense. Back to the above logic: given (1) and (2), then (3) follows. I think the logic is sound, and I think (2) is my point of interest: we need oil. We as U.S. consumers demand oil. It's a point that should not be missed, because it deals with the economic cause and effect matrix: consumers demand oil, companies like BP provide it.

Would we really have chosen, individually and collectively, to drastically cut our oil usage if we knew that the oil spill was going to occur?

In a very real sense, there is only one answer to the question Who is to blame for the oil spill?

The answer.

I am.

If you live in the U.S. and you use oil, then you are to blame. You create the demand. I created the demand. I have taken travel for granted--driving and flying. I buy products that are flown in from around the world.

Personally, I have worked to make changes in my life over the last few years, and changes I have made. Let's face it though: it's damn hard to live in the U.S. without using oil--either directly through transporation or indirectly by purchasing goods that were transported from around the nation or around the globe.

People talk about our society, our lifestyle in the U.S., as an "addiction" to oil. I think that's the wrong term. The problem is that we have made oil a fundamental necessity to our economic and spiritual well-being. Our whole way of life--our entire way of being--revolves around oil. It's not an addiction because we don't notice it. The substance itself is something we take for granted. Most of the time we don't even see the stuff. But let it be known that our lives as we know it depend on oil--even our very souls. It's like the air we breathe, or the water we drink, which makes for a certain perverse irony when we view pictures from the Gulf.

What would we do if we couldn't commute to work? Fly on a business trip? Run the kids to dance class? Take that vacation to where ever or visit Grandma at Christmas? Hop in the car to go grab a beer or eat out? Or drive to church or other religious activities?

What would happen if the grocery stores all closed because they could no longer ship food in from all over the U.S. or the world? Most of the food we buy is not grown or processed locally. We rely on mass transportation for our food supply. In short, we need oil in order to eat, to survive.

Here is the point I am getting at: our most meaningful activities in U.S. society necessitate that we consume oil. That's what I mean when I say that our economic and spiritual well-being depends on oil.

So, who's to blame for the oil spill in the Gulf?

I am.

But I'm also tired of this mess, and it really hurts my soul to see the entire Gulf of Mexico devastated by this oil spill. Our lifestyle must change, and a real change will only occur when we decide individually and as a collective to be different. It's difficult to change, but it has to happen. I am at fault. I must take responsibility.


aeyn edwards said...

my first question: how and in what ways am i going to change?

my second questions: how and in what ways are you?

aeyn edwards said...

I have a suggestion for you to consider trying.

Toward the end of 2008, Erik and I decided to track how many miles I participated in going anywhere from a gas powered vehicle. So, if I drove somewhere, took the bus, rode as a passenger with a friend, flew, took the train, or whatnot, I kept track of the miles.

I did this for all of 2009. It was easy. I just made a basic Excel spreadsheet, and logged the data every time I used gas powered transportation.

And then I took my total for 2009, and vowed to half it for 2010. So far, I'm kicking ass with my goal to half it. And my total last year was pretty damn low, actually (just over 3,000 miles traveled in a car, alone or with someone else, and just over 3,380 miles for one round trip flight).

Last year, the things that kept it from being even lower were my trips to and from the cancer center when I felt too crappy to bike.

This year, I had an emergency aviation flight to Indiana at the beginning of the year, as you know, and so that weighed in on my travel log.

But, all in all, this logging of miles traveled via petroleum took very little time and has been very helpful in allowing me to see how much little trips here and there add up.

So, what do you think of this idea?

Jonathan Erdman said...

I think it is a great suggestion, and I am going to implement it. Oh yes.

Thank you. These ideas are the reason why I blog.

aeyn edwards said...

more on our consumption of natural resources.


john doyle said...

For 4 years we lived in France without a car. Cities and towns are both more densely packed and more mixed-use than in the US, so it's easy to walk or take buses for practically anything you'd want to do during a day. Bicycling not so much, because the streets are too crowded. Of course not having a car made it harder to go off on jaunts into the countryside, which was unfortunate because we lived in city surrounded by beautiful and varied terrain.

Europe makes it easier to live with out a car largely because the governments intervene in the marketplace in ways that reduce reliance on the individual car. Heavy taxes on gasoline made it essential that care manufacturers build very energy-efficient cars instead of US-style gas-guzzling SUVs. A lot more emphasis on buses, trams, trains. A lot more effort to limit suburban sprawl.

The US government, by contrast, gives oil companies sweet deals on leases plus big tax breaks. refuses to sign the Kyoto Protocol limiting emissions, invades oil-rich countries militarily, etc. So I agree that we're each of us responsible for the problem, but part of that responsibility includes tolerance for a government that looks out for the interests of Big Oil rather than the environment.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I definitely agree with you on this. I think that a political solution is important; this is part of taking responsibility both individually and collectively. Hopefully there will be positive and intelligent reform at the governmental level coming out of all of this. It's tough to see it happening, though, when the right will lean hard toward the Sarah Palin position and a general stance of polarization. However, things can happen. Legislation can pass. One never knows.

tamie said...

Sweets! Good work. Good post.

I heartily agree that we must all take responsibility, and all dig into the hard work of change. Absolutely.

I am down with eating as much local food as possible, and I think that I actually do pretty good with this. Eggs, milk, fruits, and vegetables, meat, and cheese I buy from local sources. That's a huge contribution to cutting down on oil expenditure. I also try to buy used clothing, not use air conditioning, and just not buy all that much *stuff* in general, which also cuts down on the ol' carbon footprint quite a bit. And I ride my bike more than the average American.

But I'm not the only one who has to change, and neither am I the main one who has to change. Let me emphasize that I am all about taking responsibility for my contribution and my complicity. But I didn't choose to be born into these systems or into this world, and even if I never rode in or drove a car again, or flew on an airplane, that wouldn't really go all that far to solve the global dependence on oil. Besides, if we all just suddenly stopped driving and flying, all that would happen would be mass chaos and starvation. Whole *systems* have to change, as you pointed out in your post. More and more these days I am thinking that I want to put most of my energy into transforming the systems, rather than putting most of my energy into transforming my own life (when it comes to environmental stuff, not necessarily in other areas of life!). I still want to bike or walk as much as possible, and buy local food (as much because it's a more life-giving way of living as anything else), but I'm really feeling these days that I want to do more than that. I want to help change the system, help make the world a place where it is possible to live meaningfully and happily and healthily without much/any use of oil.

I just now read all the comments. Yeah, taking individual and collective responsibility. That was a more succinct way of saying what I was trying to say!

Oh, and I just want to say one more thing. While I am dedicated to all kinds of ways of cutting down on my individual oil use, I really am not convinced that I should travel less to see people I care about. My family and friends are incredibly important to me, and because I have lived all over the world, my family and friends are all over the world. For my brother and me to see each other, one of us has to cross the Atlantic. Honestly, at this point I'd rather have a bigger carbon footprint and get to see my brother. I'd be fine with taking a boat or something; I'd be fine with modifying my means of travel. I'm not fine with not seeing my brother, or other people who mean so much to me.

aeyn edwards said...

So. I guess this warrants at least the following question (if not others as well): What does it mean to "take responsibility"?

Is it to acknowledge ones contribution to the problem, and end it there?

If it's more, then when does one start to change?

How much we drive and fly is the single greatest source of our pollution, as individuals.

For those of us who already eat local/seasonal foods and don't shop and consume goods for consumption sake, the next step would be to start saying no to driving and flying as much.

That is the biggest source of our pollution, so it would seem like it'd be the one that we'd all be willing to give up or greatly reduce, if we really wanted to make a different. Yet most people I know are not willing; they feel justified to keep consuming similar levels of petroleum so they can see friends and family as often as they want, not have to deal with bikes in the elements, and so on.

I understand those desires.

So what does it mean to "take responsibility"? What changes will we all make?

tamie said...

I do not know, my friend, I do not know. It's not that I wouldn't be willing to give up flying and driving if there were other ways to reach my loved ones. I'm super down with trains, buses, light rails, even walking. But with some of my closest family members, besides boats there are not ways to reach them.

Here's one example of what I'm trying to get at, when I say I'd rather put my energy into changing the system than changing just my own habits (not that the two are mutually exclusive!). If I lived in a city where I worked, say, 10 miles from home, and therefore bike riding was a bit inaccessible to me, especially in inclement weather, I would rather put my energy into developing a good city-wise bus system than just into making sure I didn't drive as much. Like, I could just stop driving and start hitchhiking or biking to work, but what about snow? What about rain? What about being too tired to bike? So I'd rather put my energy into working for a system that allows large numbers of people to be *able* to stop driving their cars. At this point, it is so far from possible for so many people to stop driving or flying, that they can't even consider it. So why not work towards changing things so that people can begin considering it?

Of course, I also understand that people have to be willing to consider change in order for systems to change! It works both ways.

Do you see what I'm saying though?

When I was in charge of a college ministry, I went to drastic lengths to take my students on trains rather than planes, and in vans rather than in separate cars. I've inconvenienced myself and spent large sums of money trying to really put into practice what I say I believe. When I was in Flagstaff, I gave up my car and walked or biked everywhere, which was a scary move for me, and was often significantly inconvenient. It also helped me be in the best physical shape of my life! I didn't regret that decision once.

And yet, I fly to Sweden to visit my brother in Sweden, and fly to Alaska to visit my dad, and I am simply okay with that. All I can say is that in my case it is a very genuine conundrum. I didn't ask to grow up all over the world, but that's what happened. And I think it's easy for people who, say, live in the same town or state as their entire family and most of their friends to be irritated by my hypocrisy. But at this point I cannot think of a solution to the conundrum.

aeyn edwards said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
aeyn edwards said...

(I wrote this before I left work, and haven't read your response. But, I have reread my draft, and feel it's worth posting. So, here it is, and I'll read what you wrote tomorrow.)

I'm going to push the issue a bit more before I go home.

Tamie, you write, "But I didn't choose to be born into these systems or into this world, and even if I never rode in or drove a car again, or flew on an airplane, that wouldn't really go all that far to solve the global dependence on oil."

Two points here. 1. We cannot continue to justify polluting at the levels we (any or all of us) pollute just because we were/are born into a certain system. That's not ethically sound, and furthermore, there are many people who were also born into this system just like you and me who are structuring their lives in ways wherein they rarely if ever drive or fly. So it can be done.

2. Kant argues (and I agree with him on this) that doing what is morally right should be done regardless of the outcome. So, just because polluting substantially less "wouldn't really go all that far to solve the global dependence on oil" isn't the point. It's seemingly more and more clear that it's morally wrong to not be good stewards of the land, and driving and flying pollutes the land. Those pictures of those animals in the gulf right now, they're horrifying. And all of us who consume petroleum hold a small share of that blame, as Jon argues.

You also write, "I am thinking that I want to put most of my energy into transforming the systems, rather than putting most of my energy into transforming my own life".

Why can't you do both? Why is it a "put most of my energy" into one thing "rather than putting most" into the other. They're not mutually exclusive possibilities.

I have been told by numerous people that the fact that I Choose not to have a car, forcing myself to bike everywhere, and that I choose to fly less than my peers, these people have told me that my actions with travel and pollution speak volumes louder than my garden, my farmer's market purchases, or my lack of economic consumption for consumption sake (ie malls and "shopping". People like my mom say that she is more impressed with my commitment here than with anything else.

My point is that changing the structure might happen faster and be more effective if others can see that we can live our lives without using the car every day, or even every week, and without flying 1,2,3,or however many times per year. And we can still be part of our communities, loving spouses, siblings, children, and cousins to our families, still live full, glory-filled lives, and still be content. And not drive or fly much.

The simplest (and yet, seemingly hardest) way to start changing the structure is to stop buying gas and airline tickets. That's however much less demand for petroleum, day in and day out. And it's a profound example to our families and communities that they can use to begin simplifying their lives too.

You write, "I really am not convinced that I should travel less to see people I care about".

Really? I wonder if you'd be open to a conversation specifically about this very thing.

I understand wanting to see loved-ones, and more often rather than less. Every day I yearn to see my older sister and her family, visit my younger sister in Indiana, see you and Jon, and visit tons of other people whom I love. But where do we draw the line? We already travel and see family and friends more than we did, as a society, just 10 years ago. And we do it almost double of what our parent's generation did when they were our age, and way more than our and parent's generation did.

And they turned out okay, still staying connected to their loved ones, and still being active in their distanced communities.

aeyn edwards said...

Just because we love people doesn't justify polluting more than our grandparents did, or more than our parents did at our age. It just doesn't.

You write, "My family and friends are incredibly important to me, and because I have lived all over the world, my family and friends are all over the world." Well, so are mine and have I. But does that excuse polluting? When will we all start to be examples to our friends, families, and communities? NEXT year? AFTER this stage of our lives? When things get easier? When we live closer together? When?

So maybe you and your brother see each other less often, but for a bit longer. Maybe you can't see all your good friends every year, and instead choose to see them every 2 or 3 years instead. Or whatever.

I'm not telling you how you should parse these things out; only you can figure that out yourself.

But I strongly believe, for all of us, that we have to consume much less petroleum. The ethical argument is:
1. Consuming petroleum pollutes.
2. Polluting harms the environment.
3. That's a bad thing.
4. Then one shouldn't consume petroleum.

Which one do can any of us really deny? Teach me. Show me where my reasoning is flawed.

Consuming less petroleum involves all of us restructuring our lives. And that involves making sacrifices and choices.

But just saying that we've made some sacrifices and so we're going to stop at point X, and continuing on with the major travel that we all do, that seems, on the face of it, morally bankrupt to me.

If you think my analysis is flawed, please let me know.

I don't want to offend, and there are many ways in which I could (and am working on) continuing to reduce my petroleum consumption.

My goal here is to push this issue. It's hard. But I think it's what's right. When I see those pictures of those animals in the gulf, I tear up. That is because of all of us, and it's not acceptable. We have to change our lives, one person at a time, and as communities and families, and work on changing the structure. It can be done. I know communities that exist with little to no driving or flying. And they travel by bike, seeing family and friends and contributing to their communities. It's possible. But it takes a vision of embracing change, and saying No to petroleum much more actively than I see most people doing (incl. myself at times). As I said, I can do more too. Consider this me asking you, all of you, to do more as well.

Jonathan Erdman said...

This is a really good discussion. Thanks so much. Please continue. I feel like Tamie is expressing an important concern and a real relational conundrum. So, thank you, Tamie, for your vulnerability. I think you speak for a lot of people with similar concerns.

And Aeyn, thanks for sharing your insights and passion. Your integrity is inspiring.

I just want to add one small thought to the mix.

As I see it, it does not seem as though we will change as individuals until the system changes. Conversely, it does not seem as though the system will change until individuals start to change.

It is difficult to imagine that the masses of U.S. citizens will change until the system changes. Historically, the majority of folks just go with the system. So, we absolutely must change the system. However, I can't see the system changing until individuals change. For one thing, we have to stop feeding profits and wealth to the oil industry. Our politicians can't afford to change the system because oil lobbyists and oil campaign dollars go to support politicians who will keep the system in tact. Putting money into oil companies means that they have all that much more money to keep the system oil-dependent.

Also, the masses of citizens have to see how living independently of oil is actually a much healthier and life-giving way of being. As Tamie and I have discussed, it's pretty damned difficult to go solo on this. We have to develop communities that work together to support each other. If the citizenry can see small communities of revolutionaries who are quietly defying the system and living happy lives, then it will cause people to question their own consumeristic and life-denying way of being.

All that to say that we have to have individuals changing (preferably working in small communities of resistance), but ultimately we will not see mass change that really makes a difference for the sake of the earth and our environment until we can change our entire system and way of living.

aeyn edwards said...

Thanks everyone for the discussion.

In my previous posts, my intention was to push the issue, to further challenge, take up, and engage with these ideas of our petroleum consumption levels and how we can diminish them.

The most direct way that we consume petroleum is when we buy it from petroleum companies for our cars and our airplanes. And so, if that's our most direct and obvious way that we consume and pollute, my point is that we could all clearly do much less of that, and still live good, full lives.

This is to say: Hey Everyone, Yes we can! We really all can consume so much less petroleum and still live full lives, and still do the things we want. But we have to choose to do so. And that means maybe seeing family and friends less often, being cold and wet a bit more on bikes, and so on. We can say no more often, and that's also saying yes to something else (a local adventure without polluting, for example).

Anyway, I didn't mean to offend anyone with my language or tone. I am just a passionate and critical punk-ass chump. So, please take that for whatever it's worth.

Brian said...

Ok, I've read through the discussion here and have one more log to throw on the fire. The whole issue of wanting to see family & friends with a particular frequency and the related dependency on oil is, I think, an interesting societal issue. That is, families and friends have become more and more spread out over the earth during the last several generations. Much of this spread is driven by individual desires related to acquisition of wealth. We want a particular income, so we move to wherever we need to go in order to get that job. We desire the comfort of a different climate so we move to where the grass is presumably greener. We want education and the wealth that goes with it, so we attend school on the other side of the country (or world). We downgrade the value of human relationship in pursuit of other creature comforts, whatever they may be. Sometimes we move simply because we don't want to "deal with" certain friends or family members on a regular basis. This seems odd when compared to historical social and family structures. I wonder if our dependence on oil would decrease if we collectively valued human relationships more than personal comforts? I'm not pointing any fingers at anyone... just something to consider.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Brian: We downgrade the value of human relationship in pursuit of other creature comforts, whatever they may be.....I wonder if our dependence on oil would decrease if we collectively valued human relationships more than personal comforts?

I think that this is true. For sure. However, I would personally qualify it by saying that I don't think people have (by and large) really consciously understood that this was happening. I think our society has kind of just taken it as a given that we could have our cake and eat it too: live whereever you want (for whatever reasons) and still fly out to see relatives, or call them on the phone, etc. Now with email, texting, IMing, Skype, and other technologies, it seems like we can still "be with" our loved ones, even though they are scattered thousands of miles away....and this is true....to an extent. There is certainly more that we can do to have closer relationships, but of course, I still think that bodied relationships (one body engaged holistically with another body) can't be beat....but I digress.

I think you make a good point, though I think we have not really realized what we have done. I feel like this might be a historical time when we can take stock of where we have been and what we have valued and prioritized.