13 06 2010

The Gulf Coast oil blowout is a tragedy of epic proportions.  Greed, ignorance, and foolish pride all came together, mounted on the backs of BP executives, government officials, and all us just plain folks who are socked in to our various petroleum habits, and now the ugly reality of our oil addiction is smeared across the clean white beaches,fertile green marshes, and shining blue sea of our country’s southern coast, like AIDS-related boils on the face of a once-attractive junkie.  It’s sad.  It’s sickening.  It is a horribly cruel fate for billions of innocent birds, fish, mammals and plants.  “Tarred and feathered” has a whole new, even uglier, meaning.  It is a wretched legacy for future generations, trampling on the rights of the unborn of all species.

But it is also only fair, and about time we Americans had our noses rubbed in the kind of devastation we have long been willing to visit on other, mostly dark-skinned people so that we can keep mainlining our petroleum fix.  The chickens have come home to roost.

The native people of northern Canada, the Amazon, and Nigeria know exactly what I am talking about.  In all of these areas, the multinational oil companies have squatted on pristine land and taken a massive, oil-soaked dump, fouling ecosystems integral to the way of life of tribes who have been living in harmony with nature far longer than the brief trajectory of our petroleum-fired, so-called “civilization.”

In northern Canada, BP and many other oil companies are busily strip mining 54,000 square miles of “tar sand,” permanently polluting three or four gallons of water for every gallon of oil produced.  It will take decades or possibly centuries for the slow-growing sub-Arctic forest to re-establish itself on the old strip mine sites (if it does so at all), leaving gaping holes in one of the planet’s major carbon sinks at a time when we need to sequester all the carbon we can stash.  And speaking of carbon,  the process of destroying the forest,  then heating the oil sands to separate out the oil,  releases  massive amounts of carbon dioxide….well, gosh, if there’s global warming, those boreal forests will grow back faster, won’t they?

Yes, the future is a very serious concern for tar sand oil extraction.  The water that is used in the process, polluted with solvent  chemicals and heavy metals, becomes toxic waste and is then “stored” in “settling ponds“–where it takes centuries to settle.  Even now, with all our technical capabilities, seepage from these ponds is fouling the Athabaska River, the region’s main source of water.   So far, the area directly polluted by this oil extraction effort is somewhat smaller than the Gulf blowout, which has closed 64,000 square miles of the Gulf to fishing due to likely contamination.    But we have no assurance that our technical civilization will maintain itself long enough to guard these poisonous ponds, which are highly attractive to migrating birds,  until they are thoroughly neutralized. Toxins like mercury and benzene are already seeping into the water table and spreading down the Athabaska and will in the long run poison vast tracts of the Canadian Arctic as they work their way into the MacKenzie River and, ultimately, the Arctic Ocean.  Since the ponds are not actually in the ground but above ground, surrounded by man-made dikes, a breach is almost inevitable.  That’s one hundred and eighty-seven billion gallons of toxic sludge hanging over our heads, four thousand seven hundred times more poisonous goo than has vomited out of the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico so far.

Sure, polluted water is not as horrific a problem as raw crude oil or nuclear waste, but we are still placing a poisonous burden on generations yet unborn so we can live in comfort and have amenities that will be unavailable to them, because we snorted up all the resources and left them a mess that they will likely lack the technology to clean up.

OK, let’s leave the deadly ponds of northern Alberta and travel to a warmer clime–the western Amazon basin, “the lungs of the planet,” one of the last places on earth where the ecosystem has not been completely perverted by our extractive civilization.

Hey, we’re working on it.  Everybody knows about the speed with which Brazilians are raping the eastern, northern, and central Amazon, but less attention has been paid to the far western end, which was long protected by the steep slopes and inhospitable climate of the Andes Mountains.  But there’s oil there, so the junkies are after it.

Peru’s government initially offered 70% of its Amazon territory to oil and gas companies, without consulting the people who live there.  This provoked a massive protest, and Peru’s Congress repealed many of President Alan Garcia’s expropriations, which included areas already promised as wildlife and tribal reserves, but the pressure continues.  Like junkies, like zombies intent on eating the living, oil addicts are nothing but an appetite on legs, with a brain dedicated to finding ways to satisfy that appetite–which, in a cruel but righteous cosmic joke, can never be satisfied.

Something similar happened in Ecuador, where Chevron struck a deal with the country’s neo-liberal government back in the 90’s and then took advantage of lax regulation and oversight to make a total mess.  Many rivers, water tables, and vast tracts of land were polluted by oil spills, drilling pollution, and a demand for “civilized amenities” such as alcohol, cocaine, prostitutes, and consumer goods.  This and other transgressions sparked enough outrage that the Ecuadorians voted out the plutocrats  who had been running the country for their personal benefit and installed Rafael Correa, a small-s socialist in the Hugo Chavez mode, who has thrown out Chevron, nationalized the oil infrastructure they left behind, and is working to guard the environment and make sure that whatever wealth the country has is much more equitably distributed than it traditionally has been.  Unfortunately, this does nothing to pull the fangs of the oil demon out of the Amazon, and the pollution continues.  Like, eighteen billion gallons of toxic waste loose in “the lungs of the planet,” compared to a mere thirty-eight million gallons of oil (so far) leaked into the gulf of Mexico.  Hey, some junkies sell their blood for a fix.  We’re selling our lungs.

These struggles barely penetrate America’s consciousness.  We hear of actress Q’orianka Kilcher’s arrest at the White House, protesting while Barak Obama hails Alan Garcia’s program of exploitation, red-baiting, and racism in Peru  as “an extraordinary economic success story.”  (That says more about Obama than most people want to hear.)  When activists who own stock in Chevron (so they can have access to stockholders’ meetings to protest Chevron’s policies) are denied access to the stockholders’ meeting and arrested, it briefly makes the news. Mostly, though, we Americans keep nodding on, zoned out on our petroleum buzz.  Out of sight, out of mind, y’know?

This brings us to Nigeria, which provides the US with 40% of our crude oil.  A study group that included a number of fairly conservative members–from the World Wildlife Federation to the Nigerian government–concluded that at least forty-six million gallons of oil, far more than what the Gulf blowout has leaked so far, have been spilled in the Niger delta in the last fifty years, not out at sea, but in and around villages and landscape where people are trying to live by fishing, farming, and hunting.  Imagine our deep water blowout occurring onshore.  Wouldn’t that raise an even worse fuss than what we’ve seen already?

But Nigerians are poor, dark-skinned people far away.  It is easy to ignore their complaints about Chevron’s lax environmental standards; anyway,  Chevron for its part claims that much of the leakage in Nigeria comes from sabotage and people tapping into the oil pipelines to steal oil.  I have two thoughts about that.  The first is that if the wealth generated from Nigeria’s oil were being shared more equitably, there would be a lot less robbery and resentment.  The other thought is that, just as nobody cared what the Palestinians thought about pushing them aside and relocating many of the world’s Jews to Palestine, nobody asked the Niger delta natives if they wanted to have their way of life totally disrupted by big oil, and that, in both cases, resentment is a completely understandable reaction to our high-handed treatment of indigenous people–in Palestine, Nigeria, or, gosh, the good ol’ USA.  We have oppressed and impoverished all of these people in pretty much the same way, but who cares if they live in misery, as long as we get our fix?

These examples are just the “big three” of oil-related nastiness.  I haven’t mentioned how Chevron props up the autocratic regime in Burma and looks the other way while native people are not only dispossessed to make room for oil and other infrastructure projects but enslaved to build those projects.  Chevron piously claims it “….continues to support the calls for a peaceful resolution to the issues facing Myanmar in a manner that respects human rights,” but reports from inside the country tell a different story.

Closer to home, but still far away and affecting mostly dark-skinned people and dumb animals, we have oil exploitation in Alaska, where broken pipelines have contaminated the tundra, while plans to begin deep water drilling in the Arctic Ocean are still  proceeding.  Wouldn’t an Arctic Ocean oil blowout in midwinter be fun to contain?

Meth labs are notorious for producing toxic waste, but all the meth labs in the world put together would not pollute the area we have fouled in the course of cooking up our oil fix.  It’s not a mess somewhere else any more, it’s a mess on our south coast, polluting American waters and shores and destroying American livelihoods.  Our oil-soaked chickens have come home to roost.

The meaning of this would be obvious if we were not so oil-addled.  This does not mean that we need to make sure we are using clean needles–excuse me, that we need better safety standards and more reliable technology to get the oil we think we need.  This means that we need to kick our habit before it kills us, and admit that it was never OK for those dark-skinned people over the horizon to die for our sins.  Now the Gulf of Mexico is dying for our sins, and we had better wake up from our nod and repent–not before it’s too late, because it is already too late. The age of oil is over.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “The Party’s Over


11 11 2005

I’ve spent a lot of time on this show talking about the weather in the arctic—and by the way, in late October the sea ice at Barrow, the northernmost point in Alaska, was still a hundred miles offshore. Just a few decades ago, the Arctic Ocean was frozen clear up to the shore by this time of year. Freed of its damper of ice, the ocean is chewing relentlessly at the shoreline, forcing relocation of villages that have been in the same place for centuries, if not millennia. Meanwhile, down south….

In Africa, forests are disappearing, cut for local use as firewood for the most part, and this is drying the climate and drying up the rivers and silting up the hydroelectric dams and of course making subsistence agriculture even chancier, and making commercial, irrigated agriculture even more expensive. The two prongs of this dilemma are the need for firewood as cooking fuel and the need for a source of income for the firewood cutters.

A concerted program could replace firewood with solar cookers and water heaters and methane production—which would also help clean up Africa’s massive, shall we name it delicately, sanitation problem. There’s nothing like putting value into something to keep people from leaving it laying around in the street, and that doesn’t just mean cans and bottles, folks.

This still leaves a bunch of unhappy, out-of-work firewood vendors and their families. Sure, a certain number of people will be employed building solar and methane facilities, but there are people out selling wood on every street corner in Africa and unless the rules of the economic game are changed, they’re going to need some way to come up with the scratch to feed their families. And this is where it gets tricky. Thanks to the intervention of western medicine, law, and technology, there are just too many people in Africa for them to all go back to their traditional, sustainable ways of life, just as we here in Tennessee couldn’t all go back to burning firewood , shooting deer, and riding horses. There ain’t enough wood and there ain’t enough deer or horses and there ain’t enough pasture, and if there was enough wood the people in downtown Nashville would smother from the smoke. But, I digress.

What we might do is appoint a commission to study the matter—say, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Vandana Shiva, Helena Norbert-Hodge and a few other champions of compassion could take this one on and come up with a solution. It would be cheaper than doing nothing or sending in the army, I can assure you of that.

In South America, the situation is a little more, shall we say, clearcut? The Amazon is being deforested not for the cooking fires of the hungry multitudes but for plywood for the Chinese and cattle ranches for land barons, who maintain their wealth habit by selling beef to Europe and America. Even Brazil’s popular, populist President Lula hasn’t been able to dent this one.

It’s a real global security threat and it needs the kind of attention we’ve mistakenly given Iraq—but oops, we done whupped the tarbaby a good one and now we are stuck and B’rer Fox is done nabbed us and this time he ain’t gonna throw us in that briar patch, people, this is not a drill, this is catastrophic global warming, the Amazon River is running dry, a thousand towns that depend on river transport are cut off due to low water.

The rainforest has apparently been cut back far enough that the hydrological cycle–the forests’ ability to generate the rain that sustains them–has been disrupted, and the Amazon climate may have flipped over into savannah mode, but all that water is still banging around loose in the atmosphere and it’s just going to make the weather more unstable—did you know that the first South Atlantic hurricane ever was recorded this year?

Let me elaborate a little on the rainforest hydrological cycle. First, an acre of hardwood trees pours hundreds of thousands of gallons of water into the atmosphere every day. That’s why it’s cooler and more humid under a forest canopy than it is out on the plains. When there are millions of acres of hardwoods, all that water rises up into the sky and joins together and creates regular afternoon rainstorms.

When I first moved to Tennessee thirty-five years ago, there was enough forest cover where I lived to create the same effect. Mornings were foggy, and then as the moisture rose and cooled, it tended to fall back down as an afternoon thundershower. In the eighties, much of the hardwood forest around me was cut, and those morning fogs and afternoon showers are no longer part of the weather cycle here—nor, apparently, in the Amazon.

Furthermore, the high temperatures characteristic of the tropics speed up soil processes in a way that tends to burn up organic matter and wash out nutrients pretty quickly unless they are being cycled through the elaborate carbon net called a rainforest. The lively energy that grows the rainforest is contained in its living fabric, and disappears when that fabric is rent. We do not know how to recreate rainforest once it has been turned into pasture.

Anyway, curbing the Brazilian beef trade and the Chinese hunger for plywood are two fairly concrete goals that wouldn’t even require revolutionary changes in the world economic system. Fundamental changes, yes, but not necessarily revolutionary ones. Again, perhaps a panel of deep ecologists and biologists can come up with a way to reclaim the Amazon. I can guarantee you it will be a lot more gratifying and doable than “bringing democracy to Iraq” in order to maintain a stranglehold on their oil supply.

So, from a Green perspective, global warming is a far greater threat to our national security than so-called terrorists. In our psychotic pursuit of these Muslim scapegoats, we ignore our real enemy at our very great peril.

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