“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Winston Churchill.
When it comes to oil spills no one knows this better than Native Alaskans. Indigenous Arctic tribes learned their lesson during the Exxon Valdez debacle of 1989. In this edition of Assignment Earth several leaders of the Inupiaq Tribe came south to tour the devastation of the recent British Petroleum disaster that continues to spew toxic crude into the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast.
“We had many miles of our beaches like this,” said Alaskan native Earl Kingik. “ A lot of our shore birds fly away and don’t come back to Point Hope due to this kind of oil activity, this oil spill.”
Twenty years later badly damaged ecosystems along the Lisburne Peninsula on the Chukchi Sea have yet to recover. When the Valdez struck Bligh Reef on Prince William Sound 10.8 million gallons (250,000 barrels) of oil spilled into the water, creating the largest man-made catastrophe of its type in history. But that was until the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on April 20th.
Mark Schlieifstein and Jaquette White of the Times-Picayune report that three teams of scientists say oil draining into the Gulf is more than triple what BP first estimated more than a month ago.
“The lowest estimate that we’re seeing that scientists think is credible is about 20,000 barrels (a day),” said Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey. “The highest we’re seeing is probably a little over 40,000, and maybe a little bit more,” depending on how much natural gas is also being released from the well.
As of June 3rd the damaged well has been capped and the cleanup is now underway. An investigation has begun to find those responsible at BP for this fiasco and the Justice Department promises criminal prosecutions. We’ll start assigning blame. The price of seafood will likely skyrocket and members of Congress will make a grand show of talking tough. But once the number of beach front tar balls and oil-soaked bird slowly start to abate and headlines report the world’s latest atrocity, what lessons will we have learned? I was curious so I made a few phone calls to find out.
“The Gulf Coast oil spill is clearly a horrible thing to watch. But we have to realize that it is only the tip of an invisible stream of environmental destruction around the world,” said author and environmental activist Bill McKibben. “If you can imagine that instead it was a stream of acid in the water, the oceans are becoming more acidic due to raising levels of CO2. It’s polluting the environment making it toxic for life on the planet at all levels.”
Among the very first to report on the climate crisis in his book “The End of Nature,” McKibben has followed our path of destruction for a very long time. When we spoke he let me know that capping the well and mopping up the oil is hardly the solution we need.
“This event is a reminder of why we need to get off dirty energy right away,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of putting filters on oil wells and keep pumping away. As long as we rely on fossil fuels events like this are just going to keep happening again and again.”
This is certainly not the first time something like this has happened. These are the mistakes we are doomed to repeat. I also spoke to Dr. John Francis, author of the book “Planet Walker” who witnessed another oil spill on the San Francisco Bay back in 1971. That event compelled him to stop riding in motorized vehicles and to walk everywhere he went for 22 years. He also took a vow of silence, hoping to learn valuable life lessons by not talking and listening to others instead.
“It’s going to keep happening until we realize that (the oil spill) is more than what it looks like. What I learned and wanted to share when I started talking after walking and not talking for so long is that we are the environment,” Francis said. “The (recent) oil spill and what’s going on in the physical environment, which is a very important kind of spectacular thing that’s happened, overshadows WHY it’s happening. We have a lot to do with what’s happened and why it’s happening. How we treat each other, how we communicate is right at the basis of that.”
Ironically the BP Oil Spill occurred on Earth Day, 21 years to the day that Dr. John Francis end his vow of silence and began speaking on behave of the environment. What both Francis and McKibben have come to realize is that these disasters are of our own making. And they will continue until we take direct responsibility for the impact of our behavior and how our consumption of fossil fuels affects those around us.
“I think that if we had to see the cost in lives of what is required to have oil to do the things that we do with oil, we’d reconsider our oil policies,” Francis said. “We have to ask ourselves. What is the cost?”
Each of us can work diligently to reduce our consumption of energy powered by fossil fuels. We can walk more, ride our bikes, drive less and install compact fluorescents in every lamp socket in our homes. But McKibben said it’s going to take more than that. “Individual action is pleasant but it’s not getting the job done. One light bulb at a time is not good enough,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work. We have to impose a stiff price on carbon to drive people to invest in renewable systems all over the world. Big Oil is winning the fight and we have to fight back.”
Offshore oil drilling is expected to continue. Despite the harsh lesson of the Gulf Shell Oil is making plans to drill in the Arctic waters off the coast of Alaska. Though not as deep, these new wells will be far less accessible and more difficult to manage in the event of another disaster due to ice, cold temperatures and rough seas. Native Americans along the Gulf Coast trust their Alaskan brethren will take to heart the lessons they have learned.
“My hope is that they would go back to their home territory and do whatever they can to make sure that the footprint the oil industry has there is not expanded.” said Michael Dardar, a member of a tribe from coastal Louisiana “(I hope) that they don’t have to face the things that we have had to face here.”
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