Oil Spills and Climate Change: Unintended Consequences
June 29th, 2010 by robert

As oil continues to gush from the wounded earth’s crust under the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve begun thinking about how the tragic oil spill reflects a more general truth. Pundits and the public try to assign blame for the catastrophe,  while nobody acknowledges that the problem is simply too big and pervasive for humans to contain it. How could any expenditure of resources — human, technical or financial — hope to “attack” the slimy pollutant that contaminates thousands of coastal miles and millions of cubic kilometers of ocean?

BP has had a string of terrible accidents that recently have caused significant deaths and unprecedented ecological harm. Surely that history indicates malfeasance and perhaps illegal actions, but is not the “corner-cutting” that BP is accused of the basis for our economy? Our economy is composed of corporations whose raison d’être is profit, and the more the better. The path to greater profit is to minimize costs. Corporations seek to limit costs by keeping wages low and by limiting other expenses in the production process — by choosing the lowest possible bid. Our government has become a corporate partner, deregulating industries to decrease their costs of production and therefore increase their profits. In the case of oil, and of financial services for that matter, government has provided subsidies to the industry along with lax regulation. The myth promulgated by industry/government is that maximized business growth is the best thing for everyone in our society because success “trickles down” via increased employment and higher wages. This economy depends on that myth, on the solidity of public faith in the system that allows us to placidly accept the massive transfer of billions in public monies to banking executives and, unknowingly, the absence of true oversight for risky corporate operations like deep water oil production.

The predictable outcome of this corporate/government collusion is the taking of risks for greater profit, as well as the spectacular failures like financial institution collapse or pipeline blowouts when those risks prove faulty. Inevitably we, the people, pay for failed corporate speculation with our resources: taxes, real estate values, our environment.

Stepping back from the gulf oil disaster for a much wider perspective, consider global climate change. Overwhelming scientific evidence indicates that humans have irrevocably altered Earth’s climate, and daily we see news reports of damaging weather events around the nation causing loss of life or property. (I recommend reading the book Eaarth by Bill McKibben for a reality check on climate change.) The same forces that caused the oil calamity off Louisiana are responsible for the gradual yet accelerating degradation of our global ecosystem. An infinity of subsidies to the carbon industry, of squashed electric cars and other alternative energy innovations, of bought legislators and legislation — subservient to the god of profit, our political/economic system has continually compromised the environment to make a buck. Every burned drop of oil and lump of coal, every forest leveled for beef or corn production, every plastic bottle of water we drink — all of our rampant and ramped-up consumption of the Earth’s resources has incrementally led to the precipice of climate change we stand upon today.

We sit watching climate change happen in slow motion, exactly like we watch the oil flowing from that tube a mile under the Gulf of Mexico, knowing that the consequences have yet to be measured, but that the impact will be inevitable and devastating. What can we do? Let’s start by imagining a system where the government/corporation partnership does not rule our destiny for its profit. Then, let’s figure out how to build it.


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