Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The addict's excuse

As I read Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's letter to President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking them to reconsider a six-month moratorium on deepwater oil drilling, I was reminded of a Wendell Berry essay I read several years ago.

In "Word and Flesh" Berry wrote, "The great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependent on what is wrong. But that is the addict's excuse, and we know that it will not do." Or do we? The Gulf of Mexico is currently experiencing the human equivalent of metastasizing cancer, and the governor of Louisiana proposes that the activities which resulted in that cancer be resumed immediately even as BP's underwater gusher continues to flow into the gulf. The picture that comes to mind is one of a smoker who, having had his cancerous voicebox removed, immediately resumes smoking through his tracheotomy, a permanent opening in the throat made necessary by the operation. It is a repulsive, grotesque, and yet darkly humorous image.

We are that patient. And, it is as if Jindal, in the role of our physician, is prescribing post-operative cigarettes to prevent any nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Make no mistake. The symptoms will be severe when the inevitable withdrawal from oil arrives. Even now one little-noticed side effect of the deepwater drilling moratorium is that new deepwater natural gas wells, wells essential to keeping domestic supplies in balance, are also not being drilled. Perhaps as early as this fall, the entire country will feel the effects of the tragedy in the gulf in the form of higher natural gas prices. Liquid natural gas ports are limited in North America, and so we won't be able to import our way out of trouble as we do with oil.

Of course, Jindal feels he must show concern for the oil and gas industry. That industry not only buys influence among Gulf coast legislators and governors to ensure their pliability, but it also employs a sizable workforce in the region. It is a mark of how thoroughly corrupt our system of government has become and how tenuous our fossil fuel system is that Jindal didn't even have the decency to wait for the leak to be plugged before speaking out.

The prudent course for the previously discussed cancer patient would be to attend smoking cessation classes and learn to live without. For us as a society when it comes to oil, there will be no going cold turkey on oil; nor would it be advisable to do so. Too many critical functions would collapse. But as regulators and the U. S. Congress look for ways to avoid a similar calamity in the future, we can, as Wendell Berry suggests, begin to solve the problem of oil addiction without them. We can change our habits in ways so often listed across the Internet and in books, magazines and newspapers: walking, bicycling, riding public transportation, buying and growing food locally, keeping our bodies warm instead of the entire house, and so on.

The failure of our vaunted technology to plug the blown out oil well at the bottom of the gulf some six weeks after it began leaking ought to be a warning about the limits of that technology. We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that the combination of large corporations, government and technology can be counted on to provide the solutions to our major resource and environmental problems. If the failure of technology currently on display in the Gulf of Mexico and the now widely reported collusion between the oil industry and federal regulators don't convince you of this, nothing will.

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