Upon first hearing that an explosion caused the sinking of a oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, there is little likelihood that people reading about the episode made immediate connection between the calamity above and the ensuing massive oil leak now producing environmental disaster on a scale not seen before in the world.
Millions of gallons of oil have now leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. Millions more gallons continue to gush up through a hole drilled by a BP contractor into the ocean floor 5000 feet below the ocean surface.
The obvious questions have all been asked by now: Did BP and its contractor have an operable plan in place in the event of such an emergency? The answer is clearly “no.” Did BP act with prudence in initiating the underwater drilling operation in the first place? Perhaps, but pressure to meet economic goals and profit margins drove a decision process that led to deadly, costly mistakes. People died and now the countries around the Gulf stand at risk from oil pollution. One cannot begin to calculate the economic costs of such a disaster. One cannot even predict the environmental consequences with any sort of clarity. We are dealing with entire ecosystems and thousands of species of living things significantly compromised and possibly wiped out when oil overwhelms the food chains and habitat required to exist.
This is all stupid and unnecessary. It is also precisely the type of disaster environmentalists have warned us about for years. When corporate interests and politicians pressed for increased drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge north of Alaska, this is the type of mistake they feared would occur. Conditions are even more harsh and difficult in cold northern seas. But here we have a leak in the bottom of a temperate ocean within easy reach of every resource available in America and we can’t plug the leak. So the illustration could not be more clear: Prudence is the better policy when it comes to energy exploration. Regulation should control these risks while monitoring corporations to protect natural resources must be mandatory. Modern environmentalism has been pointing us in this, the right direction, all along. Corporate interests and the politicians controlled by those interests have been pointing us in the other direction for far too long.
We really should not have to wait for a single new case to place environmental interests ahead of corporate and political interests for good. This is the watershed moment in history when clarity comes into play. The ostensibly obstructionist aims of the environmental movement have been blamed for many things; causing industry too much money, of stifling economic growth, of inhibiting international efforts to develop resources. But the BP oil disaster makes clear the radical truth: that environmentalists have been right all along when it comes to advocating caution and conservatism on behalf of the environment.
We should also consider the likely truth that environmental laws actually protect jobs, stimulate the economy and the expand for our good rather than reduce the quality of the environment. This is a long term strategy but one worth respecting because it is the only strategy that is truly sustainable. All others have been show to produce short term economic gains while ignoring or passing along hidden or unaccounted for environmental costs such as increased pollution, degradation of natural resources, injustice toward economically or racially disadvantaged human populations. Significantly, poor environmental management ultimately increases tax burdens for nations forced to clean up environmentally dangerous commerce zones. Where are the anti-tax voices when environmental accounting comes into play? These voices are silent because they are truly ignorant of the costs of environmental costs related to the tax burden borne by citizens of the world. We are giving corporations a complete pass on paying for their errors and passing along this tax burden to individuals around the world.
Some conservative commentators have been known to call environmentalists “whackos” for their dedication to protecting the earth. But the whackos are clearly the shortsighted decision makers who failed to listen to systemic warnings about impending disaster in the Gulf, who let machismo and then ironic fears over loss of profit determine their response to the crisis. These people failed miserably in refusing to consider the real risks they were imposing on the world by the rashness of their decisions and for refusing, as has been too long the case, to recognize the positive influence of governmental regulation as key moderating factors in the successful enterprise of modern society. Instead we behave as if the corporations are our kings and society is the serfs who must pay for the ignorance of said royalty. We have become a feudal society when it comes to our environment because we have played into the hands of these rulers.
It is not just BP that should and will pay the price for these grievances. Society bears responsibility for allowing power-hungry politicians who are too friendly with the oil companies to browbeat us into complacency over energy regulation and conservation. But as we’ve seen auto and truck gas mileage efficiencies rise in fleet after fleet of car makes and models, it is clear that what some politicians said could never be possible in so short a time definitely is possible with ingenuity and determination on behalf of the car companies. And guess what: The government demanded these changes at the behest of environmentalists. The car companies and many politicians said it would be too expensive–but what turns out to be too expensive is our own inaction toward regulation and prudence on the energy front of oil exploration. Rather than taking the truly conservative front and protecting our environment at all costs, we too long turned over our protective layer of government to people who would sell off the health of our environment for mere dollars and cents, with political power thrown in as a gratuity.
In other worlds, we collectively sold ourselves up the river. And now we will have to swim up the environmental stream to get back to where we should be. And then we’d better pass laws that make it firm and clear that careless companies should not determine the health and vitality of our earth, and that goes for any industry. To put it plainly, it’s tough love time on the environment. “Never again” is the only standard we need to remember. Because anything less than “never again” will undoubtedly turn out to be not enough. The proof is in the Gulf sea right now.