Can The Gulf Spill Push Americans To Rethink Oil?

In The Fate of Nature, former Anchorage Daily News reporter Charles Wohlforth writes that cleaning up oil spills is impossible, saying they're merely the cost of doing business. But how much destruction will it take to persuade Americans to embrace energy alternatives?

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Every week, the as the oil spreads through the Gulf, the more it seems we're just watching the same old movie again and again.

My next guest has actually really been there and done that. He was a reporter at the Anchorage Daily News when the Exxon Valdez spill hit 21 years ago in the Prince William Sound, and now two decade and a half, a billion dollars later, he says scientists still cannot answer some of the most basic questions about how that spill affected the ecosystem of the Prince William Sound.

Are we going to get any better science out of the Gulf mess, and will things be any different after this spill, or are we just going back to business as usual?

President Obama said we need to suck it up and start switching to a renewable energy source, but so has every president since Richard Nixon. Are we really going to see any changes? And can we admit that despite all the Kevin Costners out there, we really have no quick technological fix for cleaning up these messes, that as long as drill for fossil fuels, these blowouts, explosions, deaths and environmental destruction are simply the price of doing business?

Charles Wohlforth is the author of "The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth," also a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. He's here in our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. CHARLES WOHLFORTH (Anchorage Daily News): Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: When you sat down to write this book, did you have any idea what you would be when it would be published, what you would be in the middle of?

Mr. WOHLFORTH: It's kind of an amazing coincidence. I started writing the book six years ago, and it's been a long and challenging process, with lots of research, and then this oil spill came, and I just had this sinking, horrible feeling in my stomach because it started to look so much like what I saw 21 years ago.

FLATOW: Speaking of which, you know, as the head of BP was testifying in front of Congress this week, I was reading this and people were saying they're so angry at BP, I'm reading right in your book, I'll quote it right out of your book. It says: Punishing a corporation through the legal system is like striking a chair against which you have stumbled. Exxon absorbed the hatred of a generation of coastal Alaskans without flinching, impassive because it is not a person, it is a thing.

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Yeah, yeah, and it's a thing that we created, and so is BP. And I really don't believe that we have villains who we need to as one congressman told the head of BP, that he should commit hari-kari. You know, that's not the solution.

We're using the oil. We create these systems. We create the laws. We create the society. And what I tried to do in the book is look at the oil spill as a symptom of that system that we've created, which is not only destroying the biosphere through oil spills but through climate change and a myriad of other ways, which we all regret and wish weren't happening, and yet we don't seem to be able to solve.

And so to look at the society through, you know, anthropology, behavioral economics, the various social sciences and start to say, well, okay, what's driving us to do this, and how can we change, or can we change? I guess that's the first question: Can we change? Can we behave differently?

FLATOW: I was watching a Jon Stewart piece on "The Daily Show" the other night, and he had a whole list of every single president since Richard Nixon saying we have to get off of the oil. We have to go to renewable energy somehow. And no president has been able to wean us off of that so far.

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Yes, well...

FLATOW: It's probably goes back even further than that president, right?

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Yeah, you know, I'm sure it does, though, you know, in the late 1960s, oil was so cheap compared to what it is now that they probably didn't give it too much thought.

But the thing yes, we do keep doing the same thing, and the question you have to ask is, you know, we're on a science show. Is it really a technology problem we have?

You know, if you look at climate change or oil spills, you know, preventing oil spills, you know, surely much of the technology exists, and we've been talking about sort of climate change for a really long time, and we've certainly been talking about oil spills. And yet we don't seem to solve them.

So I look at it as not really a technology problem as much as a cultural problem. We have the technology, and we're not deploying it. So we sort of have to ask why.

Kind of like the alcoholic. He physically, there's nothing to stop him from leaving the bottle on the shelf, but he continues to pick it up. And so then you start to look at, well, what was his childhood like? What are the forces that are causing him to do that? And I think that's what we need to be doing now rather than demonizing BP or calling for, you know, this commission or that commission or new regulations.

Those are all important, I guess, but it needs to go deeper.

FLATOW: And so you're saying as long as our culture is one of using oil, that...

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Well, not...

FLATOW: ...or what is the cultural phenomena you're talking about - that we can't change things? Or big problems can't be solved, or what? We don't want to spend the money or prioritize or what?

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Well, I mean, I think there's a complex of issues, but they go back to our sort of competitive, materialistic way of doing things and the hierarchical way we set up our government.

So just to take the oil spill as an example, you have an oil company that's enormous, it's sort of beyond the control of any human being or even any government...

FLATOW: Too big to fail.

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Too big to fail and too big to punish. And then you've got a government which has regulators, who inevitably become cozy and captured by the oil industry, and then in this repeating process, they become complacent, and a spill happens, and then everybody really regrets it and wishes it hadn't happened and maybe fires the regulators and gets different ones. And then 21 years passes and you do it again.

And another model would be to say, well, there's people in that ecosystem where the oil is being drilled who actually care about it a lot and who are not going to become captured, as regulators do. And if they have some control, and if they have some oversight about the place they live, then things might turn out differently.

So when I talk about changing the culture, I'm talking about bringing us back to what we all really feel, which is we care about the places we live, we have a connection to our communities and to the environment and starting to act on those feelings.

FLATOW: Did that happen in Alaska? Did they change the oversight? Was it more citizen-oriented?

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Yeah, there's a model there that's very good, and it was brought in at sort of the height of the media frenzy about it, when people were looking at what can we do.

And there was a model that was brought from Scotland, which is to create a citizens oversight committee in Prince William Sound and then fund it with a mandatory tax for millions of dollars from the oil industry so that the citizens can go out and hire engineers, technical experts, PR experts, and those experts are - on behalf of the community - are watching the tanker operations and making recommendations and then going public when their recommendations aren't followed.

And they've made a number of changes which have saved subsequent oil spills from happening, and it's probably the safest shipping system anywhere.

Then you have to say, well, gee, if that's such a good idea, why is it only in Prince William Sound? It's kind of like well, there was an accident there, so you passed a law for there, as if there was, like, a plane crash at LaGuardia, and so you passed a law for LaGuardia. It doesn't really make, you know, the same common-sense things we seem to sort of go around and do over and over again. But yeah, there's a model there that works, and it could be spread, and it's sort of an example of community, local control connection.

FLATOW: Yeah, but we but we had a spill in the Gulf already, and yet yesterday we saw a Texas Republican congressperson already crediting, you know, blaming the government and saying that BP has been, you know, hoodwinked for $20 billion.

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Yeah.

FLATOW: I mean, but that's local. It's happening here. Would you have ever heard that in Alaska?

Mr. WOHLFORTH: That's not local enough, and in Alaska, we have a state government that was thoroughly corrupted by the oil industry by just sort of, you know, $100 bills and a hotel room.

You know, I'm talking about local like the people who live there, who are part of that ecosystem, who get their sustenance from it. And not only that, but these other, you know, major issues that we face environmentally, developing a connection to the places we live and starting to change the culture sort of one person at a time, and it sounds like, boy, that's going to take a long time. How is that ever going to solve these problems?

But I think on issues in the size of climate change and the other major global environmental issues we face, that's kind of the only way to get there. I mean, we can't coerce everybody in the world to do what we want. They have to be sort of persuaded by the development of these social norms, the sense of right and wrong about the environment, until sort of we get there all together.

FLATOW: Let's go to Tau(ph) in Hillsboro, Texas. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

TAU (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. Yeah, I have a comment about the dependence on oil and the president talked about green energy. I don't see the solution at all. I think the thing to do is 55-mile-per-hour speed limit.

If you think about it, this is a problem with the combustion engine on automobiles, and wind won't change that, solar won't change that, nuclear won't change that.

If you talk about the electric car, then we're straight to dependent on rare earth elements from the Chinese and mercury for processing from some African country.

So I don't see I don't see green energy replacing solving the problem. The only thing I can think of is using less, 55-miles-per-hour limit.

FLATOW: Back to the '70s and energy conservation, which is still the low-hanging fruit.

TAU: (Unintelligible) you know, your guest comment on any green energy that replacing the automobile that won't be dependent on some other country.

FLATOW: All right, Tau, let me get a comment. Good point, energy conservation is still the fastest way to bring down...

Mr. WOHLFORTH: And everybody you know, our family reduced our energy use by, say, 30 to 40 percent through easy energy conservation things to do.

But thing is, you know, we have this tendency to sort of always look to the end and say, well, you know, how we can't get rid of all oil. You know, it's - on the climate change issue, you know, we - it's true, we can't solve it all at once. We've got to take each step that we've got along the way.

But one of the things that happens, psychologically, getting back to this cultural thing, is you start to do something and you then have an investment in it, then that sort of commits you on that path as an individual and that commits the people you are related to or who you influence. And I think that each person, you know - don't boycott BP. Get a hybrid car, you know? Do some of these things we can do right now. And then after we do that 30 or 40 percent, then maybe we'll have technologies in the next 30 or 40 percent. But we're really not doing the first part.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking with Charles Wohlforth, author of "The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth." One of the things that struck me about lessons learned from the Exxon Valdez is all the photographs and the pictures of cleaning rocks, cleaning birds, cleaning anything that moved, and now we're seeing that all over again. But I read from your book and I also get the impression from living to that that these are all just cosmetic things that really don't affect anything in the long run.

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Yeah. Yeah. Cosmetic, or worse, some of them actually do more harm than good.

FLATOW: Such as?

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Well, I mean, for example, the sea otter rescue in Alaska, there was something like $90,000 spent on each otter that was rescued. Some of them probably didn't need to be rescued. Others were going to die rapidly anyway and did. And then the others were treated and - which was a torment for them. And then most of those that were released after being treated died anyway, within the first winter. And then there's also the issue whether they carry the diseases back out into the wild. And everybody wants to see the otters okay. You know, it's - emotionally, we really want that. But they're not endangered.

And so, ultimately, we - so that we could feel good, we tortured the otters and then we threatened their populations by potentially putting diseases into the wild. And, you know, there are other aspects too. When they couldn't get the oil off the rocks anymore because they've gotten too dried on, they started using high pressure hot water...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. WOHLFORTH: ...washing, which killed everything and moved the oil down into the subtitle and resorted the sediments in some of the beaches so that they still don't have clams in them. The clams can't live in the resorted beaches and it could be centuries before those beaches go back to normal.

So it's - we have - we all feel bad about it. We turn to technology and say, well, let's fix it. We don't have the humility to say, we can't fix nature. Nature is bigger than we are. All we can do is try to reduce our impact on it and try to understand our connections to it and live more harmony with it.

FLATOW: And you think the same thing might be happening now...

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Well...

FLATOW: ...in the Gulf.

Mr. WOHLFORTH: I think that it's tempting to say we have - we've learned nothing, but I hear some people talking about, well, stay out of those salt marshes, you know? You don't want people trying to clean up the salt marsh. And that's a step in the right direction. Nobody said that in Alaska. And then the president has gotten this $20 billion fund. That's a step in the right direction. You know, that's a lot better than the fishermen in Alaska who waited 20 years and then got, you know, 90 -10 percent of what they were supposed to get.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. WOHLFORTH: So there are some things that are being done better. But I also hear the president talking about these war metaphors, you know? We're going declare war in the oil and we're going to fight. And it's -I just think that it's the wrong metaphor because if it's a war, it's another war that we're not going to win. It'd be another long, inconclusive war. And 20 years from now, somebody like me will be saying a lot of the same things I am now, unfortunately.

FLATOW: We're talking about lessons from the Exxon Valdez with Charles Wohlforth, the author of "The Fate of Nature" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

So are you optimistic that we'll learn anything from this - you know, I had Sylvia Earle sitting here the other day and I said, what's the worst possible scenario? And I thought she was going to talk about cleaning up something. And she said the worst possible thing that could happen is if we don't learn anything...

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: ...from this spill.

Mr. WOHLFORTH: I kind of - you know, the alternative of optimism is despair. So (unintelligible) is optimism.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I think that we are learning, and you kind of don't see it from the perspective of the national media. But if you are down in local communities, you do see a lot of people are getting together to do things that they believe in for where they live. And I really think that's how it starts.

And what is needed now, I think, is to talk about this issue in terms that people can do something about it. I kind of wish the president had said, hey, I'd like everybody to do one thing to save energy this week, you know? I'd like to see sacrifice. I'd like people to go out and join a local group that's going to clean up your waterway or pick up garbage off the side of the road because I think that we...

FLATOW: We're not into sacrifice these days. We didn't - nothing about Afghanistan or about, you know, any of the wars that we're in now about saying we have to sacrifice.

Mr. WOHLFORTH: And we talk about getting rid of carbon from our economy in the same terms. We say, well, it's going create jobs. It's going to be great. And in reality, we're going to be using more expensive fuel and it is going to be a sacrifice. And if we lie to people about that, then it's not going to go any easier. It's going to be harder. So - and I just really believe that most people love this planet we live in. They love the places they're at. They don't want to see those places destroyed. And so, they would be willing to make some sacrifices.

FLATOW: But it's going to have to work its way up from the grassroots...

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Exactly. Yeah.

FLATOW: ...is what you're saying.

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: I'm mad as hell. I'm not going to take it anymore.

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Or I'm mad as hell. I'm going to go and fix my life, I mean, fix where I live. And then hope the rest follows along.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And then it's going to be people, like you say, individuals getting together on their own or demanding that something happen locally.

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Mm-hmm. If you look at climate change, you know, we've known the first predictions, you know, made in the 1960s by Suki Manabe are - have proven correct. We didn't do anything. You know, James Hansen's predictions in 1988 are proven correct. We haven't done anything. So we're still talking about climate change legislation at the federal level after 40 years. But on the local level, people are doing stuff.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. WOHLFORTH: In the state level, people are doing stuff. So - and that is sort of what motivates the national. It's not going out and doing a study, having a conference and then go and passing a law. That doesn't seem to work. The other way does seem to work.

FLATOW: It's to think globally, act locally.

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Well, as I say in my book, "The Fate of Nature," you know, there's two ways you can do CAFE standards for cars. It took roughly 25 years to pass those, 12 years phasing period. That's a 37-year effort to improve car mileage. Or you could go into a kindergarten and talk to the kids about not driving so much when they get old enough to drive, you have results in 10 years. That's three times faster.

FLATOW: All right. And that's the suggestion for the weekend. Talk amongst yourself. Thank you. Charles Wohlforth is author of "The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth." We're going to take a break and come back and talk about people's attention have turned to natural gas since the oil crisis, the oil spill in the Gulf. The natural gas is booming all across the country. There's a HBO special coming on next week that shows what it might not be such a good thing for everybody. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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