NASA released this image, taken May 10 off the coast of Louisiana, of an oil slick from the sunken Deepwater Horizon drilling platform.
It’s too bad that I called my latest book A Tear at the Edge of Creation.
In hindsight, I should have called it A Tear at the Heart of Creation; for that’s the image that the unstoppable gushing of oil, ongoing now since April 20th, brings to mind. We have torn the Earth open, disturbing what has laid dormant for millions of years. And now, as if the planet turned hemophilic, the bleeding won’t stop.
Countless lines have been written about the calamity, of how we must find an end to our oil-based civilization. There are many ways to tell this story: as a story of irresponsible corporate greed, of tragic loss of life, of tragic ecological impact, of technological failure. BP has a projected $20 billion in surplus this year alone, and an estimated $250 billion in assets. About 12% of England’s investment dividends are derivative of BP’s surplus. The spill won’t break it, as it hasn’t broken the many other oil companies involved in past spills. The list is horrifyingly long.
But the spill does offer an opportunity for us to reflect where we’re going as a species. Another image it evokes is that of a vampire, sucking hungrily from his victim. Although vampires can’t reinvent themselves, stuck to sucking blood to continue their miserable existence, we can.
But simply imposing a moratorium on drilling isn’t going to help. You have to go to the Mississippi Delta and what you see first is enormous oil refineries that provide the livelihood of tens of thousands of people, as told in a recent Morning Edition story. To get rid of oil, you need not only new technology but to retrain a whole work force, offering those who have their livelihoods attached to the oil industry a chance to learn the new trade of clean (or at least cleaner) technology. This will take a massive educational and vocational effort that will cost many billions and a worldwide effort. And where will the money come from?
If BP has such enormous surplus, imagine putting all the oil companies together, creating a world fund to support this transition in earnest. I’m sure you’ve seen one of the countless glossy ads in magazines and newspapers of how visionary their efforts are in clean technologies. BP, in particular, is quite good at selling the image of being an Earth-friendly company.
Well then, what if the oil companies get together and surprise the world? What if they voluntarily redefine their goals, reinvent themselves, becoming the true leaders of new clean technologies, creating vocational schools for their employees, generating jobs for seriously-funded research in these new technologies, sponsoring universities and colleges to develop related new courses and degrees?
Whatever they are already doing is clearly not enough.
The way I see it, the oil companies have a unique opportunity to define (and help finance) a new world order. Not as enemies of the people and of Nature, but as friends of the Earth. This new identity may pinch the distribution of dividends in the short run, but it will guarantee them in the long run.
I know this image of a new world is naïve.
But do we have an alternative?
Take a good look at our neighbors in the solar system: all barren worlds, dead and inhospitable. As we explore our cosmic neighborhood, we learn how precious our planet is, how rare. Earth’s biosphere may be a unique event, if not in the whole galaxy (we can’t know that for sure), certainly in a radius of tens of light years around us. We are alone in our green-blue oasis, and will remain so for quite some time.
Seen from this cosmic perspective, the stakes are much higher. Earth has existed for billions of years without us and will continue to do so. But we can’t exist without the Earth we have evolved to live on. If we change our environment in irreversible ways, there is no technology that will save us from ourselves.
I hope that when the tear is plugged and beaches are cleaned, memories won’t fade away too quickly. I hope that the damage is already too vast for that. And remember, oil companies and everyone, it will not be the last. So why not take the chance to surprise the world and do something that will promote real change and not just propaganda?