The funerals in West Virginia coal country had barely slipped from the daily headlines when another fossil fuel disaster projected itself onto our computers and television screens. We found ourselves staring into a river of crude oil spewing from an almost mile-deep well head in the Gulf of Mexico as it embarked on its inexorable journey to our southern coastline, leaving in its wake a trail of death to every living thing it touched.
The rush of anger and disgust that swept over many of us was accompanied by an overwhelming sense of helplessness, which came from feeling that all we could do is watch this newest desecration of our environment unfold (while it simultaneously deals crippling blows to entire economies and communities there), and with it the sickening realization that the only people who can possibly put an end to this ongoing eruption of destruction, are those who allowed it to happen in the first place.
In the midst of this debacle we learned of another coal mine disaster, this time in Russia, which not only claimed the lives of miners working their daily shift but, perhaps even more cruelly, also those of rescuers who went into that gaping grave in a long-shot attempt to save their brothers.
The sickening black smoke from the fires still burning in that coal mine and on the surface waters of the Gulf combine to create a perfect backdrop for the farce being played out on Capitol Hill as members of Congress beat their chests and perform for the cameras in the latest act of their recurring sitcom (or is it a tragedy?) about how they are protecting and serving those who elect them.
In this newest episode we are treated to a command performance of the oil industry executives as they roll out their rendition of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil," although in between scenes the excuse making and finger pointing there is more reminiscent of the Three Stooges than serious thespians. The lives of those lost in the rig explosion hardly seem to merit a footnote as all sides jostle for the best possible position.
Meanwhile, as if we are playing an endless game of Russian roulette—mindlessly loading another round into a fresh bullet chamber—we go about our business as usual, repeatedly filling our gas tanks with expensive liquid that we turn into poisonous exhaust gases, running our lights and appliances with electricity mostly produced by incinerating the dirtiest combustible material around … dutifully paying up our tribute to greedy exploiters (including many who are known to support our sworn enemies with the very profits they milk from us) who have systematically brainwashed us into believing that the world cannot operate without their products.
In the first half of the 19th century whale oil was the highest quality lamp fuel and lubricant known. Demand for it was so great that profits from that industry (the so-called "golden age" of American whaling ran roughly from the 1820s up until the start of the Civil War) are largely recognized as the source of funding that made possible the expansion of the nation into the West.
The whaling industry did not meet its decline because all the whales had been slaughtered, although that almost certainly would have occurred if left to the whalers themselves. The average whaling voyage had reached three years in duration at its peak (one was recorded at an astonishing 11 years) and the American fleet alone once numbered more than 750 ocean-going vessels that literally sailed the seven seas. More than 20,000 seamen were directly engaged in whaling and more than 70,000 people directly depended on the $70 million industry for their livelihoods.
In 1859, a Pennsylvania well driller in search of water struck petroleum instead and that event, along with the outbreak of the Civil War, in which the vast majority of the whaling vessels were destroyed, led to the realization that a more plentiful —and therefore cheaper—type of fuel and lubricant was ripe for the plucking, and soon people began to light their lamps with kerosene and lubricate their machinery with petroleum products. Those who wrung their hands and warned that the economy would collapse if whale oil and the industry built around it should disappear were soon forgotten, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The introduction of the petroleum age fostered another significant advance in technology. For a considerable period of time, the external combustion engine represented the most efficient and versatile source of mechanical horsepower available in the world. Steam locomotives, still the darlings of railroad aficionados and nostalgic hobbyists, burned giant quantities of coal or wood as they drew the immense loads of commerce back and forth across the continent while steamships, depending on those same solid fuels, ferried passengers and freight up and down great rivers and over the vast oceans with speed, endurance, and predictability.
External combustion technology even took a victory lap in personal transportation for a time as a version of the renowned Stanley Steamer (during 1897 and 1898 over 200 were produced and sold, more than any other car company) set a world speed record for automobiles in 1906, at a blazing and amazing 127 miles per hour. Their eventual obsolescence came about because they could not compete with the fuel efficiency and power delivery of internal combustion technology, despite their desperate attempts to woo back the car-buying public through early fear-based advertising campaigns designed to plant confusion and safety doubts about the "internal explosion engine," a strategy which sounds strikingly familiar to those employed by detractors of emerging energy technologies today.
The use of the steam engines did not fade away because they didn't work. They were simply replaced by more advanced, convenient technologies and efficient energy sources. The mass use of whale oil for lighting and lubrication did not end because the last remaining whale had been hunted down and brutally harpooned … that act has apparently been left to the modern day whaling industry which continues to relentlessly "harvest" this "resource," mostly for pet food and use in cosmetics.
We won't simply wake up one day and realize that the last trainload of coal has been burned at a power plant, putting an end to the blackening of the skies and stockpiling of toxin laden ash in open heaps and lagoons. Nor will we suddenly switch from petroleum-based fuels to propel our implements of transportation and recreation … planes, trains, automobiles, and the rest. These changes don't happen in the blink of an eye, or without the will to make sacrifices.
But in the scheme of things, which is more relevant: how fast we get there or when we start? There is an irony in the magic of overnight delivery. It doesn't provide you with fewer deadlines, it just lets you postpone them longer. The first step in any journey is the most important.
More than two decades after the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, oil that spilled from its hold is still being cleaned up in Prince William Sound, and some of the most important environmental and commercial species that were previously found in great abundance there, such as the valuable herring, are no longer residents in that region. After weeks, the oil is still gushing from that BP well on the floor of the Gulf. Can we even begin to imagine how long that disaster will haunt us? On what day do we intend to start?
Why is it so difficult to get people to admit that we not only have the ability to make intelligent decisions and effect positive change in the way we conduct our lives, but that it is our moral obligation to do so? We know how to reduce the environmental impacts of our industries, our transportation, and our built environment. We are not forced to continue to pass the poison for the sake of profit.
By mindlessly going along with the status quo that we have fostered and which we continue to finance with our purchases, we not only endanger the miners who would make their way into the darkness of the hole and those who risk their very lives on drilling rigs throughout the world, nor are we simply threatening entire species and ecosystems that have taken millions of years to evolve and reach natural balance, we are engaged in something far more inexplicable.
We willingly keep that loaded gun to our own heads, in effect, holding ourselves, and future generations, hostage … to our greed, our stubbornness, and our laziness.